September 13, 2003
Bred for Power
f you were to pick a presidential candidate on the basis of social standing — and really, darling, who doesn't — you'd have to pick Howard Brush Dean III over George Walker Bush. The Bush lineage is fine. I'm not criticizing. But the Deans have been here practically since Mayflower days and in the Social Register for generations. It's true Bush's grandfather was a Wall Street financier, a senator and a Yale man, but Dean's family has Wall Street financiers going back to the Stone Age, and both his grandfathers were Yale men.
The Bush family properties were in places like Greenwich, Conn., and Kennebunkport, Me., which is acceptable, but the Dean piles were in Oyster Bay, on Hook Pond in East Hampton and on Park Avenue, a list that suggests a distinguished layer of mildew on the family fortune.
Again, I'm not suggesting the Bushes are arrivistes. Howard Dean's grandmother asked George Bush's grandmother to be a bridesmaid at her wedding, and she wouldn't have done that if the family were in any way unsound. I'm just pointing to gradations. Dean even went to a slightly more socially exclusive prep school, St. George's, while Bush made do with Andover before they both headed off to Yale.
On the other hand, both boys have lived along parallel tracks since they went out on their own. Both went through their Prince Hal phases. Bush drank too much at country clubs. Dean got a medical deferment from Vietnam and spent his time skiing in Aspen. Both decided one night that it was time to get serious about life and give up drinking. Dean was 32; Bush was 40.
Both seemed to have sensed early on that their class, the Protestant Establishment, was dissolving. While Dean was at St. George's, the school admitted its first black student, Conrad Young, who, the official school history says, left after two years. By the time Bush and Dean got to Yale, a new class of striving meritocrats was starting to dominate the place.
Both, impressively, adapted to the new society. Dean married a Jewish doctor, raises his kids as Jews, lives in Burlington, Vt., and has become WASP king of the peaceniks. Bush moved to Midland, Tex., became a Methodist, went to work in the oil business and has become WASP king of the Nascar dads.
And for both, those decades of WASP breeding were not in vain. If you look at Bush and Dean, even more than prep school boys like John Kerry (St. Paul's and Harvard), Al Gore (St. Alban's and Harvard) and Bill Frist (Montgomery Bell Academy and Princeton), you detect certain common traits.
The first is self-assurance. Both Bush and Dean have amazing faith in their gut instincts. Both have self-esteem that is impregnable because it derives not from what they are accomplishing but from who they ineffably are. Both appear unplagued by the sensation, which destroyed Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, that there is some group in society higher than themselves.
Both are bold. Bush is an ambitious war leader, and Dean has set himself off from all the cautious, poll-molded campaigns of his rivals.
Both were inculcated with something else, a sense of chivalry. Unlike today's top schools, which are often factories for producing Résumé Gods, the WASP prep schools were built to take the sons of privilege and toughen them into paragons of manly virtue. Rich boys were sent away from their families and shoved into a harsh environment that put tremendous emphasis on athletic competition, social competition and character building.
As Peter W. Cookson Jr. and Caroline Hodges Persell write in "Preparing for Power: America's Elite Boarding Schools," students in traditional schools "had to be made tough, loyal to each other, and ready to take command without self-doubt. Boarding schools were not founded to produce Hamlets, but Dukes of Wellington who could stand above the carnage with a clear head and an unflinching will to win."
As anyone who has read George Orwell knows, this had ruinous effects on some boys, but those who thrived, as John F. Kennedy did, believed that life was a knightly quest to perform service and achieve greatness, through virility, courage, self-discipline and toughness.
The Protestant Establishment is dead, and nobody wants it back. But that culture, which George Bush and Howard Dean were born into, did have a formula for producing leaders. Our culture, which is freer and fairer, does not.