They exude a tactful reluctance. They’re fashioned after George Washington, it would seem—not in it for the power, but more than happy to lead the troops across the icy Delaware River. They’re ambitious, high-performance college kids, doing what they can to make a difference.
Amalia Skilton, CC ‘13, from Tempe, Ariz., founded Fierce Advocates at Yale, is the president of YHHAP, and directs a group called SNAP that funded 35 students’ summer internships on political campaigns this past summer.
Joshua Revesz, CC ‘13, from Manhattan, was the chairman of the Yale Political Union (YPU) last year. He got his start in politics in the fifth grade, when he helped form Democratic Politically Active Kids with four of his prep school classmates.
Zak Newman, JE ‘13, is the former president of the Yale College Democrats. When I called him for an interview, he was in Washington, D.C. for a conference. He describes the distinguishing trait of the politically influential peers as the “x-factor.” There’s a larger, more driven group of Yalies now, he says, and to separate yourself from the pack, you have not only to care, but to do something about it. You oppose the death penalty: “Are you going to be the person to repeal it?” You support education reform: “Are you the person who’s going to help out in fixing Connecticut education?” These problems aren’t going to fix themselves, and the fact that you were admitted to Yale isn’t going to fix them either. It’s a matter of taking on agency.
Revesz expresses a similar sentiment. Yale is selecting students for their merits, he explains, and the way to make a difference is to apply those merits to real problems. He aspires to “use the law to ensure a fairer world.” For him, that means resisting the urge to ride the coat tails of those leaders who came before. “I try not to use Yale connections to get jobs,” he says. “The fact that we, as people at Yale, have had opportunities that other people don’t have is a big motivator to make sure everybody has opportunities of sorts.” The Yale education, he proposes, is not a confirmation that you’ve achieved something special, so much as a charge to go and do something with it. This is the essence of what he calls “Yale guilt”—perhaps akin to the “x-factor” Newman described.
These are the movers and shakers—the givers-back—and they go about their aims in a 21st-century way. According to Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, BR ‘12, current member of the Alaska State House of Representatives at age 23, these students’ drive is part of the institutional fabric. “That’s part of the culture at Yale—bigger, faster, higher—it’s a culture of superlatives.”
The Old Yale was of course a place of superlatives, as well. As Judith Schiff, Yale’s chief research archivist, tells me, “Nothing is new at Yale.” But the history books do not suggest the individualist striving that characterizes the politicos among today’s students. It was a place where the nobility of public service was inherent and the Yale network was embraced.
Before there was such a Yale student—at a time when the national republic was merely a glimmer in the eye of the American colonists—there was a piece of legislation. In 1701, the Connecticut General Court assembled, passing the Act For Liberty to Erect a Collegiate School, “wherein Youth may be instructed in the Arts & Sciences,” in the hope that they “be fitted for Publick employment both in Church & Civil State.” And so they were.
Once the school gained some momentum, it began to churn out these “Publick” stewards by the dozens. Graduating from Yale College at the tender age of 17 as valedictorian, Jonathan Edwards brought Yale some credibility in the church department, and dozens of missionaries, ministers, and bishops would follow in his footsteps. Another sizable cohort of Yale graduates would establish colleges across the nation—the alumni registry includes the founders of Princeton, Dartmouth, and Cornell, as well as the first presidents of Columbia University, University of Chicago, University of California, University of Florida, and Washington University in St. Louis.
By the turn of the 20th century, the legacy of national leadership was already well established. This history provides the backdrop for what Jim Sleeper, DC ’69, professor of political science at Yale, describes as the era in which the University sowed the seeds of American civil society. It was a national university, Sleeper claims, at a time when universities were primarily local.
The civic-republican era, as Sleeper calls it, preceded the Cold War period, when Yale began producing a different kind of leader. Theologians and college founders gave way to pioneers of the intelligence network. These were the heirs of Nathan Hale, YC 1773, the famous forefather of American spookdom, captured and hanged by the Brits in 1776, later cast in bronze and mounted on Old Campus—the one and only “State Hero” of Connecticut. Their ranks included Cold War architect Dean Acheson, YC ’15, James Angleton, YC ’41, chief of the CIA’s counterintelligence staff, the Bundy brothers (William, YC ‘39, and McGeorge, YC ‘40), George H. W. Bush, DC ‘48, and dozens of others.
A quarter millennium after the 1701 charter, University President A. Whitney Griswold, YC ‘29, spelled out for the class of 1957 the purpose of a Yale education—”To do good you must first know good”—commanding the graduating seniors to “Hold true to the purpose. No price, no mess of pottage, can equal its value to your country and yourselves.” The stronghold of Yale’s Good Shepherds loosed around this time, and the campus began developing a brand of liberalism—in step with the larger national trend of the 1960s and 1970s, and fostered by the same people who would achieve prominence during the era.
Upon graduating from Yale College in 1949, William Sloane Coffin, TD ’49, DIV ’56, served the anti-Communist effort during the Cold War as a CIA officer for three years, before growing disillusioned and returning to Yale for divinity school. Divinity degree in hand, Coffin was named University Chaplain, a position he would use to catalyze progressive activism—he spoke out against President Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War and mobilized Freedom Riders to venture southward by bus, in solidarity with the early 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
Longtime Democratic Senator from Oklahoma David Boren would graduate in 1963, Joe Lieberman in 1964, current Democratic Senator Bill Nelson in 1965, George Pataki in 1967, and George W. Bush in 1968.
John Kerry, JE ’66, arrived on campus in the midst of this Golden Era, and he wasted no time before getting involved himself. Kerry is perhaps the most prominent liberal politician to walk Yale’s halls at this time. His legacy is held in high esteem by the many leaders of American government who would later matriculate. Sterling Professor of Law Akhil Amar, ES ’80, LAW ‘84, notes that Kerry was the chairman of the Liberal Party of the YPU. “Actually, so was I, later on,” Amar says. “You know, there’s this amazing tradition.”
Gaddis Smith, PC ’54, who taught history at Yale for over 40 years, recalls having Kerry as a student in his seminar. The professor forged a close relationship with Kerry, who discussed with Smith his doubts about serving in the army during Vietnam. Thousands of students have since taken courses with Professor Smith on American foreign relations; future thousands will take these courses with future professors. Nothing is new at Yale.
More than a handful of times has the name on a Yale College diploma graced a political bumper sticker or yard sign. The faces that fill Yale’s yearbooks often reappear, some years later, behind podiums on stages in front of crowds at state fairs, conventions, inaugurations.
This is Yale’s tradition—the prestige is palpable around campus. Portraits of the five former presidents to graduate from Yale College or Law School hang at Mory’s. The inscrutable “Black Cup” can be ordered exclusively by presidents–either of Yale or of the U.S. A couple years ago, the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity made tank tops bearing the likeness of George W. Bush, former president of both DKE and the U.S. When you recognize the handful of presidents who attended your alma mater, there’s plenty of fun to be had. But to the Yale community today, the distinguished tradition of political service represents something more than mere trivia.
Revesz can point to the moment his political interest was born. It was the Bush-Gore election in 2000—specifically, the recount. He also remembers his first contact with Yale’s reputation. “The first thing I knew about Yale was that George W. Bush went there,” he says. “I knew this in like sixth grade, before I thought about what college I could go to at all.”
Now a senior, Revesz’s understanding of the Yale experience is anything but trivial. “I mean, Yale is a college that obviously makes the people who go there feel like they could actually influence the world,” he says. From Revesz, this is more a candid assessment of the stimulating political environment on campus than a confession of egoism. His immersion in the conversations and campaigns on campus springs from a genuine interest in the way government works. He came to Yale with experience—in addition to founding D-PAK, he worked on the Eliot Spitzer campaign (“before the sex scandal”). Last year, he served as president of the YPU, the sometime office of John Kerry. Amar would approve.
The way Amar understands it, this cadre of political stars is a staple at Yale—it’s a self-perpetuating cycle, in which high-achieving Yalies beget high-achieving Yalies, generation after generation. I ask him if he thinks it will continue in this way. “I hope so,” Amar replies. “That’s why I’m here. You know, I’m here to teach the next generation’s leaders.”
When I speak with these purported leaders, they acknowledge the influence of the leaders that came before them. “When you’re in classes and you hear [distinguished alumni’s] names, you know, it helps convince you that you can do whatever you want,” says Michael Jones, SY ’11, a former alderman New Haven’s Ward 1. Nate Loewentheil, YC ’07, LAW’ 14, who founded the Roosevelt Campus Network, says that the Yale tradition “allows you to envision goals for yourself.”
There is much more “rah-rah” in the older generation’s description of Yale exceptionalism. It’s a sort of team spirit. Harold Koh, former dean of Yale Law School and Sterling Professor of Law, seizes on the quality of ingenuity that makes Yale alumni strong national leaders. “You see the people who figured out how to get the Bladderball over the wall,” he says. “And some years later, they’re figuring out how to do some similarly impossible thing.”
Amar imbues Yale pride with a patriotic air: his parents have preserved his childhood bedroom, and after 35 years, there hangs the iconic banner above the tiny bed: For God For Country and For Yale. “So, that’s not subtle,” he admits. He adapted the slogan as the epigraph for his latest book, too. “For me, yeah, it’s all about Yale,” he says. When he tells me this in his signature sotto voce, it sounds slightly less goofy than it reads.
The new guard portrays the aura of alma mater in much less effusive terms. Indeed, their self-consciousness restrains them from labeling themselves leaders, much less Yale leaders. Given recent disparagements to the elitism associated with the Ivory Tower, this reluctance makes sense. Think back to Christine O’Donell’s television advertisement during the 2012 senate campaign, which began with the proud declaration, “I didn’t go to Yale. I didn’t inherit millions, like my opponent did. I’m you.”
Of the students I interviewed, only one presented an overt aspiration to run for office. Mohammad Salhut, SY’14, said he hopes to run for “a seat in congress, or state senate—something like that, for sure.” But even Salhut made a point of characterizing the stereotypical Yalies with plans of the Oval Office as “assholes.” (The one student whose future presidential campaign has been the most talked-about since my freshman year informed me that he would not be able to talk on the record. “Sounds like a great story,” he added.)
Revesz says he’d prefer to work behind the scenes, “and not have to go through the weirdnesses of getting elected.”
Loewentheil tells me, “It’s a question of where I can have the greatest impact.”
Jones, elected as Ward 1 Alderman in 2010, explains the circumstances. “I found it hard not to be involved,” he says.
“It would be really fun to be on the school board someday, when I’m old,” Newman admits, “but short of that, I don’t really have any, like, specific interest in a specific office.”
State Senator Kreiss-Tomkins on the topic: “I should clarify that I really wasn’t planning on running for office…”
Whether members of the new political vanguard are planning to run for office or not, there is little doubt that Yale furnishes them with a useful toolkit.
To start, the 36 credits required for graduation provide a solid foundation, at least. For Kreiss-Tomkins, it was only 35 (he walked across the stage at commencement in May, though, and doesn’t plan to return), but they were concentrated in what he considers Yale’s strongest departments—the humanities. The root of that word, “human,” is crucial, he points out: “Politics is about people.”
Neal Wolin, SM ’83, LAW ‘88, deputy secretary of the United States Treasury, also emphasizes the enduring impact his courses had on the formation of his interest in government. Wolin recalls the macroeconomics course he took freshman fall, and one he took the spring of that year on free market policies, even citing specific material from the syllabus.
In recent years, some professors have initiated programs that hybridize the classical liberal arts education and a more modern, pragmatic approach. The most notable offering in this category is “Studies in Grand Strategy,” a seminar led by a team—”cabinet” seems more appropriate—that includes John Gaddis, Charles Hill, Paul Kennedy, David Brooks, John Negroponte, and Paul Solman. When I attended one of the weekly meetings—this one led by Gaddis—the class discussed Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, a text regarded as the 19th-century, Western complement to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, which the students had read earlier in the semester.
Gaddis framed the discussion in historical context, explaining that George Kennan’s Cold War policy was informed by this same reading. “What’s the problem with total war?” Gaddis asked the group, a mix of graduate students and undergrads. “What do you do once you’ve turned Russia into a parking lot?” A smattering of tentative responses. He proposed alternatives: Pacifism? Drones? “The ‘peace-by-scaring-people shitless’ strategy?” The students invoked theorists from past weeks: Bismarck, Machiavelli, Augustus. “No one mentioned Thucydides,” Gaddis interjected. Then he gave the floor to a colonel in the U.S. military, a guest professor this particular week. After the two hours were up, the group mingled with each other, approached the colonel to thank him for visiting, and then filed out of the classroom.
These are not the only budding Grand Strategists in the current student body. Across a wide variety of departments, extracurricular organizations, and residential colleges, their peers are immersed in the Yale experience—four quick years, at the conclusion of which they will become alumni.
“We are all members of Dumbledore’s Army,” Amar tells me. “Even if we weren’t at Hogwarts at the same time, we have the same teachers and the same traditions.”
It’s an army stacked with three centuries of officers, most of whom live on in reputation, or as my grandfather puts it “on the other side of the sod.” (Assuming Kingman Brewster’s calculation, that Yale will graduate a thousand “leaders in their generation” each year, its ranks surpass that of most western nations’ current standing armies.) Whether this generation of Yalies actively seeks out the support of the network or not, it is there.
Recently, back in New Haven, Koh shared his insights into the D.C.-based cohort. “If I go into a meeting and there are Yale people there,” Koh says, “I assume that they’re going to be my allies—they’re the ones who are going to get it.” He tells me about the necktie test: Koh would wear one of his many Yale-themed ties around the halls of the State Department, where he served as Legal Adviser. Fellow alumni would react with enthusiasm, while “non-Yale people” often voiced feelings of distaste at his spirited wardrobe choices. “It’s just a necktie,” he says.
True, but it’s also a point of commonality. It doesn’t require SONAR technology for Yale graduates to bump into one another. Wolin recalls an apparently standard run-in he experienced recently, when he sat down for the State of the Union Address one seat away from Senator Amy Klobuchar, JE ‘82, with whom he shared three years in New Haven.
The Yale network will soon include current students. In fact, some Yalies have already tapped into it. Salhut tells me that he first met Howard Dean, PC ’71, during an internship the summer after his freshman year; he came to see the former presidential candidate as a mentor and role model. Salhut also mentions Guido Calabresi, TD ’53, LAW ‘58, Federal Circuit Judge and former dean of Yale Law School, who he describes as a “wizard” for his wisdom and magnanimity. Calabresi took an interest in Salhut’s background—he was born to Palestinian parents in Bronx, NY. “He’s sorta a father figure,” Salhut explains.
The frequent visits to campus by prominent public figures represents both a cause and effect of the Yale network. Drinks at Mory’s with Ann Coulter, 3 a.m. conversations with “the leading lights of the Conservative Movement,” dinner with Henry Kissinger: Michael Knowles, DC ‘12, has a veritable highlight reel of interactions with conservative luminaries, as a result of his involvement with the William F. Buckley Program at Yale and the Student Initiative to Draft [Governor Mitch] Daniels, which he founded.
When Knowles jumped onto Jon Huntsman’s campaign in 2011, the candidate flew him and a fellow Yalie up to Dixville Notch, N.H.—the first town in the country to vote during presidential primaries—for a day of campaigning. Knowles was thrilled to meet Huntsman; he was floored when Huntsman informed him that he would be speaking at the candidate’s event the next day. “We introduce Huntsman, Huntsman introduces us,” Knowles recalls. The crowd went crazy, the media loved their speech, and when the New Hampshire results came in, Dixville Notch was the only town in the state in which Huntsman came in first (a tie with Romney).
“Yale teaches you to think on your feet. Whether it’s in seminar when you haven’t quite done all the reading, or next to a presidential candidate in Dixville Notch,” Knowles says. He reflects on his experience with Huntsman: “I thought, jeez, the Yale education really is something special.”
Specialness, as a defining trait of the University, has continually been reinforced. “Yale is one of the signal achievements of the experiment that is America,” Benno Schmidt, TC ‘63, LAW ‘66, said in 1985. “It is a treasure of Western civilization.” When students come to Yale, it would seem to follow, they are part of this achievement. But there is the danger, according to some, that Yalies will become convinced they deserve the “treasure” that Schmidt referred to. Not that it’s an institutional secret or anything, but Yale instills a winning attitude.
The sense of Yale guilt—noblesse oblige, formerly—is to some extent at odds with the notion of Yale meritocracy. If students are earning their admission—stellar grades, top scores, track records of high achievement—then what do they owe back? For some, this conundrum is a matter of reconciling Yale students’ winning attitude with the ethic of public service that the University espouses.
Loewentheil sees a connection between the egoism and the vanishing sense of duty. The private sector has effectively stolen members of the intellectual elite from the public sector, he argues.
Sleeper agrees, adding that the Yale education has increasingly become a means, rather than an end in itself. He worries that students view Yale as a point of access: “[They] really want to get their hands on the brass ring,” he says. “They want to make it.”
The new form of entitlement is distinct from the type we associate with Old Yale. Some argue that it’s fueled by the ideology in the academic community that encourages students to think like a president. Newman says his classes in oratory are accompanied by the suggestion that the material will come in handy when the time comes for your Senate confirmation. When he took a class on clean energy, the value of the material was clearly stated: “You’ll know what to do as president,” Newman recalls the professor saying.
It may work out for a few lucky Yalies, but Skilton takes issue with the presumptive nature of this approach. “We think of ourselves as being more like executives and less like laborers,” she says.
The conversation these students are pushing is about which floor Yale students ought to enter on. Without a doubt, the tradition of high-placed civil leaders offers access to those who follow greatness to Yale. But the current generation notes a distinction between service and leadership—its members are a self-reflective bunch, perhaps as restrained as they are ready.