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Reunion yale frayed ties { April 21 2003 }

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April 21, 2003
A Reunion Mends Frayed School Ties


Earlier this month, some 950 invitations were mailed out for an extraordinary event at the White House: George W. Bush's 35th Yale reunion.

Although Mr. Bush has been warming in recent years to the alma mater he derided as an incubator of intellectual snobbery when he was governor of Texas, the May 29 picnic dinner to be held on the South Lawn is a milestone in his rapprochement.

This time Mr. Bush is the host, not just the commencement speaker, as he was in New Haven in 2001. This time Mr. Bush is opening up his house to as many as 1,200 people, which may be a record number for an early-rising, teetotaling president who has vowed never to hold the huge parties that the Clintons did.

And this time, Mr. Bush is embracing members of the heavily anti-Vietnam War class of 1968, a group whose politics he was never comfortable with, and whose members include those who vehemently disagree with him on the war in Iraq.

"This is a 60's class," said Jim Latimer, a Dallas businessman and the 1968 class secretary, who is helping to organize the reunion. "There is a lot of 60's thought structure that prevails. I have worked very hard to be evenhanded in terms of not being a cheerleader or a cynic either way, because I know there are some strongly held views."

As of last week, Mr. Latimer and the reunion chairman, William H. Baker, had received acceptances for the White House picnic dinner for about 600 guests - 300 classmates, plus one guest each, including this reporter, who is married to a member of the class of 1968.

Mr. Latimer said that he had talked to only a handful of classmates who said they were not coming because they opposed the president or the war in Iraq.

One such objector is Stephen Darwall, a professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in moral philosophy and the history of ethics. Professor Darwall decided that his opposition to the conflict in Iraq made it impossible for him to accept the invitation from his classmate.

"It's not so much that I think my integrity will be violated, or that I'll get my hands dirty," Professor Darwall said in a telephone interview. "It's just that given these tragedies and the loss of life, it's not the right place to be celebrating our 35th reunion."

One objector who is coming is the Rev. Randall Fredrikson, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Hudson, Wis. Mr. Fredrikson, who opposed the war in Iraq and once served on the staff of former Senator George McGovern, said he was going largely for personal reasons, to accompany the widow of a classmate and to see old friends.

"I'm not the ideologue I used to be, I guess," Mr. Fredrikson said. "I don't know whether it's from getting older or wiser or a little more feeble-minded." As for Mr. Bush, he said, "I'm glad he's trying to mend fences."

Mr. Bush's love-hate relationship with Yale has been well-documented since he became president, but the short version, told by close friends, is this: Mr. Bush, the fraternity president who excelled socially but not academically at Yale, had a grand time there. But he distanced himself when he perceived his Yale degree to be a liability in Texas politics and was angry when he felt the school succumbed to liberal bias and did not offer an honorary degree to his father, also a Yale graduate, until 1991.

Things began to change when Mr. Bush became a candidate for president and realized that his Yale degree was a political asset, not just a stamp of his East Coast roots. But friends say they knew for sure that his attitude had evolved when he was thrilled that one of his twin daughters, Barbara, had applied to Yale, where she is a junior.

"Barbara is having a really good experience at Yale," said Roland Betts, a 1968 classmate who is one of Mr. Bush's closest friends. "If she's happy, he's happy."

It was Mr. Betts who approached Mr. Bush about the picnic at the White House. There were logistics to be worked out: Guests, for example, are being charged $135 to $195 per person for the picnic dinner, so that neither the Bushes nor the government bear the cost.

That cost follows one precedent set by the Clintons. They each charged similar amounts for their college reunions at the White House - Bill Clinton for the 25th reunion of his Georgetown class in 1993 and Hillary Rodham Clinton for the 30th reunion of her Wellesley class in 1999.

Mr. Betts said that it was not hard to persuade the president to hold the reunion on the South Lawn. As Mr. Bush told the graduating class of Yale in May 2001, when the school awarded him an honorary degree four months after his inauguration: "Yale for me is a source of great pride. I hope that there will come a time for you to return to Yale to say that, and feel as I do today. And I hope you won't wait as long."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company |

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