The revelation of a politician’s poor undergraduate records is media gold, but - in truth - means very little
Oh, no. Are we playing this game again? Pin the tail on the Republican dumbster.
A few days ago, the Huffington Post, nominally edited by the Cambridge-educated Arianna Huffington, published a big scoop: Texas governor Rick Perry’s college transcript from Texas A&M.
The headline? Perry, whose steroidal brand of Christianity offends the media elite, “got a lot of C’s and D’s.’’ He also received 20 B’s and two A’s, though this detail didn’t make it into the story. Huffington highlights Perry’s F in Organic Chemistry, without mentioning that he pulled a B in that course the previous year.
Orgo? Good on you for trying, Mr. Governor. I gave the Chemistry building wide berth in college.
One thought: Who cares?
I hate this undergraduate record-mongering, and I blame my quondam pal Jane Mayer and her coauthor Alexandra Robbins for launching this vogue. In a 1999 New Yorker squib, the two Yalies published details of George W. Bush’s undergrad transcript. Oh, the sniggering! “Not once in his undergraduate career did he earn an A,’’ the pair commented, apropos of Bush’s “mediocre grades’’ and “nearly epic attention to intramural sports.’’
In Slate magazine, Yale-educated Rhodes Scholar Jacob Weisberg quickly pounced on George the Dunce. “One doesn’t want to read too much into someone’s 35-year-old academic records,’’ Weisberg wrote, and then did precisely that. “Given that stupidity is not an advantage in any other profession, why would it help a president?’’ he asked.
Weisberg later collected and published “Bushisms,’’ the president’s notorious speaking gaffes, which convinced right-thinking people everywhere that they were smarter than Bush and his nefarious Iago, the storied Yale dropout Dick Cheney.
That was the line for nearly a decade: George Bush was a dunderhead, and his opponents, such as Al Gore and John Kerry, were smart. After all, Gore studied politics at Harvard with distinguished theoretician Martin Peretz, and wrote a best-selling book. Kerry - well, Kerry’s always been a sort of an empty sock. When the Globe reported that Kerry’s undergraduate grades were no better than Bush’s, no one cared. Everyone knew how smart Kerry and Gore were, except for the unenlightened American electorate.
My point? Despise George Bush all you want. Despise him for lying to the United Nations about the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, despise him for condoning torture by US special forces (Jane’s hobby horse, not mine), or for wasting young Americans’ lives in Iraq. There are plenty of reasons to dislike Bush. But don’t hate him for playing stickball in college, or because he speaks funny. You can do better than that.
“You can’t beat brains.’’ I’ve always loved that quote, attributed to John F. Kennedy. He hired the Best and the Brightest to prosecute a losing Southeast Asian war that eventually cost 58,000 American lives. Brainy, eh? Bill Clinton corralled a passel of fellow Rhodes Scholars into government when he took office in 1992. They performed OK. But even with America now on the brink of financial catastrophe, I don’t hear anyone saying, “Gosh, if only [Clinton crony and fellow Rhodie] Robert Reich was running the economy!’’
I pause in mid-fulmination to say: I hate it when conservatives play this game, too. During his brief flirtation with political legitimacy, faux presidential candidate Donald Trump yapped about reviewing Barack Obama’s undergraduate work at Occidental College and Columbia. Trump wanted to “prove’’ that Obama received special, affirmative-action preferences. This was quite a howler, coming from a man who operates a so-called “university,’’ generally referred to in quotation marks. Here is a recent example: “Trump’s ‘university’ accused of scamming customers’’ - the Huffington Post.
I’m not ideological. Hate Obama, or love him, I don’t care. But spare me the details of his frat-house hijinks, or his last-minute reworking of that end-of-term Western Civ paper, in the hopes of landing a badly needed B for his transcript. He’s been doing grown-up work for a quarter of a century. Judge him on that.
By chance, I spotted my own college transcript earlier this summer. It was underwhelming. Yale gave me credit for a dodgy course about Jean Dubuffet, a French artist whom I’ve always considered to be a complete fraud. In Physical Anthropology, a course that the professor recently told me was a notorious gut, or easy A, I got a C.
It was my senior year. I was enjoying myself. Maybe Rick Perry was, too.
Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is email@example.com.