The most important question in this year’s presidential election is not “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” or “What about your gaffes?” or even “Joe Biden said what?” No, the key inquiry comes from none other than John Cusack, the eternally boyish star of Say Anything, Grosse Pointe Blank, and High Fidelity, who asked on the leftist site Truthout.org: “Is Obama just another Ivy League ***hole?”
Most National Review readers would be inclined to say yes, though they might not put it quite so vividly. But the salient part of Cusack’s question lies in the words “just another.” Ever since Ronald Reagan, a Eureka College graduate, rode off into the sunset, the ensuing run of presidents has been distinctly mediocre — and all have been Ivy graduates (college or law school). Regardless of who wins this November, the streak will continue, since Mitt Romney (though he may not entirely fit the Ivy mold) has law and business degrees from Harvard. Is Cusack, an NYU dropout, onto something?
Before proceeding further, I should explain what the Ivy League is. Officially, it’s a group of eight colleges in the Northeast (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale) that play football against one another, rather badly. It was not formally organized until the early 1950s, when the reaction from Harvard was probably, “Wait a minute, we’re in with who?” (Actually it would more likely have been whom.)
Unofficially, of course, the Ivy League, even avant la lettre, has for centuries been a symbol of everything Middle America hates: rich, snobbish, exclusive, Eastern, and too smart for its own good. With the exception of Cornell, a post–Civil War parvenu, the schools were all founded before the Revolution, and ever since, they have been filling the ranks of America’s Establishment: intellectuals, bankers, lawyers, businessmen — and now, increasingly, presidents.
In that capacity, their record has been decidedly mixed. To be sure, the Roosevelts (Theodore and Franklin, both Harvard grads) managed to stay highly popular while taking bold actions that changed the country and the world, for good and for ill; but if you look at the last 50-odd years of presidents, starting with JFK, the Ivy grads have been talkers and dreamers, while the non-Ivy grads have been doers. LBJ (San Marcos State) had Vietnam, to be sure, but also the space program, civil-rights legislation, and the Great Society. Richard Nixon (Whittier) established relations with China and the USSR, signed the first strong environmental legislation, ended the Vietnam War and the draft, and even began affirmative action. Jimmy Carter (Annapolis) . . . well, we’ll come back to him. And of course Reagan dealt a mortal blow to Communism and at least a glancing one to dirigisme, while making the political world safe for conservatism.
Now let’s look at the Ivy Leaguers. JFK (Harvard, after a semester at Princeton) is best remembered — except for his untimely death — for almost starting a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis; Gerald Ford (Yale Law) was overwhelmed by events during his brief term in office; Bush 41 (Yale) let Reagan’s defeat of Communism play out, won an easy war, and then raised taxes and couldn’t even get reelected; Clinton (Yale Law), while coasting on the peace dividend, flopped with Hillarycare and lost the Democrats’ 40-year hold on the House; Bush 43 (Yale, Harvard MBA) made grandiose plans but had considerable trouble following through; and Obama (Columbia, Harvard Law) narrowly passed a health-care law that everyone hates, plus he’s given some nice speeches.
This pattern has been going on for a long time. George Washington (no college) established the standard for every president since; Jefferson (William and Mary) bought much of the continent from France, defeated the Barbary pirates, and got the slave trade abolished; and Monroe (William and Mary) had a doctrine named after him. In between these, John Adams (Harvard) showed irresolution against the French, was pressured into signing the Alien and Sedition Acts, and lost control of his own cabinet; and Madison (Princeton) started a disastrous war with Britain that saw the nation’s capital set on fire.
Then came John Quincy Adams, who set the pattern for most modern Ivy League ***holes (IL*s) in the White House: earnest, smart, eager, ambitious, self-righteous, and uncomfortable with practical politics. In his first annual message to Congress, he proposed, to general mirth, that the federal government should establish a national university and build an astronomical observatory. The Washington political machine, much smaller back then but no less vicious, chewed him up and spat him out, and in the 1828 election he was routed by alpha-alpha male Andrew Jackson, whose success ushered in a series of hastily countrified hacks, time servers, generals, and amateurs that ended only with Abraham Lincoln (a genuinely countrified amateur, and a brilliant one).