PRESIDENT back at the alma mater he scorned

Monday, May 21st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) _ President Bush is returning to the Ivy League university he scorned while making his name in politics as a down-home Texan.

The president and his wife, Laura, were here for the 300th commencement of Yale University, where daughter Barbara, a freshman, represents the fourth consecutive generation of Bushes at Yale.

Bush's speech at Monday's ceremony, an associate said, marks the 1968 graduate's personal reconciliation with the institution that gave him so-so grades and waited too long, in his view, to give his father, former President George Bush, an honorary degree.

As recently as January, when he left for his inauguration in Washington, Bush would not utter his alma mater's name to a crowd of Midland, Texas, neighbors, instead sniffing that he had been schooled ``up East.''

The Texas governor who offered himself politically as a plain-talking Southerner gave his four years at Yale short shrift _ just a page or two _ in his autobiography.

White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said Bush has returned at least once to Yale since graduation, but he cannot remember when.

Some students and faculty thought Yale was jumping the gun with this younger George Bush.

More than 150 professors signed a petition protesting the university's decision to give Bush an honorary degree Monday, calling it premature for a president who has been in office only four months.

``I don't personally have a problem with him coming, but I don't know about the honorary degree. It's not a standard practice for past presidents, and he hasn't done much yet,'' said Valerie Chu, an art history major from Hong Kong.

Bush's father received an honorary degree in 1991, two years into his presidency.

As for Bush's legendary estrangement from the school where he was a history major and mischievous fraternity president, New York Times editorial writer Steven Weisman recently told The Hartford Courant:

``He complained to me about how Yale had treated his father. ... I think he was annoyed all these Yalies were supporting (former President) Clinton,'' an alumnus of Yale Law School.

Bush was using Monday's speech to thank Yale for all the school did ``to shape his life for the better,'' said the associate, who is familiar with the prepared remarks and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The fact that Bush is speaking at all remained an official _ if not well-kept _ secret Sunday night. By tradition, the university forbids advance word of who is getting honorary degrees or speaking at commencement.

Bush was born in New Haven when his father, freshly returned from heroics in World War II, was a Yale economics student.

As an infant, Bush lived on the Yale campus in an apartment next door to the university president's residence.

According to campus legend, the Yale president once asked Bush's mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, to remove diapers from her clothesline because he was expecting important visitors.

Bush returned to that neighborhood Sunday night for a private black-tie dinner at university President Richard Levin's home. Connecticut Gov. John Rowland and others receiving the top-secret honorary degrees were among the 100 people in attendance.

The liberal-leaning Yale community has largely reciprocated Bush's ambivalent feelings. While Levin has courted the accomplished alumnus, some students planned to protest his Monday speech and labor activists _ including graduate students and hospital employees who are trying to form unions _ also planned demonstrations.

Green Party candidate Ralph Nader outpolled Bush in last year's presidential election in the city voting ward that includes much of the campus.

Bush flew here from South Bend, Ind., where he pressed his social-services agenda at Sunday's graduation at Notre Dame, his first commencement address as president. On Friday he speaks at the U.S. Naval Academy graduation in Annapolis, Md.