Yale Bulletin and Calendar

May 26, 2000Volume 28, Number 33

Journalist Bob Woodward recalled the problems of the Nixon and Clinton presidencies in his talk about the "mixed bag" of strengths and weaknesses that all people have.

Senior Class Day

As storm clouds darkened the sky overhead, Yale's Class of 2000 listened intently as Pulitzer Prize-winning political writer Robert Woodward '65 encouraged the graduating seniors not to shy away from politics, but to learn from recent political history.

"The bottom line is don't make other people's mistakes," said Woodward, who co-wrote a series of articles in The Washington Post that led to President Nixon's resignation. "Armed with history, go out and make your own."

Woodward, assistant managing editor of The Washington Post and author of eight best-selling nonfiction books, remains best known for his series on the Watergate break-in and his subsequent book with reporter Carl Bernstein, "All The President's Men," which detailed the break-in at Democratic headquarters and the subsequent cover-up.

Woodward laughed as he approached the podium and a graduating senior ran through the crowd with a headdress featuring a mask of Nixon, his two arms outstretched and his fingers forming the sign for victory -- a gesture that became a popular parody of Nixon.

"What do we have to do to get him to sit down?" Woodward asked the crowd of graduates, families and friends on Old Campus. "Vote him back in office?"

He then began his remarks, which focused on politics, deception and human frailty.

"Unfortunately, you have been raised in a period dominated by political half-truths and spin, the brief 30-second-or-less television commercial or political ad," Woodward said. "There is a big difference between the power to persuade and the power to deceive. It is increasingly difficult to recognize the value of what we are being sold and what we are being told."

He went on to describe a 1994 interview with Clinton in the Oval Office. Woodward at the time was working on his book "The Agenda, Inside the Clinton White House," about the making of Clinton's economic policy. He said the president immediately made intense eye contact, and, even while he drank soda from a glass, never took his eyes off Woodward's. Following the interview, Woodward left the White House quite pleased, believing he had obtained insightful information.

"I looked at the words and realized that there was no new information, that he had said nothing really important," Woodward recalled. "But it sure as hell had felt good. This power to communicate, which Clinton can do in small groups and, of course, does on television, is obviously much of the power of his personality and politics."

He said the lessons to be learned from Nixon's resignation and the vote on Clinton's impeachment are that politics and politicians are vulnerable to human weakness, as is everyone else in private life or in the public arena.

"Observing this is the greatest opportunity to see starkly the central feature or one of the central features of our time or of human nature," Woodward said. "And that is simply that all of us are a mixture of weaknesses and strengths, good and bad, high and low. In a sense, all of us are that famous 'mixed bag.' The history lesson is the human lesson."

He said neither Nixon nor Clinton intended, as they campaigned for the presidency, to humiliate themselves, their colleagues and their families -- Nixon by the crimes and abuses of his administration and Clinton by his marital infidelities.

"Did Nixon come to office with the intent, with the expressed purpose of shredding the law and the Constitution and his reputation? Obviously not. He was struggling. That struggle is, in some way, our window into the ambiguity of his human nature and character," Woodward said.

He recalled the fateful meeting between Nixon and Elliot Richardson, who was then secretary of defense, in which Nixon asked Richardson to become attorney general and to set in motion the legal and investigatory machinery needed to unmask the truth in Watergate. Nixon, at the time depressed at the forced resignation of his two close associates, Robert Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, told Richardson to be fearless in his pursuit, even if the trail led directly to the Oval Office.

"There was something almost valiant and almost self- aware in setting this mechanism in place that eventually would reveal him and destroy him," Woodward said. Though stopping short of praising Nixon, he said that maybe over time the complexities of the discredited president's character, the good and the bad, might eventually be resolved.

"Perhaps you have to turn to psychiatry to understand what drove Nixon," he said. "As Freud suggested, character is the organization of contradictory impulses, not their resolution. Perhaps to understand Nixon you almost have to turn to literature and William Faulkner's notion of the human heart in conflict with itself."

Woodward suggested that the problems that overshadowed Clinton's presidency never reached the dismal climax of the Nixon administration because of the lessons learned from Watergate -- which was to not leave a trail of incriminating tapes and letters. Even so, he said, he doubted Clinton had aspired to the presidency with the idea of bringing shame to himself and his family.

"Did Clinton come to the presidency so he could have his pick of White House interns? I doubt it. Did he come to the presidency and seek it all his life, as he did, so he could be disabled and ridiculed and impeached and tried by the Senate?"

Woodward said Clinton failed in maintaining integrity in office because he had not learned the lesson of Watergate, which is "the need to tell the truth, to come clean." The policy in the Clinton administration, he said, was to "tell the truth slowly and only when forced to tell it."

Woodward said that a few years ago he corresponded with former President George Bush about a book he was writing on presidents in the post-Watergate era. He said Bush wrote him a long, personal letter about why he despised the media and their aggressive and intrusive brand of journalism. Bush concluded by saying he "wanted to stay the hell out of Dodge," referring to Washington, D.C., the implication being that they shoot you at random.

But Woodward told the graduates that history is marked by human failing, and that they too are as prey to weakness as are the nation's political leaders.

"As humans, these people who have been president are, to a certain extent, you. You should see yourself in them in one form or another," he said. "Politics and human understanding are linked together inextricably. So I would say, don't stay out of Dodge ..."

Class Day rituals. The Class Day activities for this first class of the 21st century began with the traditional procession of seniors into the Old Campus, as well as the customary display of homemade headgear in stark contrast to the students' sedate black graduation gowns.

Sprinkled among the brimmed straw hats, baseball caps and pointed dunce caps were a multi-colored Native American headdress, a hat fashioned from a yellow plastic block of cheese and a rainbow-colored Mexican sombrero.

Shana Katz, secretary of the Class of 2000, told her classmates, "I'm not going to say we're the best class to graduate from Yale ... but we're the hottest class to grace the 'booty cam' at Toad's and the first to bring two-ply toilet paper to this university. We have left our mark." She closed with a paraphrase of the recent 'N Sync hit song: "I think 'N Sync said it best -- 'I wanna see you out that door, baby, bye-bye-bye.'"

Awards and prizes. Fourteen members of the Class of 2000 were honored with prizes for scholastic or athletic achievements, personal characteristics or commitment to community service.

Memories and ivy vines. Following another Class Day custom, seniors presented the University with $12,000 they raised as their class gift. In a selection written by members of the Class of 2000, a band composed of seniors performed their class history in song to the tune of "American Pie." Singing "Bye, bye, all you sons of Eli. It was heaven here with Levin now we all gotta fly," students put to music memories of their four years at Yale. They praised a nearly flawless football season that yielded the Ivy League crown, with only one loss to Brown, and poked fun at coping with the swing space dormitory during renovations.

The Ivy Ode, which is traditionally read in Latin, was sung this year in English by Shannon R. Morrison, a member of the Class of 2000, who wrote this year's ballad and accompanied himself on acoustic guitar. Kathleen Cassidy presented the song in American sign language.

The ode usually describes a symbolic connection between the growth of the ivy vine and the flourishing of the class as students. Morrison's ode described the memories that remain as he and his classmates grow and change. Part of this year's ode reads:

"Beginnings and endings, which one plays the harder part?
Each with joy and with sorrow weighing heavy in our hearts.
We came here as children, curious and full of fear,
But we leave here with wisdom, Light and Truth we hold so dear.
Here in the Ivy, growing high within these walls,
Luscious green in the springtime, fading each and every fall.
And when Bright College Years have come and gone away,
In the climbing ivy, a part of me will stay.
It's hard to remember all the things I want to keep,
All the days full of wonder, all the nights devoid of sleep.
But looking around here, there's one thing that stays the same.
As it was and it shall be the one thing that will remain.
The Climbing Ivy, growing high within these walls,
Through the love and the friendships that forever changed us all.
And when Bright College Years have come and gone away
In the climbing ivy, a part of me will stay.

As Morrison sang, fellow classmates Michael F. Buchwald and Matthew Obernauer planted the ivy, a tradition dating back to 1852, near Lanman-Wright Memorial Hall on High Street. The numerals of the Class of 2000 were engraved on a stone in front of Phelps Gate.

"Bright College Years." Near the ceremony's conclusion, and in a tradition that dates back to the 1860s, members of the graduating class took out clay churchwarden pipes, filled them with tobacco, and drew a few puffs. As a contingent from the Yale Marching Band played the alma mater "Bright College Years," the seniors then threw the pipes to the ground and trampled upon them as a customary sign that the pleasures of college life had ended. Their heads now bare of their creative hats, the graduating students carried out a tradition inaugurated by the Class of 1984. They waved white handkerchiefs above their heads while singing the last line of "Bright College Years": "For God, for Country, and for Yale!"

-- By Jacqueline Weaver and Thomas Violante

C O M M E N C E M E N T2 0 0 0


Baccalaureate Address

Honorary Degrees

Senior Class Day

Teaching Prizes

Scholastic Prizes

Roosevelt L. Thompson Prize

Athletic Awards

David Everett Chantler Prize

Other Student Awards and Honors

Wilbur Cross Medals


Yale celebrates 299th Commencement

Fellowship winners to pursue summer study across the globe

Yale helps the new 'Amistad' set sail on its educational mission

Festival Time: Celebrations of art, music and culture at Yale, city sites

Environmental leaders to join school's faculty

Conservation leaders named McCluskey Fellows

Alumni return to campus to celebrate reunions

Researcher links unexplained car accidents and heart irregularities

Center's family celebration will mark Cancer Survivors Day

Family Festival to celebrate Yale Art Gallery exhibitions

Students will teach in China, Hong Kong

Movie theaters 'pitch in' to raise funds for Yale pediatric programs

Edmund Gordon is honored for his achievements

'Feminist humor maven' will speak at campaign school

Symposium will pay tribute to Dr. Marvin Sears

Fair will highlight continuing education

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