Taking the Long View on Presidential Transcript Releases

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Leslie Kitchen is an independent historian and journalist and a former HNN book review editor. His articles have appeared in the Bloomsbury Review and the Boston Book Review, among others. He resides in Gardena, CA.

The wing-nuts want to see Barack Obama’s college transcripts. And, by definition, they won’t shut up about it.

Usually, and I have to say justifiably, the wing-nuts  have just enough sense to ignore matters like being able to see their own candidate’s college transcripts. That is how they save themselves from the horror they would experience if they did see them, and how they save their candidates from nervously shifting from one foot to the other, explaining, in public, under glaring lights, how they could muster no more than a D+ in Introduction to Logic, or a C- in Early Modern Comparative Literature.

As already mentioned, however, I have recently been given to notice that these very same wing-nuts, so willing to forgive the young-wastrel versions of Bush 43, Rick Perry, or, God forefend, Dan Quayle, set up a deafening yowl when reminded that one Barack Hussein Obama has not released his college transcripts. They want to dig into the matter, mind you. They do not want to judge the matter of Obama’s educational career merely on its surface. They demand original documentation signed by Harvard administration officials! They must have it proven to them that the youngster with the big ears and the exotic name who graduated from Harvard Law School and who achieved the prestigious distinction of serving as president of the Harvard Law Review, really got good grades from his teachers! How many apples do they think he might have shined?

I must ask, since I often find myself muttering the question, what do their overheated imaginations tell them they might find on those yellowed transcripts? What conspiracy do they wildly, desperately hope to uncover? Do they hope to find that young Barry was just as lazy and intellectually incurious as Rick Perry or Bush 43 or, as drastic as it might sound to the gentler souls among us, even moreso? Doubt that would happen. Highly doubt it. Even if Anderson Cooper or some beautiful blonde assistant Fox anchor were to stand before us, hopefully the latter, flashing the signed, official document just like Joe McCarthy used to, and if these newshounds were to perform their august janitorial, oops, I mean journalistic duty by informing the world that young Barry’s grades at two of the world’s greatest centers of academic excellence, Columbia and Harvard, were less than stellar, what could that tell us?

I would maintain from my highly personal understanding of our nation’s history that it would tell us nothing of value. As you weigh that claim, please be aware that it has been the great misfortune of all who know me, and all who daily find themselves almost physically forced to listen to me, that I have long been a serious student of history. Serious. I happen to have a little knowledge, and we all know what Alexander Pope said about that, concerning the educations of the leading political lights who have guided our nation through thickets, travails, wars, depressions, constitutional controversies, and endless, hamster-wheel rounds of fundraising. 

After hearing me tick it all off, you might come to the realization that good grades are not at the heart of the matter, after all, and that there is even an unnerving possibility that they might actually be political handicaps, especially  if you consider the following:

Al Gore and John Kerry went to Harvard and Yale, respectively, and were thoroughly mediocre academically. According to David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima in the New York Times, Gore received whopping C and C- grades in his first two Harvard government courses. Not Swahili, g-o-v-e-r-n-m-e-n-t! Kerry made 5 D’s in his first two years at Yale. In my family, that would have gotten you jerked back to life on the farm!

John McCain graduated 894th out of 900 at the U.S. Naval Academy. Quite an achievement that! Actually, if you think about it, that rank probably reflects some laudable single-mindedness, not to mention independence.

One of Dan Quayle’s political science professors has been quoted as saying of Quayle: “He was as vapid a student as I can ever recall...” ‘Nuff said for a guy who can’t spell all the common vegetables. 

Lyndon Johnson most likely made pretty good grades at Texas State Teachers College. That less than august institution, however, has nary an ivy-covered wall and carries at least a whiff of not having been Harvard-on-the-San-Marcos. If, once again, Anderson Cooper or the aforementioned  babe at Fox, once again preferably the latter, were to charge forth with LBJ’s transcript, what could that document possibly tell us? Truly there are many things about “Landslide Lyndon” that would be well worth knowing, but relevant information connected to any of them would almost certainly not be contained in his Texas State Teachers College transcripts!

Woodrow Wilson, one of our oh-so-few obviously intelligent presidents, was indeed highly educated, held a PhD, in fact, and was at one time president of Princeton University. Wilson is an important figure in our national history, in fact so important that I have a black-sheep great uncle, a bad-check-floating businessman and convicted moonshiner and thief, who was named for him. Despite my family’s bad luck with my uncle, the great Woodrow had many successes as president, but he also suffered a number of famous failures because, guess what, he may have been a little over-educated!

That possibility is backed up by a good many historians who often attribute Wilson’s failures to his professorial habit of falling into high-minded, theoretical, and too-often rigidly doctrinal modes of thinking, the kind all college grads know is rife within the groves of academe. Wilson’s professorial habit of living in the world inside his mind either produced or reinforced a stubborn and unrealistic leadership pattern that he characteristically fell into in times of crisis.

Now, I would never doubt for a moment that Wilson’s transcripts would probably reveal that he was a completely bright fellow.  But I would also maintain that they would not contain a hint that any flaws reflected in his transcript would one day contribute mightily to the failure of the League of Nations, and, therefore, to the sickening march of tyranny in the 1930s.

Or take my man Lincoln. Abraham, as he insisted on being called, went to school for less than a year over his entire lifetime. He even attended a “blab” school. Dare we insist on seeing the “blab” school transcripts? Did the people need to see Lincoln’s grades in 1860? The Southern states promptly left the union when he was elected. The secessionists did not wait to see—they did not want to see—what grades young Abe had made in his elitist quest for book larnin’.  If you were secessh in 1860, you knew what was up with Lincoln’s election, and you knew you didn't like it. It mattered not a whit whether Abe had received a C or a D or an A or an F in organic chemistry!

To reach further back, George Washington was never a scholar, and he was never described as a bookish man.  As a youngster, so the story goes, he found school to be, as millions of clear-eyed children still ardently attest, “hella” boring and tedious. Were we to recover the records of GW’s eighteenth-century tutors, they would give little indication that the restless, anti-authoritarian youth would one day become the father of his country.

To cite a more recent example, family wealth aside, JFK did not stand out at Harvard. But before that, he did stand out at the Choate prep academy. That is, he stood out for low grades and bad behavior! The school authorities once intended to kick him out, as Nigel Hamilton has chronicled, but the youngster’s old man showed up, had a di$creet di$cu$$ion with the headma$ter, made offer$ that couldn’t be refu$ed, and young Jack, the disruptive campus scofflaw, $tayed in $chool.

Jack’s baby brother Teddy topped all that, however. That’s what Kennedy brothers did. They tried to top each other. Teddy actually managed to get kicked out at Harvard for cheating despite his old man’s financial sway, because that august institution had plenty of money already. As it turned out, Harvard had a reputation for academic rigor that the gauche Irish arriviste’s money could not buy, although we can be assured that if he acted in character, he tried mightily! Teddy would go on to a career weighed down by moral shortcomings much heavier than his academic ones, such as womanizing, alcohol abuse, and abandoning a young lady at the bottom of a river. He also went on to one of the most politically fruitful and storied senatorial careers in our nation’s history and died a beloved elder statesman. Teddy’s transcripts would tell us little about either his low points or his high ones.

In summary, politicians, U.S. presidents included,  have most often gotten by with middling to very little formal education, transcripts we don’t want or need to see, and only a modicum of knowledge of the broader world around us. Very few have ever been widely traveled outside the U.S., and fewer still do any serious reading, either fiction or nonfiction. Only the rare ones, perhaps when cornered during a debate by some clever and vicious journalist, grudgingly express any genuine appreciation for literature. They are simply very disinclined to trouble their already feverish minds with deep thoughts. They usually can write simple sentences, and we all know how capable they are at monotonously uttering them and, despite the reputation of the breed, few of them are actually eloquent. And although our politicos often exhibit a certain amount of verbal facility, they cultivate it in themselves only for its utility in persuading and manipulating others. If there were a seminar in that, most of them would receive a solid A.

Transcripts anyone?

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