NEW HAVEN, Conn. – It was a self-deprecating President Bush who faced student protesters Monday as he returned to the Ivy League university he scorned while making his name in politics as a down-home Texan.
"To the C students, I say, 'You too can be president of the United States,"' Bush said at the 300th commencement of Yale University.
With his wife, Laura, in the front row and hundreds of graduating students booing and holding small protest signs behind her, Bush accepted an honorary doctor of laws from the university that first gave him a history degree in 1968.
The Bushes' daughter, Barbara, represents the fourth consecutive generation of Bushes at Yale. She did not attend Monday's exercises with her parents.
The president acknowledged that he was known here for so-so grades and a lively social life. "If you're like me, you won't remember everything you did here. That can be a good thing. But there will be some people and some moments you will never forget," Bush told students.
Several graduates hoisted posters above their mortarboards. Two hand-lettered signs read: "Yale women against Bush" and "Support reproductive rights; make Yale proud." White House aides dismissed the dissent as a Yale tradition.
His speech here, an associate said, marks his personal reconciliation with the institution that waited too long, in his view, to give his father, former President George Bush, an honorary degree.
As recently as January, just prior to his inauguration, 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.
Turning serious and reflective in his brief address, Bush acknowledged Monday his ambivalence about the place where he was born:
"I was raised in West Texas. From there, Yale always seemed a world away, maybe a part of my future. Now it's a part of my past and Yale, for me, is a source of great pride. I hope that there will be a time for you to return to Yale to say that and to feel as I do. And I hope you won't wait as long."
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, calling it premature for a president who has been in office only four months.
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.
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, including Clinton administration Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, actor Sam Waterston and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo 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, 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.