NEW HAVEN, Conn. – This year's presidential election is going to be a class war: Class of '68 versus Class of '66.
"If Yalies were going to vote based on who's an alum, you'd have to flip a coin," said sophomore Alissa Stollwerk, secretary of the Yale College Democrats (search).
President Bush and Democratic rival John Kerry (search) graduated from Yale University (search) in the 1960s, a time of upheaval at Yale and campuses across the country. Both shied away from the radicalism of the day but joined the same secret society and followed similar pursuits, their paths diverging after graduation.
When Kerry graduated in 1966 with a degree in political science, opposition to the Vietnam War (search) was building. Yale still required students to wear jackets and ties at dinner, and no female undergraduates were admitted.
By the time Bush earned a degree in history in 1968, Yale was simmering with activism against the war and in favor of labor unions and other causes. Dinner jackets were gone, and female undergraduates arrived the following year.
Both men were chosen to join Yale's top secret society — Skull and Bones (search). Each year, 15 seniors are tapped for the 172-year-old club, which owns a windowless crypt on campus and a private island in the St. Lawrence River.
The experiences and influence of Bonesmen, as members are known, have reached mythic proportions. Their rites and membership are supposed to be secret, although initiations reportedly include lying in a coffin and confessing personal sexual secrets. Presidents Taft and George H.W. Bush were members.
Classmates remember Kerry as a big man on campus who played several sports, including junior varsity hockey. As a freshman, he also dated Jacqueline Kennedy's half-sister, Janet Auchincloss.
"He had a lot of demands on his time, and for him to play hockey in winter and play j.v. — that was a fair amount of dedication to the sport, and he played hard," recalled Gordon Walker, a classmate who managed the team.
Kerry, whose father worked for the State Department after graduating from Yale, was involved in politics from the moment he arrived in New Haven. He was head of the Yale Political Union, a college debating society, and joined the Fence Club, which was popular with preppy, blue-blood students.
Bush was a born Yalie as well as a legacy. His grandfather, Prescott Bush, the future senator from Connecticut, graduated from the Ivy League school. His father, the former president, was a student when he was born there. The line continues this spring when Bush's daughter, Barbara, earns a Yale degree.
The future president had grown up in Texas, however, and chafed at the East Coast intellectual scene. He had a run-in with the activist school chaplain, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, who told Bush to his face that his father had been "beaten by a better man" in an unsuccessful run for Senate in 1964.
Bush joined Delta Kappa Epsilon, a sporty fraternity that was the closest thing to "Animal House" on the Yale campus. He also played sports, including baseball, although he was not a starter like his father.
"He was congenial, gregarious, relatively unremarkable in a sense," recalled a classmate and fellow team member, Jim Latimer. "I enjoyed knowing him. He was entirely pleasant."
Despite the legacy, Kerry is more popular at Yale, his politics favored by the liberal-leaning student body.
When Bush accepted an honorary degree and spoke at Yale's 300th graduation ceremony in 2001, many graduates carried signs or wore emblems critical of Bush. Some turned their backs on him when he spoke.
Yet Bush won over others with his self-deprecating humor. He congratulated the honors students, then added: "To the C students, I say, 'You, too, can be president of the United States.'"
During the 2000 election, Democrat Al Gore was the top vote-getter in the ward that includes much of the campus. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader got more votes than Bush.
Robert Chung, chairman of Yale Students for Bush and vice chairman of the Yale College Republicans, said Bush may do better this year because campus Republicans have been more active.
"The college Republican club was pretty much dead for the past five or six years and this year we've revived it. The closet Republicans are coming out, now that there's an outlet for them," said Chung, a sophomore from Los Angeles.
Kerry last spoke publicly on campus in 1997 when his daughter, Vanessa, was a student.
During his years at Yale, Kerry told students, he "spent much time elsewhere — intellectually." He also said he had thought about running for president.
"There are times when you think about it more seriously than others," Kerry said. "But it's a fishbowl life. I'm going to play out my options so I can make that choice when it comes."