A scion of a famously rich and well-connected family goes to a fancy prep school. Partying with his friends and neglecting his studies, he almost gets kicked out. But he eventually grows up and goes on to a successful career in politics.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy? No, John Ellis Bush.
Better known by his family nickname, “Jeb,” Bush has become the putative front-runner for next year’s GOP presidential nomination. And that has brought renewed scrutiny of Bush’s business activities and his performance as Florida’s governor, which is exactly as it should be.
But his dissolute years at Phillips Academy in Andover? Please. If an errant youth disqualified you for the presidency, JFK would have never made it. Nor would many of our other presidents, who were hardly paragons of virtue as younger men.
Jeb Bush’s Andover antics are back in the news, thanks to a long article published earlier this month by the Boston Globe. Taller than most of his peers, Bush bullied some of them and smoked marijuana with others. He was also caught drinking alcohol during his second year at Phillips Academy, which placed him on probation.
The report on Bush recalled a similar expose about former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the last Republican presidential candidate, whose schoolboy behavior came to the fore during the 2012 campaign. Romney and some friends teased an effeminate classmate, who wore his hair long; eventually, they cornered him with a scissors and cut off most of it. Not very nice, and certainly not very presidential.
But Harry Truman cheated on his eyesight examination to get into the army, which isn’t very presidential either. Richard Nixon broke into a law school dean’s office to sneak a peak at his grades.
Ronald Reagan got a lover pregnant and refused to have anything to do with her—or with her abortion—afterwards. Bill Clinton dated many women at the same time, lying to each of them about the others.
George W. Bush was arrested for drunk driving. And Barack Obama was a member of his high school “Choom Gang,” which was named after its penchant for smoking pot.
But none of their youthful antics can hold a candle to JFK. Kennedy lost his virginity to a prostitute in Harlem when he was 17; terrified that he might have contracted VD, he spent the rest of the evening in a panicked search for a physician. After that, “Don Juan Kennedy”–as he called himself–bragged incessantly to his friends about his sexual exploits.
At Choate, where JFK went to prep school, he was a lazy student but an energetic prankster. Kennedy broke into a fellow student’s room and turned up the radio full blast before dashing out; he filled up another student’s room with pillows; and when his mother sent him a crate of oranges from Florida, he opened his window and threw them at passersby.
JFK’s poor grades at school earned him a stern visit during his junior year from his imposing father, who told a friend that “Jack” appeared destined for failure. “He seems to lack entirely a sense of responsibility,” Joseph P. Kennedy worried. “His happy-go-lucky manner with a degree of indifference does not portend well for his future development.”
But things got worse in JFK’s senior year, when Kennedy and some friends formed the Choate Muckers Club. A “mucker” was a miscreant, and the group wore the label proudly. Each member purchased a gold charm in the shape of a shovel, engraved with the initials “CMC.”
The club plotted to disrupt the school’s annual spring celebration by bringing a pile of horse manure and several gold shovels. When the headmaster uncovered the plan, he expelled 13 members of the cabal—including JFK—and told them to pack their bags.
Their sentence was later commuted to probation, the same penalty that Jeb Bush received for drinking at Andover. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I didn’t do much of anything,” JFK later recalled. “I was a drifter . . . Why? I don’t know.”
But we do know that Kennedy matured into a serious thinker and leader. And soon it will be up to the voters to decide if Jeb Bush is cut from similar cloth.
I hope they’ll look at his recent record, not at his youthful indolence. “I was a cynical little turd at a cynical school,” Bush has admitted. It would be cynical of the rest of us to judge him for that now.
Jonathan Zimmerman’s latest book, “Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education,” will be published this month by Princeton University Press.