Opinion | Martin F. Nolan

The road to the White House runs through the Ivy League

Cambridge, MA- May 04, 2017: The Johnston Gate at Harvard Yard in Cambridge, MA on May 04, 2017, MA on May 04, 2017. (Globe staff photo / Craig F. Walker) section: metro reporter:
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
The Johnston Gate at Harvard Yard.

When Supreme Court justices gather in the cafeteria, they might debate philosophy. They could also talk about Harvard and Yale, where all eight justices attended law school.

The Ivy League has also produced a larger group: potential candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Candidates are officially noncandidates until they’re not. Some names are new. Others appear on television as often as the weather forecast. The Ivy-clad possibilities include:


Cory Booker, Yale Law

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Jerry Brown, Yale Law

Sherrod Brown, Yale

Steve Bullock, Columbia Law

Eric Garcetti, Columbia


Kirsten Gillibrand, Dartmouth

Eric Holder, Columbia and Columbia Law

Tim Kaine, Harvard Law

Joseph P. Kennedy III, Harvard Law

Amy Klobuchar, Yale


Seth Moulton, Harvard

Deval Patrick, Harvard and Harvard Law

Adam Schiff, Harvard Law

Mark Warner, Harvard Law

Elizabeth Warren, Harvard Law faculty

The two best-known potential 2020 candidates have run before, and neither went to Ivy League schools. Both appealed to working-class voters with lunchpail issues. Bernie Sanders is a University of Chicago alumnus. Joe Biden attended the University of Delaware and law school at Syracuse University.

To those who fret about “elites,” a caution. Many Americans are grateful that Harvard welcomed John Adams in 1751 and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1900. Ditto for Princeton’s nurturing of James Madison and Woodrow Wilson.

Sometime in the early 1990s, perhaps during a Renaissance Weekend, ground zero of the Democratic party shifted from the factory floor to the faculty lounge. Since 1988, every Democratic National Convention has chosen an Ivy League presidential candidate.

Republicans, meanwhile, chose two Yalies named Bush. In 2012, they chose Mitt Romney, who, after Brigham Young University, chose Harvard for graduate school. He graduated from its law school and its business school on the same day.

Another Ivy-garlanded Republican transferred from Fordham in 1966, then won a diploma after two years at the University of Pennsylvania. Donald J. Trump is the 16th Ivy Leaguer to occupy the White House.

Trump’s fellow Penn alumnus studied at its medical school before giving up medicine in 1791. William Henry Harrison joined the Army, commanded troops at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, and was elected president in 1840. He died of pneumonia after one month in office.

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt summoned to the White House the football coaches of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to change the rules of college football. In 1954, the Ivy League was founded as a conference for intercollegiate sports.

The Ivy League attracts more politically ambitious scholars than do campuses west of Ithaca and south of Philadelphia. The imbalance is slowly changing. In Palo Alto, Stanford students refer to Harvard as “the Stanford of the East.”

The perfect college may not be as crucial as parents of SAT-saturated students fear. Since World War II, the most consequential, decisive presidents offered slim academic credentials: Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan.

In erudition and depth of knowledge, few American politicians surpassed the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. He received five degrees from Tufts University and was proud of all five. “The odd one,” he said, “is Bachelor of Naval Science from the 1940s.”

Moynihan’s boss, President John F. Kennedy, was well educated and also self educated. He knew how to keep education in perspective. In June of 1962, he journeyed to New Haven for an honorary degree. He name-dropped first, then offered an inside-Ivy zinger:

“As General de Gaulle occasionally acknowledges America to be the daughter of Europe, so I am pleased to come to Yale, the daughter of Harvard. It might be said now that I have the best of both worlds: a Harvard education and a Yale degree.”

Martin F. Nolan is a former Globe reporter and editor.