George W.'s B-School Days

"Harvard gave me the tools and the vocabulary of the business world," George W. Bush wrote in his 1999 book A Charge to Keep: My Journey to the White House. He didn't take that line from a Harvard Business School brochure, but he could have. It makes you wonder what really happened at the B-school that Bush writes so, well, methodically about.

A lot has been made of the fact that the new President holds a Master's of Business Administration, rather than the law sheepskin that most national politicians claim. Some pundits have gone so far as to say that the lessons Bush learned in two years of case studies and financial analysis will make him a better leader -- just look at all the stories recently about how Bush is managing the White House as if he were a CEO. Curiously, though, in his 243-page book, Bush dedicates only five paragraphs to the time in his life when he "was fascinated by the case study method that Harvard used to teach."

Dubya fascinated by the Harvard case-study method? Come on, let's have a little more detail. What about burning the midnight oil? What about the toga parties? Did he kiss up to professors to get better grades? He'd go on to own the Texas Rangers baseball team, but could he find the time to play intramural softball?

Dip into the class of 1975 alumni roster, and there's something to be learned about Bush the B-school student. Lesson No. 1 is what a tight group this is, all still looking out for each other. But they tell some interesting tales nonetheless.


  The story starts with Bush's application. These days, getting into Harvard's B-school, No. 3 in the nation according to BusinessWeek's 2000 Rankings, is no easy feat. Acceptance requires a resume with plenty of real-world work experience, a degree and a strong grade-point average from a reputable undergrad school, top Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) scores, and strong evidence of leadership capabilities.

In 1973, "making the bar [at Harvard] was 98% meritocracy," says Michael Porter, now one of the B-school's most well-known professors and an expert in international competitive strategy. Bush's application landed at Harvard while his dad, George H. W. Bush, was chairman of the Republican National Committee. One year later, Poppy would become the top U.S. diplomat to China.

Surely junior's application stood out. George W. Bush was a picture of honor once he got past his party days at Yale with the Delta Kappa Epsilon brothers and members of Skull & Bones, a secret society that enrolled him during his senior year -- so hush-hush, in fact, it barely gets a mention in his book. Bush earned an undergraduate degree in history from Yale in 1968. His grades weren't great, and nobody can seem to locate his GMAT scores. But by 1973, he had completed a five-year stint in the Texas National Guard, worked on his father's failed 1970 Texas campaign for U.S. senator, and worked full-time for ProjectPULL, an organization that worked with inner-city youth.


  His experience at ProjectPULL, while "tragic, heartbreaking, and uplifting, all at the same time," Bush writes, was also a perfect stint for a B-school application. He admits in his book that "business school was a turning point.... By the time I arrived, I had had a taste of many different jobs but none of them had ever seemed to fit."

Once he sat down for his first core-curriculum class, Bush was just like any other MBA, people remember. "He was a nice young man," professor Michael Yoshino says, though he never had him as a student in class. "He would go to the library occasionally," says classmate Richard Payne, 52. "He liked to talk politics," too, Payne adds, though it wasn't a popular topic among B-schoolers. "He was keenly interested in what was going on in the world."

Around campus, people would point him out. "At a place like Harvard Business School, you always know who the sons or daughters -- but mostly the sons -- of famous people were," says Ruth Owades, chairman of Calyx & Corolla, a high-end flower catalog company and also a member of the class of 1975. "And then there were the rest of us."


 Owades says she made the cut at Harvard because she was a "Founding Poet." These MBAs didn't have all of the quantitative and business experience usually required at Harvard, but rather a background in the liberal arts. Shortly after classes started, an administrator called Owades to a meeting and told her that she was among 3% of the class that served as a "test." Only Bush and the admissions department know for sure, but chances are, George W., with his degree in history, was likewise a "poet."

Bush was no Baker Scholar, one of the top honors for a Harvard Business School grad. But he wasn't a bad student either, professors say. Harvard breaks its 800-student MBA classes into sections, and Bush was placed in Section C -- a generic classification with no relation to his grades. It was Porter's first year teaching business policy, and he got Section C. "He was an unpretentious, good middle-of-the-road student," Porter remembers.

But he adds good-naturedly: "I was so green in those days that I wouldn't be able to spot a good manager from a bad one." Porter has since worked on Bush's 2000 Presidential campaign, after having developed a strategic plan for Texas when Bush became governor. What Bush wasn't, Payne says, was a "grade grubber" -- Harvard-ese for a brown-noser.


  George W. was humble even then. One professor says Bush "didn't emphasize his background [at] Yale or his father." But books aside, he was a happening guy. He was a referee for intramural sports. He also played intramural basketball and baseball. When it was time to put work aside, classmates say you could usually find him at parties thrown by his B-school buddies or at Charlie's Kitchen, a local hangout for burgers and beer. Legal Sea Foods restaurant was a favorite destination, too.

Bush lived the bachelor's life in a single apartment in Central Square in Cambridge, Mass. "I studied, and ran and rode my bike a lot," Bush writes. "I was there to learn, and that's exactly what I did." That must be true, because he apparently had little time to clean up. His apartment was notoriously untidy and sparse, friends say. "If you were lucky, he had a bottle of orange juice in the fridge, but that's about it," Payne says.

Lucky for his classmates, Mom and Dad Bush kept an elegant summer home in Kennebunkport, Me., two hours north of Boston, and the folks were usually out of town. On weekends in September and in the late spring, Bush would often lead small packs of chums in his 1970 Cutlass up to southern Maine. In fact, that's where Payne, now a managing director at First Union Securities, met his wife during the fall of his second year at B-school.


  For all the happy memories, few would have placed their bets on Bush becoming U.S. President. "Based upon our collective perception in 1973 to 1975, you could have won a lot of money with significant odds if you had bet upon George W. for President in 2001," says Eric Vogt, who attended Bush's January Inauguration and also sat in Section C with the future Prez.

But Harvard Business School never lost track of Bush, and now it is updating the alumni rolodex. The class of 1975 secretary, J. Hans Stumm, just changed Bush's address from the Texas capitol to Pennsylvania Avenue. He recalls a tale he can't place as fact or fiction, but which suits the George W. Bush he remembers to a tee: "The story was that [a professor started class saying], 'Some of you will grow up to be President.' Bush made a V-for-victory sign [with his arms], and got a laugh out of everyone." Of course, in this crowd, being U.S. President wasn't as esteemed as "being head of IBM or General Motors," Stumm adds.

Bush hasn't made a showing at any of the class' reunions. He also still hasn't activated his online Harvard Business School Alumni account, where the inside crowd networks. But judging by the showing of classmates at his Inauguration -- 30 of them showed up -- his time in Washington could result in some impromptu reunions. "At the Inauguration, we spent most of the time just talking to each other," says Vogt. The weekend was a "testimony to our social fabric."

And with classmates such as W. James McNerney, chairman of 3M; Gary DiCamillo, chairman of Polaroid; Hamilton E. James, chairman of DLJ's Investment Banking Group; and Lorenzo C. Lamadrid, CEO of consulting company Arthur D. Little, that's a social fabric that Bush may want to remain part of for at least the next four years.

By Mica Schneider in New York

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht