The thin line between White House and Animal House.
This article appears in Blunderbuss Magazine’s new print edition.
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As Clinton and Trump battle to enter our country’s most exclusive white boys’ club, it’s interesting to note that neither were in a fraternity or sorority in college. Election 2016 was absolutely bonkers, but this fact is an overlooked anomaly. Fraternities, bastions of elitism and power, are often a stepping-stone to our country’s highest office: Of the last 26 presidents, 18 have been members of frats. However, the tradition may be in decline—from Hayes to Coolidge, all ten presidents were in fraternities, but of the last ten, only five were. If this trend is indicative of a change though, it’s likely a superficial one. After all, new money always has a habit of replacing old money—if anything, Clinton and Trump’s ascendance has proven the ways in which elitism is mutable. On the eve of this historic election, we thought we would take a look back at some of our frattiest commander-in-chiefs and find solace in one fact: No matter who is elected this November, at least we could probably beat them in a game of flip cup.
George W. Bush / Delta Kappa Epsilon / Yale 1968
George W. Bush should have been sorted into Hufflepuff, but instead became the president of Delta Kappa Epsilon, the same fraternity that his father joined. Bush was steadfast in his commitment to being the most boring frat guy ever. His brothers assert that Bush was “not a rebel” and that when it came to the ladies, he was “less successful than most actually.” In fact, Bush’s time on campus was so normcore that in an interview, he claimed he had no recollection of any anti-Vietnam War activity at the time, even though the university chaplain was arrested for helping students dodge the draft during his senior year. Bush was even mediocre as a member of the super-exclusive Skull and Bones society: Allegedly, his code-name was “Temporary” because he couldn’t think of anything interesting at the time (he never changed it). One of the few moments that young Bush rocked the boat was in defense of his frat—he was quoted in the New York Times saying that DKE’s practice of branding pledges with coat hangers was “only a cigarette burn.” Four decades later, when the director of the CIA asked whether or not he had permission to waterboard prisoners, President Bush answered: “Damn right.”
Ronald Reagan / Tau Kappa Epsilon / Eureka 1932
Ronald Reagan paddled his brother. (To clarify, his biological, older brother Neil.) He paddled his brother so hard that Neil once confessed, “Anytime I heard the shout ‘Assume the position, Reagan’ and grabbed my ankles, I knew the whack I got from [Ronald] was going to be worse than the others because he felt he had to; otherwise they’d accuse him of showing partisanship.” Ronald claimed that he faked his strikes on his beloved brother’s buttocks; Neil asserted that he hit him twice as hard. Who are we to believe? The only thing we can know with any certainty is that for the future president who would turn his back on thousands of men dying of AIDS, paddling fellow frat brothers (and actual brothers) was totally not gay, guys.
Calvin Coolidge / Fiji / Amherst 1872
Calvin Coolidge’s brothers at Fiji (Phi Gamma Delta) remember him for two things: Being quiet and having yellow hair. The Hartford Courant once interviewed over 20 of Coolidge’s brothers, asking them what they recalled about the 30th president’s time at Amherst College and they all repeated these two qualities “as though they had learned it by rote.” Apparently, the qualities that carried “Silent Cal” Coolidge through his frat days changed little after he graduated—once, when at a dinner party, the woman sitting next to Coolidge told him she had an ongoing wager with someone that she could get more than two words out of him. Coolidge’s only response was: “You lose.”
Illustration by Yvonne Martinez.