Justin Frank has written a book, "Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President," in which he attempts to psychoanalyze George W Bush. The problem with this book is that it's just guess work. He relies on secondary sources with no real personal exposure or experience with any phase or facet of Bush's life. He theorizes that Bush was severely scarred by the death of his little sister and the way his parents treated the event: no mourning, golf instead. Frank points out that while the senior Bush was a star athlete, succcessful businessman and war hero, George W was generally a failure at all these things. But while Frank has no experience with any facet of George W's life, I do: his career at Andover, one of the most elite American prep schools. Phillips Academy Andover is the oldest continuously running incorporated boarding school in the United States, established in 1778 by Samuel Phillips, Jr. I didn't attend Andover when Bush was there; I was a few years ahead of him. But I don't think that much had changed by the time Bush got there. It was still an all male, almost military environment at which one had to wear a coat and tie to class, attend compulsory chapel every morning, and call the masters "sir". It didn't become co-ed until it merged in 1973 with neighboring Abbot Academy, hitherto an all girls' school.
When Frank points out that Bush is a man not in touch with his emotions and that he's psychologically stunted, he needn't have looked any farther than Andover. It was an environment devoid of any compassion or empathy, an environment in which to acknowledge a feeling was a sign of weakness, an emotional hell. The three years I spent there were hell compared to any years of the rest of my life before or since. Or stated a different way, the rest of my life has been an absolute heaven compared to the three years I spent at Andover. It was a "Lord of the Flies" environment devoid of the opposite sex, whether as students or teachers. There were no girls, no dating, no girlfriends. It was a closed, almost cult like culture, in which there were rocks (looked up to and admired) and flits (looked down upon and denigrated). Masculinity was everything and to be stunted emotionally was considered to be the hallmark of masculinity. To be rock-like was to have no feelings, no emotions, no weaknesses.
I was a scholarship student having won the prize for the highest marks on the entrance examinations. You might say I was a professional student having been reared in a home with two educators as parents. As Mr. Hawes, my housemaster at Williams Hall (actually I was in an out building called Stott Cottage), had written on a report to my parents, "Johnny knows what he's here for." Yeah, I was there to study, work my ass off seven days a week and get good grades. I had no other purpose or function in life. I was to do this in an environment devoid of family emotional support or any support I might have gotten from a normal adolescence which included the opposite sex. Actually for the first two years I achieved a considerable degree of success in my chosen vocation. Every marking period or quarter they ranked all 180 members of the class from first to last in academic achievement and divided the top ranking students into both a first and a second honor roll. I was first in the class once, made the first honor roll three times and the second honor roll three times.
Even though I came from a poor background, not the rich upper class background that Bush and most of the others came from, life at Andover pretty much sucked for everybody, and I don't think it's too far-fetched to say that almost everyone was affected in a negative way by the cynical and cruel culture which any all male environment seems to degenerate into. Although the campus and facilities there would be the envy of most colleges, it was a dystopia in which the masters (teachers) demanded absolute respect and had little sympathy for their charges. Their goal was to whip them into shape, to make "Andover men" out of them. I was merely a child of 13, not yet having gone through puberty, when I started there. It reminded me of a comic book I had read where this family made a deal with the devil that they would get to live in this house with every modern convenience. They wouldn't have to do a lick of work and an ATM would dispense $200. every week. (This was in the 1950s, remember.) There was only one catch: they could not ever leave the house. That was the way it was at Andover. Rich kids and kids whose families lived close by could get away for the weekend. I couldn't. I was stuck there in this abnormal environment with no contact with the outside "normal" world. My parents lived too far away. Long distance calling was out of the question in those days unless you were rich, and my Mom and I exchanged letters on a weekly basis, something that seems antiquated and quaint today. I only got to go home at Christmas, spring break and summer vacation. Thank God for that or I wouldn't have survived!
Getting back to "Bush on the Couch" - cruelty, cynicism, lack of sympathy and compassion, superciliousness, condescension - these were the characteristics of Andover culture. People who were soft in any way were considered suspect. People who excelled academically were suspect - suspected of being fairies or flits. The word "gay" hadn't been invented yet. The word "flit," insofar as I can tell, was Andover's unique contribution to terms of derogation. I couldn't quite figure out the difference between a fairy and a flit, but it was all Andover mythology anyway, and it had more to do with hurling cruel, hurtful epithets at people as a form of bullying than anything else. In a closed, cult-like culture it took on terrifying implications which seem ridiculous today now that I live in an open culture and am relatively balanced and well informed.
The socially awkward and unsophisticated were suspect. Boys were terrified of being called names that signified that they were anything less than totally masculine and so had to project a hardened, rock-like exterior. Any sign of emotion was considered a sign of homosexuality, effeminacy and weakness. Any creativity or intellectuality was a sign of weakness and fairyhood. No wonder Bush comes across as a non-intellectual. To get by at Andover, one of the nation's elite schools, you had to pretend to be anti-intellectual if you were to get the respect of your peers. You did little work and got by with a "gentleman's" C although you would not like to be characterized as a gentleman but as a rock. You showed your disdain for those trying to achieve high grades to get into a good college because you knew that you family's wealth and your father's contributions to the Yale alumni fund would get you a "legacy" admission. This is the milieu that George W Bush existed in desperately trying to achieve a degree of popularity as a cheerleader, a role he continued to carry out as President of the United States.
It was difficult for me, going through adolescence with no girls available, coming to terms with my heterosexuality at a time when little information was available, largely ignorant of what a fairy or a flit was, wondering if masturbation made me one. With little or no knowledge or available information, I was left to imagine the worst about who or what I was. While excelling academically, I was going to hell in a handbasket emotionally and psychologically. Without a supportive family environment, my self esteem was evaporating on a daily basis. I had no one to talk to about these issues and had to hold it all inside with disastrous consequences. My parents and teachers thought I must be in wonderful shape since I got good grades, but I was hurting inside and rapidly reaching the boiling point. While I continued to function at a high level, the part of me where I lived, my psychological interior, was becoming a wasteland. These experiences, I'm sure, were not unique to me although not everyone felt them as severely. Andover, or rather the Andover culture, ruined many a life, scarred others, including me, for life, and sent many kids packing back to their homes and families because they couldn't cope with an environment in which there was no love or compassion or members of the opposite sex. These were the lucky ones. The unlucky ones, like Bush, stayed and graduated.
Let's consider, as Frank and others have done, what the psychological characteristics of the Bush administration are: cruelty, cynicism, lack of compassion, disregard for the poor and powerless, sucking up to the rich and powerful, selfish pursuit of money and power, superciliousness, condescension - an almost perfect fit for the values of Andover culture circa 1950s and 60s. I hope these attitudes don't prevail at Andover today. Maybe the addition of co-eds was a deliberate change of policy in order to overcome the prevailing negativity at that time. Hopefully, they aren't continuing to turn out emotionally stunted, uncaring rich kids who then go on to the corrridors of power and operate in the same way that many CEOs and politicians do today.
By my third year there (I was what they called an upper middler), I was a sick puppy. I decided I wanted out, and wasn't going to play the game of high academic achiever any longer. What did it matter if I gained entrance to a venerable educational institution but lost my soul - to paraphrase a well-known source. I became a slacker: getting demerits, not wearing ties to class (under my sweater where they sometimes went unnoticed), spending my evenings playing pool. I was determined to become a rock. I made the JV basketball team, a not inconsiderable feat given the hotly contested competition for available slots, and much to the disappointment of some guys who had me pigeonholed as a flit and were openly hostile even tripping me and causing a sprained ankle on the basketball court.
I had always been into music and I formed a dixieland band along with Jerry Bremer who later became the Viceroy of Iraq in the Bush Administration. Jerry was a good friend to me, one of the few I had there, so I won't be critical of the role he played in the Iraq debacle. I remember him saying he wanted to be an ambassador some day. I wish he hadn't gotten his wish. I played trumpet; Jerry played drums. We played once in front of the assembled student body before the Saturday night movie. We had a guy named John Smith on clarinet, an easy enough name to remember. We had a Flip Somebody on piano, and I can't remember the other guys' names. Jerry had set up a gig for us in Rye, NY when school was out for the summer. I think it was for a tennis tournement, but the clarinet player's house burned down so we went to Rye and just partied, didn't play. It was fun especially sneaking out at night and underage drinking. Jerry wrote me a letter that summer trying to convince me to return to Andover for my senior year which I didn't answer. But it was a nice gesture, and I thank him retrospectively. I was happy to leave Andover behind me and go to "normal" high school from which I graduated in 1959. I had heard anecdotally about the kid who left Andover and was so unhappy about the place that he requested never to be sent any Andover alumni literature or communications of any kind. He never wanted to hear from or about the place again. Feeling likewise, I did the same thing and have had no contact in any form with them ever since. For many years I could not even bear the thought of or talk about or admit to anybody that I had even gone there.