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Richard Nixon got his bachelor's from Whittier College in Southern California. Lyndon Johnson got his from Southwest Texas State Teachers College. Joe Biden went to the University of Delaware (and then to Syracuse University Law School). Paul Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee, attended Miami University of Ohio. John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, earned his undergraduate degree from North Carolina State University and his law degree from the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill).
Bruni, who also attended UNC Chapel Hill, lists the many rising stars of the 2016 political cycle who emerged from less-than-Ivy educations: Republicans Nikki Haley, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker (who didn't complete his degree at Marquette University), as well as Democrats Martin O'Malley, Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Cuomo.
Christie, the New Jersey governor and GOP presidential hopeful, shares with Bruni the perception that there is a greater tendency to mention the Ivy League pedigrees of some politicians than to note the Ivy-less pedigrees of others.
"It's interesting," Christie says, "because our oldest son goes to Princeton, and I remember when he was applying, he said, 'If I get in, do you want me to go? I said, 'Sure.' He said, "But you went to Delaware and turned out OK.' I said, 'You're absolutely right, but I had to work a lot harder.' That's the difference. There's this assumption that if you went to Princeton, you're smarter than the next guy."
Bruni doesn't seem to buy it. He lists the legions of Ivy-less political consultants who made it big: Democrats Donna Brazile, Maggie Williams, Jim Messina, and David Plouffe, as well as Republicans Karl Rove and Steve Schmidt.
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Both Plouffe and Schmidt left Delaware without diplomas. Plouffe managed Obama's 2008 campaign, and Schmidt was a senior strategist for Obama's GOP rival, John McCain.
"I don't think there's a tremendous amount of people at the top level of running campaigns who have Ivy League degrees," Schmidt says. Bruni asks him for theories why.
"I think part of the reason is that campaign politics is a rough business, a tough business emotionally," Schmidt says. "I think it carries a fair degree of common sense and a blending of emotional intelligence and IQ intelligence, which isn't necessarily a virtue of the people coming out of the most elite universities, if you were to make generalizations or stereotypes."
Bruni and I covered the 2000 presidential campaign together and I consider him a casual friend. So I am biased. But I also know a valuable and well-reported book when I read one. He makes concrete research come to life via heartfelt interviews with anxious parents and their children. Bruni is a writer's writer. Of the infernal college rankings, he charges: "They're an attention-getting, money-making enterprise for U.S. News, not an actual service to the college-bound. They don a somber gray suit of authority, but it's a hustler's threads."