Sarah Vowell: Biden and a new leadership of public college graduates

Since the Harvard-Yale game that was the 1988 general election, all U.S. presidents, including the Wharton School graduate currently occupying the White House, have been Ivy League alumni. President Gerald Ford (University of Michigan, ’35) often ditched “Hail to the Chief” as his walk-on music and replaced it with his college fight song, but he never won the Electoral College, having assumed the Oval Office after Richard Nixon resigned.

So if Joe Biden (University of Delaware, ’65) prevails in November, he will be the first graduate of an American public university to be elected president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Technically, the University of Delaware bills itself as “private-public” because of an arcane corporate charter. Yet it is a state-funded land-grant college charging out-of-state students about $11,000 more in tuition than residents, and it was defined as public by the court that ordered it to desegregate in the 1950s. So we state school alumni will be claiming Mr. Biden’s potential victory as our own. And just as L.B.J. had a fellow state schooler on the ticket in Vice President Hubert Humphrey (University of Minnesota, ’39), Mr. Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, is a Howard alum who also graduated from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

A flashback in Richard Ben Cramer’s book “What It Takes” found Mr. Biden, as a young father and Senator, holding court in a Delaware backyard pontificating on college to other parents: “‘There’s a river of power that flows through this country … And that river,’ Joe said, ‘flows from the Ivy League.’”

That’s a jarring theory if you live in a time zone like mine, where the most “prestigious” institution of higher learning is arguably the Colorado School of Mines. What I know right now, in this year of calamities, of burials, killing, isolation and impeachment trial, is that so many of the elected officials who have stepped into the void of presidential leadership are the graduates of public universities. And there are enough of them that we should acknowledge this moment of culmination.

Resourceful governors who bucked federal negligence include the Democrats Michelle Lujan Grisham (University of New Mexico, ’81); Jay Inslee (University of Washington, ’73); and the dauntless “woman from Michigan,” Gretchen Whitmer (Michigan State, ’93), who thinks like a general, looks like a ’40s film star and talks like she’s ice fishing for muskie. And the Republicans Larry Hogan of Maryland (Florida State, ’78) and Mike DeWine of Ohio (Miami University, ’69) — whose June approval rating among Democrats was 81 percent.

The democratic public university atmosphere lends itself to producing grounded, empathetic public servants. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta (Florida A&M, ’91) told a country that will be forever haunted by a man who died calling for his mama, “When I saw the murder of George Floyd, I hurt like a mother would hurt.”

As Keith Ellison (Wayne State University, ’87), the Minnesota attorney general who is prosecuting the defendants in Mr. Floyd’s case, described his alma mater in his memoir: “A lot of students who attended worked jobs or were returning to school after a long layoff. Probably most came to college straight out of high school, like me, but a significant number were working parents.”

Val Demings, a House impeachment manager, put herself through Florida State working at McDonalds. Waitressing, along with Pell grants, got Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois through the University of Hawaii. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts arrived at Rutgers Law School in 1973 as a young mother who had never met a lawyer, eventually becoming the only public law school graduate who was a tenured professor at Harvard Law, where the river of power tends to be more of a moat.

The inherent civic value of public universities in this quarreling country of strangers is ideological diversity. For instance, like my Republican senator Steve Daines, I graduated from Montana State University, and I think it speaks well of the healthy variety of political views that are represented on that campus that I very much hope he will have a lot more time to ski next year.

Public universities are one of two major American institutions, the other being the U.S. military, where large quantities of random adults are thrown together and made to coexist for years on end: the budget-minded, the lightly parented, the formerly incarcerated, the downsized, the underestimated, veterans, refugees, late bloomers, single moms, divorced dads, Bible thumpers, empty nesters, your swankier hicks, Mormons who didn’t get into Brigham Young University and a hodgepodge of souls who are working toward what is incidentally at the heart of every election: a fair chance at a decent life.

Could this groundswell of state schoolers in power be the legacy of the last one elected president 56 years ago? If so, I tracked down a 74-year-old witness.

On Nov. 8, 1965, Light Cummins was a 19-year-old education major at Southwest Texas State College in San Marcos, now named Texas State University. He lent a hand carrying a desk to the Strahan Gymnasium on which President Lyndon Johnson, the college’s most famous alumnus, signed into law the Higher Education Act of 1965. The landmark legislation provided colleges funds for teachers, equipment and libraries, and offered needy students Pell grants, loans and jobs in the work-study program.

“This is a proud moment in my life,” Mr. Johnson said that day. “I am proud to have a part in the beginning that this bill provides, because here a great deal began for me some 38 years ago on this campus.” He reminisced: “I worked at a dozen different jobs, from sweeping the floors to selling real silk socks. Sometimes I wondered what the next day would bring that could exceed the hardship of the day before. But with all of that, I was one of the lucky ones — and I knew it even then.” He urged the students and faculty before him, “You should carry the memory and the meaning of this moment with you throughout your life.”

Light Cummins has. A former official Texas state historian, he takes “great pride in having moved that desk. That allowed me to tangibly touch what I feel is one of the most important moments in the history of higher education in the United States.” He marveled, “I do not believe there has ever been a piece of legislation to my knowledge that was so explicitly motivated by the educational upbringing that a president received as a student.”

If there is still a river of power, in 1965 Lyndon Johnson started digging a canal. And only now can we begin to measure how deep and wide it is. When Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, endorsed Mr. Biden before the South Carolina primary, he said that “Joe knows us.” But for the come-as-you-are club of public university graduates, including Mr. Clyburn (South Carolina State, ’61), Mr. Biden is us. And if he is the first of our kind to be elected president for the first time in nearly six decades, we expect him to grab a shovel and keep on digging. Having an education secretary who actually believes in public education would be a good place to start.

(Photo by Owen Brooker) Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell, a contributing New York Times Opinion writer, is the author of “The Wordy Shipmates” and “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.”