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Meet the New Elite

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, November 2, 2005

With the nomination of Princeton and Yale Law grad Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, I'm beginning to sense a theme in the Bush administration's rocky second term: We are witnessing the rise of the Republican A students. The preppy frat boy is gradually assembling a government of GOP meritocrats.

Alito is as pedigreed a member of America's new aristocracy of brains as you could hope to find. After Princeton and Yale, he punched all the right tickets: circuit court clerk, assistant U.S. attorney, assistant to the solicitor general, Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department, U.S. attorney and then a spot as an appellate judge.

The president's new court nominee follows his supremely credentialed choice for chief justice. John G. Roberts was a grad of Harvard and Harvard Law, then made the grand tour of elite law jobs as a Supreme Court clerk, associate White House counsel and deputy solicitor general. What was striking during Roberts's confirmation process was that all of Washington's other A students, Republican and Democratic, seemed to know and like him.

You can argue that this is excellence by default, and that the president's first instincts were shown in the nomination of Harriet Miers. But Miers herself was no slouch in the resume department, with a trailblazing role as the first female president of the State Bar of Texas. In fact, the only job she arguably wasn't qualified for was the Supreme Court.

The confirmation fight over Alito is going to be ideological, but for the moment it's the sociology that interests me. Once upon a time, conservatives instinctively mistrusted the A students who had won all the merit badges. That sort of government-by-resume was a phenomenon of the old, patrician Democratic elite. They sailed out of Harvard and Yale and into government with the self-confidence born of good grades and a network of mentors. The Reagan Revolution was partly driven by indignation against that privileged caste. Now, nearly 25 years after Reagan took office, the patrician Democrats are in disarray and the pedigreed elite is Republican.

You can see the rise of Bush's A students in other recent nominations: His choice for Fed chairman was Ben Bernanke, a brilliant Princeton economist whose selection pleased even the Bushophobic Paul Krugman, a fellow Princeton professor. In choosing Bernanke, Bush went for the smart guy with the fancy resume in preference to more reliably conservative economists.

This elite tone is evident in Bush's appointments to senior administration positions, too. It's a little-noticed fact that the No. 2 spots at State, Defense and Treasury have gone to a triumvirate of like-minded men with elite backgrounds: Robert Zoellick at State graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Swarthmore and magna cum laude from Harvard Law; Gordon England at Defense studied electrical engineering at the non-Ivy University of Maryland, but his brains catapulted him to positions on the Defense Science Board and as executive vice president of General Dynamics; and Robert Kimmitt at Treasury was a West Point graduate who took a law degree at Georgetown and then served in a range of top government and corporate positions. I'm told that this troika has functioned unusually smoothly in meetings of National Security Council deputies this year, helping put a badly bruised NSC process back in good working order.

The dominant personality in the Bush Cabinet is the ultimate meritocrat, Condoleezza Rice, a black woman from Alabama who rose to the top of American life in an A student's bubble that kept her from the harsher realities of race. Joining Rice as a key decision maker is John Negroponte, a graduate of Yale and former ambassador to everywhere -- a man who at one point was even chairman of the French-American Foundation.

President Bush -- despite his own Andover and Yale pedigree -- still does a surprisingly good job of sounding like an outsider. (Am I crazy, or does he speak with more of a Texas accent today than when he took office?) But when you look at the people he has nominated for key posts, it's the GOP nomenklatura . This particular group is lopsidedly white and male and, like most collections of meritocrats, too little shaped by the hardscrabble America that politicians like to celebrate. But they will give Bush some bottom and balance in his second term.

The larger point is we are living in the post-Reagan era. The outsiders of old are insiders; the conservatives are credentialed and networked. It has fallen to George W. Bush, the combative underachiever, to create a second-term government of the best and brightest, GOP-style. The problem for the Republicans is that, now that they're the elite, who are they going to denounce for elitism?

davidignatius@washpost.com

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