NEW HAVEN

Around here, it does not go unnoticed that the presidential race will probably feature two graduates of Yale University. Lately, in fact, there has been much talk of the many Elis who have competed in this year's Democratic primaries -- not just the current front-runner, Sen. John F. Kerry (class of 1966), but also Sen. Joseph Lieberman ('64) and Howard Dean ('71). On the Republican side, meanwhile, George W. Bush ('68) will be running with Vice President Dick Cheney, who logged time at Yale a few years earlier, albeit without graduating.

The preponderance of Yale-educated presidential aspirants isn't wholly surprising. The school has long seen its mission as not just educating young minds but training future leaders. What is notable is that during the decade in which Bush and Kerry attended Yale -- the 1960s -- both the university and American society underwent a transition from a largely class-based system of social rewards to something closer to a meritocracy. How Bush and Kerry, themselves transitional figures, navigated this world in flux casts light both on them and on our own ambivalent attitude toward the role that privilege should play in national politics.

For much of the Ivy League's history, students at elite colleges such as Yale were united less by intellectual distinction than by social standing. Family name, a preparatory school education and a WASP profile defined the average Ivy Leaguer more than brainpower, community service, or proficiency in music or the arts.

Despite its classism, though, Yale could still claim to be tutoring America's future leaders. After all, in the first half of the 20th century, wealth and breeding constituted real credentials for assuming public roles. Truman secretary of state Dean Acheson, banker-diplomat William Averell Harriman and Time magazine founder Henry Luce fulfilled Yale's promise to groom young bluebloods for national influence.

After World War II, however, as the GI Bill helped ordinary people pay for college and as the children of immigrants sought to establish themselves, American society began to grow more meritocratic. To maintain its claim of fostering leaders -- not to mention its rank as an educational and research center -- Yale had to bend with the times. By the 1950s, the prestige of the highborn on campus was starting to erode. "Most of us, I think, got the feeling," writer Calvin Trillin, class of 1957, once noted, "that a lot of the rich Eastern people were at Yale because of some entitlement of family or class or money and that we [the rest of us] were there because, in ways perhaps not immediately apparent, we somehow deserved to be." In 1963, for the first time, Yale admitted as many high school as prep school students. Eventually Andover and Groton graduates would be viewed on campus as an almost exotic species.

The year 1963 also mattered at Yale because the university's then-provost, a law professor with the supremely aristocratic name of Kingman Brewster, became its president. According to Geoffrey Kabaservice, author of "The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment," Brewster raised academic standards and admitted students regardless of their ability to pay. His administration ended informal quotas for Jews, recruited minorities and pursued applicants with a range of talents. In 1969, women were enrolled for the first time.

The Yale into which Kerry and Bush matriculated was thus a college in transition -- on a more rarefied plane, to be sure, than the rest of America, but undergoing similar shifts. The old ruling class was relinquishing its claims to authority, and young would-be leaders such as Bush and Kerry had to learn how to dodge the new liabilities of an elite breeding while still exploiting the opportunities it afforded.

George W. Bush, who came to Yale in 1964, represented a classic old Yale type. His paternal grandfather, former Connecticut senator Prescott Bush, was a partner in the Wall Street investment house Brown Brothers Harriman and a Yale trustee. Prescott's son, the future president George H.W. Bush, had struggled to escape his father's long shadow by striking out on his own in the Texas oil business. But if Texas took the Bushes out of Connecticut, it couldn't take the Connecticut out of the Bushes. As president, the elder George ate pork rinds yet quaffed Chablis. The tension between his genteel upbringing and the exigencies of playing the regular guy saddled him with a perennially beleaguered aura.

The younger George, born in New Haven but raised in Texas, took to the Southwest's conservative populism more naturally than his father. Still, W. didn't turn his back on his birthright. Like his father, he went to Phillips Academy Andover for high school. But the college he entered wasn't his father's Yale. He shared little with the academic achievers and antiwar activists. "What angered me was the way such people at Yale felt so intellectually superior and so righteous," he later said, according to biographers. Despite his political lineage, Bush did not seek a role as a campus leader, retreating instead into devil-may-care nonchalance. The presidency he attained was that of his fraternity, where, despite widening civil rights and antiwar protests, he was happily AWOL from the cultural wars. "We were young men trying to enjoy what should have been the last carefree days of youth," he wrote in his autobiography.

Bush kept up a "gentleman's C" average just as the very notion was becoming obsolete, and he rode out the last days of Yale's white-shoe aristocracy with fraternity pranks, back-slapping and intramural sports. By most accounts young George wasn't planning a political career back then, but the identity he fashioned would serve him well. The younger Bush was the patrician as populist, coming home to New Haven to be one of the guys.

Kerry's pedigree was slightly less genteel than his schoolmate's. His paternal grandfather, Fritz Kohn, was a Jewish immigrant and self-made man in the shoe business who took the last name Kerry in 1902. But Fritz's son Richard parlayed his father's success into a State Department career; he married a woman, Rosemary Forbes, who was descended from Brahmin families. John didn't grow up as rich as the Bushes, but he attended Swiss boarding schools and later St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H.

At Yale, Kerry, like Bush, struggled to navigate a society in transition. The young Kerry, according to classmates quoted in profiles of him, possessed a reserve that has hampered his political efforts. Determined, earnest and too maladroit to hide his ambition, he seemed to take Yale's calls to leadership a bit too seriously -- unable to grasp that he had to temper his air of high purpose with levity and self-deprecation.

In contrast to Bush, Kerry found in undergraduate political activity a way to connect with the increasingly diverse student body. He won election as chairman of Yale's Liberal Party and president of the Political Union, the college's largest undergraduate group. A prize-winning debater, he spoke at one of the ceremonies on his graduation weekend. If Bush was the patrician as populist, Kerry was the aristocrat as democrat, doggedly seeking the respect of his peers.

For all their efforts to integrate into the student body, neither Bush nor Kerry could resist the lure of Skull and Bones -- the famously secretive, windowless club for 15 seniors. Today, except for conspiracy buffs, the secret societies have lost their mystique. But in the '60s Bones still offered the old Establishment a way to feel anointed when other recognition was fading. That both men signed up suggests an attachment to the trappings of privilege, even as they accommodated to a new milieu.

Nearly four decades later, both men fumbled questions about Skull and Bones from "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert. Russert, giggling like a schoolboy talking about sex, pressed each candidate to divulge the secrets of the tomb: "Is there a secret handshake? Is there a secret code?" "I wish there were something secret I could manifest there," Kerry awkwardly intoned. Bush likewise ducked when his turn came: "It's so secret we can't talk about it." Their clumsiness spotlighted their embarrassment at still prizing, in an age of egalitarianism, an emblem of a bygone elitism.

In other ways, too, Bush and Kerry still labor to reconcile their upper-crust upbringing with a political culture that vaunts unpretentiousness. Kerry touts his Vietnam record not just to burnish his national security bona fides but because his service speaks to his capacity, beneath the aloof bearing, for a rapport with people from different walks of life. When he relates to veterans, Kerry's stiff gestures soften. His life story fuses the two sides of his personality: the Brahmin who heeded the noblesse oblige call to service but who in war forged friendships that transcended class.

Bush, for his part, succeeds by perpetuating a professed allergy to the atmosphere that prevailed when he attended Yale. His fraternity back-slapping has translated into unprecedented success as a fundraiser.

Family background still matters in America more than we would like to admit, as the political success of the Bush, Kennedy and Rockefeller scions attests. Privilege still grants access to schools such as Yale, and to their networks of opportunities. But to succeed as a blueblood now also requires proving your merit -- either dutifully earning the esteem of your peers, as Kerry did, or instinctively speaking to the needs of your cohort, as has Bush.

For all our egalitarianism, Americans like the narrative of the dauphin turned man of the people. We like our leaders' elite pedigrees as long as they are worn lightly.

But we remain alert to hints that populist gestures might be phony or that our candidates are out of touch. The pitfall awaiting both Yalies on the campaign trail is that they won't realize how severe inequality in America has grown, and how much it resonates as an issue. At least that's the hope of Kerry's last remaining rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. John Edwards (a North Carolina State University grad). Having risen high without the advantages of class, Edwards is outflanking Kerry in his populist appeals. Not incidentally, one of his more provocative proposals calls for universities to end admissions preferences for the children of their alumni.

Author's e-mail: dg107email@yahoo.com

David Greenberg is the author of "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image" (Norton). He teaches history and political science at Yale University.

What George W. Bush and John Kerry have in common: A Yale education and membership in the Yale secret society Skull and Bones, above right. Above, Bush smiles at his graduation in 1968. Below, Kerry greets then-Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey at the Yale Political Union.