Favorite College Clubs of U.S. Presidents
Presidents are the closest thing we have to American royalty, so it’s really hard to imagine them ever being just another guy hanging out in the quad. But that’s exactly what many of them were (although some skipped university and probably some went to schools without quads). And apparently there’s something about being an American president that attracted men who participated in a lot of the same activities, organizations, and clubs in their time at college. So, what the heck, why not try one of these groups out for a semester? Maybe you’ll end up the next Lincoln.
Far and away, the most popular future president activity in college was hanging with the bros at the frat house. How popular, you ask? The number of presidents in the last 190 years who weren’t in a fraternity can be counted on one three-fingered hand. Rutherford B. Hayes, Teddy Roosevelt, both the Bushes, and Gerald Ford found a home at Delta Kappa Epsilon, giving it the claim to the most White House occupant alums. Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover enjoyed their time in Alpha Delta Gamma and Kappa Alpha so much that they tried to recreate that feeling of brotherhood many years later with the Presidents Club, which was exactly what it sounds like.
American presidents have a great history of athletic achievement in sports, or as Mitt Romney would call them, “sport.” Nixon, Eisenhower, Reagan, and Ford all played on their varsity football teams, with the latter being a star center and linebacker who had offers from multiple pro teams upon graduating. Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush got their exercise on the baseball diamond, while noted outdoors enthusiast Teddy Roosevelt boxed at Harvard. Our sitting president played basketball at Occidental, although the exact details are murky and the footage we do have will not lead anyone to confuse him with Carmelo Anthony.
It’s interesting to note that as debates have become the Super Bowl matchups of presidential races, American politics condensed down into 90-minute hot-button squabbles for mass consumption on primetime TV, the presence of former college debaters in the Oval Office has dropped off the map. Presidents as far back as James K. Polk (1845-1849) enjoyed a good verbal skirmish and joined dialectic societies and debate clubs, while others like William McKinley took up causes like abolitionism as the subject of their tete-a-tetes in an unofficial capacity. The last president to have joined a debate club was surprisingly LBJ, who famously refused to debate his presidential candidacy opponent Barry Goldwater in 1964.
Literary societies and newspapers:
At least a dozen of our former fearless leaders were literary men in their university days, joining literary clubs or writing for school and outside publications, and often both. Harding entered Ohio Central College at just 14 years old and made a name for himself as the campus paper editor. Wilson, both Roosevelts, LBJ, and Reagan were all editors on their school papers and/or yearbooks, as well. As Whittier College had no fraternities, its men had a literary society (known as the Franklins). Upon being snubbed by its elitist members, young Richard Nixon launched his own club, the Orthogonian Society. Many years before him, James Buchanan and Franklin Peirce had had ripping good times with their fellow chaps discussing literature.
It was not uncommon for commanders in chief to have been relative unknowns in college who never gave any hint of a talent for politicking. On the other hand, a solid number left no doubt wherever they went on campus that they were destined for Washington. Some, like LBJ and Herbert Hoover, made their mark in student government, while Bill Clinton was the president of his freshmen and sophomore classes. Others joined party-specific groups, like Coolidge and the Republican Club and Wilson in the Whig club. Ever the rousing performer, Ronald Reagan once gave a speech as president of the student council that prompted the school president to resign and the administration to restore classes cut due to the Depression.
The counterargument to the belief that cheerleading is “girly” is that male cheerleaders spend much of their time getting up close and personal with female cheerleaders. But even that is probably not what attracted five future leaders of the free world to the activity, because the cheerleading of bygone days was primarily a male thing to do. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan, and both George H.W. and George W. Bush all paced the sidelines of college football games yelling at fans through megaphones to root for the home team. Bush the Second in particular is said to have been a particularly feisty pep rallier, as he was once thrown out of a basketball game for mixing it up with the ref.
This might seem like the same thing as a fraternity, except in several cases these “social” clubs were in fact secret clubs (cue the ominous music). Four tenants of 1600 Pennsylvania spent years within the mysterious walls of the infamous Skull and Bones Society at Yale University, as well as one or two who tried and failed to become president. Although he wasn’t an Ivy Leaguer, Bill Clinton found his way into the Order of DeMolay at Georgetown, a society modeled after Freemasonry (a secret group that boasts its own class of conspiracies). And though none of them were hush-hush, Teddy Roosevelt charmed his way into basically every social club Harvard had to offer.
Glee and drama:
Hard to imagine a president ever doing something like this. Thankfully, glee clubs were not nearly as asinine back in the day; they were dignified choir groups for gentlemen singers in tuxedos. Which explains how someone as somber looking as Woodrow Wilson found them enjoyable enough to participate in them at both the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins University. Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt were both gleeks at Harvard, where a young man by the name John F. Kennedy, Jr. would one day produce the “Freshman Smoker” production. And of course, it’s no shock to hear future Hollywood star Ronald Reagan was a drama club fixture at Eureka College in Illinois.