Occidental College professor and Clinton administration official Derek Shearer is teaching a course on the man whose election ended his government service: President George W. Bush.
In "Topics in Foreign Policy — The Bush Administration," Shearer's focus on Bush is highly personal — but not in the way one might expect from a vanquished political foe. It turns out that Shearer, a former ambassador to Finland and one of Bill Clinton's dearest FOBs, as in Friends of Bill, is also a Friend of Bush. Sort of.
Shearer and Bush were Yale classmates who lived across the hall from each other as freshmen. "We weren't friends, but we were friendly," Shearer said.
Shearer saw enough of Bush at Yale and in a few meetings over the years to glimpse qualities that would later surface in his presidency, he said. In his weekly course, Shearer tries to use that knowledge to push students beyond superficial images when analyzing the president and his policies.
Shearer said that in college Bush exhibited the people skills that made him "come across as a more likable, trustworthy person" than Sen. John F. Kerry in this year's campaign. He also showed "a strong sense of what he believed to be good and bad," which Shearer thinks is evident in Bush's leadership style.
"What I try to get students to see is that he has a very clear view of the world. He is in control. The non-thinking liberal critique of him is [that] he is manipulated by neocons [in the Cabinet]," said Shearer, a professor in the interdisciplinary diplomacy and world affairs program.
Such comments may be surprising from someone who was a target of heavy conservative criticism when he was appointed by President Clinton to a top Commerce Department post and later as an ambassador. Shearer was described on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal as "miles to the left of the Democratic mainstream."
A professor at Occidental since 1981, Shearer took leave from the campus to serve in the Clinton administration. He also had been a key figure in what both critics and friends recalled as the "People's Republic of Santa Monica," when that city was renowned for its liberal policies. His ex-wife, Ruth Goldway, was mayor of Santa Monica in the 1980s; he was a planning commissioner.
But now, his teaching approach wins praise from students across the political spectrum. Several of the 32 students in Shearer's class are Bush-backing Republicans who say that Shearer is evenhanded in his discussions about the current president.
"I never feel he imposes his views on the class," said Ionut Popescu, 20, a diplomacy and world affairs major from Dargovisde, Romania. "With some professors, you can feel they have a certain disdain if you are a neocon or you like Bush. I'm a conservative, I feel it, but not in this class," he said.
In fact, Shearer has challenged students who might criticize Bush unfairly. Jane Berskson Platt, 21, a politics major from Portland, Ore., recalled that happened recently when she said in class that Bush voters were "motivated by fear and hate." After some discussion prompted by Shearer, Platt concluded that fear and hate were unfair characterizations of legitimate viewpoints.
Bradley Basham, 21, a studio art major from Portland, said the course has broadened his view of Bush. "I hate him less personally now. I just hate his policies," he said.
During a recent class, Popescu was among a group of students who argued that the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was beneficial, as other students called the policy a failure. Shearer guided the debate with questions, not taking a side but making sure that students stayed on point. The day's topic was the difference between preemptive war — one meant to ward off an imminent attack — and preventive war, one waged to prevent a looming threat that might be heavily disputed.
Shearer builds the course, which he has taught for three years, around such discussions, along with frequent guests familiar with foreign policy decision-making. Speakers have included authors of books assigned in class. Brookings Institution scholar Ivo Daalder, who wrote an acclaimed study of Bush's foreign policy, has addressed the class, and former Los Angeles Times reporter James Mann, author of a book on Bush's war Cabinet that is used as a text in the class, is scheduled to visit.
Shearer also has brought in other Yale classmates. Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration, has twice visited (Talbott is married to Shearer's sister). Steven Weisman, chief diplomatic correspondent of the New York Times, spoke to the class about divisions in the Bush Cabinet.
Though they lived across the hall from each other, Shearer and Bush traveled in different circles at Yale. Shearer was a political activist and the equivalent of Yale's student body president. Bush had little interest in politics, focusing much of his attention on his fraternity.
But Shearer's friends said he shared with Bush a dedication to networking and maintaining friendships. Weisman knew Shearer as a teenager in Los Angeles, though they went to different schools. Shearer "had more friends at my high school than the average person had at my school," said Beverly Hills High School alumnus Weisman of his Culver City High School friend.
Though their paths remained separated by different political affiliations and aspirations, Shearer met with Bush in 1997, when Bush was governor of Texas. Shearer was speaking at the University of Texas, and Bush asked him to stop by for a chat.
Shearer, who was then ambassador to Finland, invited Bush to Helsinki. But Shearer said Bush told him that such a foreign trip would fuel the speculation that he was considering a presidential run.
When Shearer's 21-year-old son died suddenly in 2000, Bush took time from his campaigning to write to Shearer. Shearer in turn sent Bush a collection of his son's sportswriting.
The classmates saw each other again in 2003, when Bush invited their entire Yale class to the White House for a reunion dinner.
This year, Shearer worked on the Kerry campaign and the unsuccessful U.S. Senate run of Alaska Democrat Tony Knowles, another member of the Yale class of '68. Though the election didn't turn out the way Shearer had hoped, he would like to turn it into an opportunity for his students.
Three years ago, when his course focused on Clinton's foreign policy, Clinton visited the class. Shearer hopes that Bush will match his predecessor's generosity.
"Since my classmate has been reelected, I plan to ask him to speak," Shearer said. "I will tell him that now he can come and set the students straight on his foreign policy."
There are currently 1 users browsing this thread. (0 members and 1 guests)