U.S. President George W.Bush made light of his mediocre grades and reputation for partying when he returned to his alma mater Yale University on Monday to accept an honorary degree to a blend of applause and boos.
Some students booed and waved signs criticizing Bush's policies on the environment, the death penalty and abortion and about 200 professors boycotted the commencement as he received a doctor of laws degree, but the atmosphere at the ceremony was largely good-natured as students celebrated their graduation.
Dressed in a flowing blue academic robe, the Republican president said he was honored to receive the degree and spoke with nostalgia and humor of his time at Yale, an elite, 300-year-old private university from which he kept his distance as he campaigned for Texas governor and for president.
"To those of you who received honors, awards and distinctions, I say, well done. And to the "C" students, I say: you too can be president," Bush said to a roar of laughter from the more than 2,000 graduates and their families who thronged Yale's vast Old Campus quadrangle on a cool and cloudy day.
Bush also gently twitted his vice president, Dick Cheney, who attended Yale but dropped out without getting his degree.
"A Yale degree is worth a lot, as I often remind Dick Cheney," Bush said. "If you graduate from Yale, you become president. If you drop out, you get to be vice president."
At the ceremony, students unfurled long banners that said "Execute justice, not people," and "Stop Global AIDS" and held hand-written signs reading "Reproductive Rights: Make Yale Proud" and "We earned our degrees. Don't cheapen our degrees."
More than 200 professors signed a statement criticizing many of the same policies and vowing to boycott the ceremony.
But the protests were peaceful and the atmosphere generally upbeat, with applause louder than the boos. At one point students, joined by professors and by White House chief of staff Andrew Card, "did the wave" by swaying back and forth.
The visit marks a homecoming for Bush, who was born in New Haven when his father, former President George Bush, was a student at Yale. The president's daughter, Barbara, has just completed her first year at the university.
The scion of an East Coast family that moved to Texas, Bush chose to stress his boyhood in the West Texas town of Midland as he ran for Texas governor and for president rather than his establishment pedigree that stretches back to his grandfather, Prescott Bush, another Yale graduate and former U.S. senator.
For years Bush has kept his distance from Yale, visiting only once since he graduated to take his wife Laura on a tour, White House aides said.
"This is my first time back here in quite a while. I'm sure that each of you will make your own journey back at least a few times in your life. If you're like me, you won't remember everything you did here," Bush told the students, prompting laughter. "That can be a good thing."
The visit also reflects a rapprochement between Yale and Bush, who is said to have been irked the university took until 1991 to bestow an honorary degree on his father.
Yale University President Richard Levin praised the entire family as he bestowed the honorary degree on Bush, noting that his father and grandfather had devoted themselves to public service and had received the same honor from the university.
Bush urged the students at Yale, where tuition, room and board will cost $34,030 next year, to consider public service in their own careers and he spoke a touch wistfully about his years in college and the course his life has taken since then.
"When I left here, I didn't have much in the way of a life plan. I knew some people who thought they did. But it turned out that we were all in for ups and downs, most of them unexpected," Bush said.
"Yale for me is a source of great pride," he added. "I hope that there will come a time for you to return to Yale and to say that, and feel as I do today. And I hope you won't wait as long."
Bush was among a dozen people to receive honorary degrees, including former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and actor Sam Waterston.