John Kerry’s “Nose” and the Academic Transcript That Changed the Course of History

More from the “Cleopatra’s Nose” Department of Historical Causation: 

Having recently read Gary Hart opine about how American history could have turned out differently if only he had been less smitten with Donna Rice’s “nose,” I was interested to read Gail Collins in today’s New York Times offering an interesting theory about how recent American history may have been influenced by a “nose” – that is to say, a historically contingent factor -- of a  different sort. 

In discussing the fact that future presidential candidate, Wisconsin Governor, Scott Walker, never finished his degree at Marquette University, Collins writes:

“Apparently, Walker was a mediocre student. By the way, how much do we care about presidential prospects’ college grades? Not much — these are middle-aged people, for heaven’s sake. Actually, we just need to be sure that if the grades were bad, the candidate has gotten over it.”

“John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004 was hobbled by outrageous attacks on his war record, which Kerry might have been able to bury by releasing all his Navy records. He wouldn’t, until long after the race was over. Then reporters discovered that everything about his military career was exactly as Kerry had portrayed it. The only news was in his college transcript, which was included in the file and pretty dismal.”

“I’ve always wondered if the entire course of modern American history would have turned out different if John Kerry had not wanted to conceal the fact that his academic performance at Yale was worse than George W. Bush’s.”

As far as historical lessons go, Collins’s observation certainly underscores the perils of heeding the imperatives of ego maintenance. In obscuring his military record in order to protect his academic record, Kerry clearly got his priorities wrong. 

Indeed, he seems to have bitten off his “nose” to spite his face.

That said, had he opened up his files and revealed his mediocre academic performance, other questions would have been raised about his competence for presidential service.

So perhaps either way, the course of history might have been inevitable -- a Bush reelection.

Then, again, some of us remember the battle of Ohio from that fateful election night.  There’s probably a whole slew of counterfactuals to be found there…..