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A Princeton Degree For a Yalie: George H.W. Bush Visits Princeton, 1991

On May 10, 1991, President George H.W. Bush came to Princeton’s campus to receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree and dedicate the University’s Social Science Complex. This $20 million dollar project included the newly constructed Bendheim and Fisher Halls, as well as a renovation of Corwin Hall. This Reel Mudd blog post includes video of both of these events, along with other scenes related to the President’s visit.

President Bush’s visit was notable for several reasons. This ceremony was Bush’s first appearance outside of Washington DC after suffering atrial fibrillation while jogging at Camp David. In addition, Bush’s speech (beginning at 00:50:26) was expected to be a major policy speech, though a report indicates that the president rewrote the address en route to Princeton in order to tone down direct attacks on Congress (Daily Princetonian, Volume 115, Number 65, 13 May 1991). While still peppered with criticism of Congress, the President’s talk was mainly a discussion of the Executive Branch’s policy making role compared to that of the Legislative, and Bush’s personal opposition to creating new bureaucracies. The speech is also peppered with humor about the Princeton/Yale rivalry and the President’s place within it (51:42), as well as Bush’s health(50:39), the Nude Olympics (51:22), John F. Kennedy (52:02), and the Princeton allegiances of Secretaries of State George Shultz ’42 and James Baker ‘52  (52:28).
Bush receives his honorary degree from President Shapiro *64.
Historical Photograph Collection, Individuals Series (AC067), Box MP2.

But, this ceremony was not without controversy, including the publication of an open letter signed by hundreds of students who objected to the awarding of honorary degrees to Bush and Secretary of State James Baker (Daily Princetonian, Volume 115, Number 64, 10 May 1991). Furthermore, a crowd of approximately 250 protestors, including the “George Bush Reception Committee” gathered during the visit to protest issues including the Persian Gulf War, Bush’s veto of the 1990 Civil Rights Act, Presidential treatment of HIV/AIDS victims, and the nature in which Bush’s degree was awarded.
Invitation to Bush’s speech (left) and flyer advertising the protest (right)
Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 309.
In fact, the awarding of Bush’s honorary degree was an unusual event. While US Presidents often receive honorary Princeton degrees, and Bush was the 17th President to receive this award, President Bush’s visit and degree granting occurred on May 10, several weeks before the traditional awarding of honorary degrees that occurs in conjunction with Commencement. This ceremony was especially extraordinary since Bush’s honorary Doctor of Laws was the first degree to be awarded outside of Commencement since Lyndon Johnson received his L.L.D. in 1966 (see, and the ceremony was also conducted in a closed-door gathering in the Faculty Room at Nassau Hall, instead of the usual grounds outside that building.
Anti-Bush Protestors. Historical Photograph
Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box SP9.
Aside from President Bush, several other notable individuals gathered to celebrate this occasion, including Governor James Florio and former Princeton Presidents Robert Goheen and William Bowen. The conferring of the degree included a variety of speeches from individuals including Edmund H. Carpenter II ’43 (00:07:15) and James A. Henderson ’56 (00:04:20), while the Dedication of the Corwin-Bendheim-Fischer Complex included speeches from among others Governor Florio (00:36:54), Dean of the Chapel Joseph C. Williamson (00:36:57), and President Harold Shapiro (00:39:43).
The film was originally broadcast on the C-TEC cable channel and hosted by Princeton’s Andrea Diehl (Assistant to the President) and Nick Morgan (Director of Development Communications). Lasting about an hour and twenty six minutes, it also includes scenes such as Bush’s arrival via Marine One (0:00:10), the conferring of the degree (0:08:45), the Presidential dedication speech at the Social Sciences Complex, and interviews with Representative Dick Zimmer (1:14:57), and Princeton Borough and Township mayors Marvin Reed and Richard Woodbridge  (1:19:14).
More information, along with photographs concerning Bush’s visit can be found in:

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