Yale grads Kerry, Bush share bond of secrecy
By Bob Dart, Palm Beach Post-Cox News Service
Monday, March 8, 2004
WASHINGTON -- In the spring semester of their junior years at Yale University, John Kerry and George W. Bush were tapped on the shoulder and abruptly asked: "Skull and Bones, accept or reject?"
Both answered, "Accept."
Kerry was initiated into this most famous and mysterious of Yale's secret societies in 1965. Bush entered Skull and Bones in 1967, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. Thus was set up the first presidential election between Bonesmen nearly four decades hence.
This development was perhaps inevitable. For generations, 15 Yale seniors -- frequently future leaders of government, business, media, arts and other professions -- have gathered in secrecy in the Tomb, the windowless home of their select society on the Yale campus.
Often after graduation, their bonds have strengthened inside a Bones network entwined throughout American culture.
"The only agenda of Skull and Bones is to get its members into positions of power and then to have those members hire others to positions of prominence. The organization has an enormous superiority complex that partly fuels their secrecy," said Alexandra Robbins, author of Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power.
"I think the problem here is that, frankly, I don't believe that the people who represent our country, especially the president of the United States, should be allowed to have an allegiance to any secret group. Secrecy overshadows democracy," said Robbins, a 1998 Yale graduate who belonged to Scroll and Key, another secret society.
"They stopped talking to me after my book was published," she said, describing the spirit of secrecy that still permeates the societies.
Such secrets seem safe with Bush and Kerry, the likely Democratic nominee for president.
In separate episodes of the NBC program Meet the Press, host Tim Russert asked Bush and Kerry about their memberships in Skull and Bones.
"It's so secret we can't talk about it," answered the president.
"I wish there were something secret I could manifest there," Kerry, a senator from Massachusetts, replied warily when Russert asked if he would divulge rituals of the Tomb.
"What's so staggering about the fact that both presidential candidates are members of Skull and Bones is that this is a tiny organization with perhaps only 800 living members," said Robbins. "This isn't an organization in which a member can simply get an interview at some Joe Schmo law firm. This is an organization where members can call up presidents, Supreme Court justices, and Cabinet members, and ask for jobs, power, money, or connections."
In researching her book, Robbins interviewed more than 100 members of Skull and Bones. She inquired about which candidate the secret society would rather have in the White House.
"I asked many Bonesmen that question," she recalled. "The sincere answer to me was, 'We don't care -- it's a win-win situation.' "
Of course, Bush and Kerry are only the latest Bonesmen to star on the national stage. President George H.W. Bush, the incumbent's father, was also a member of Skull and Bones, as were former President William Howard Taft; former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart; former Sens. Prescott Bush, David Boren, James Buckley, John Heinz and John Chafee; Time magazine founder Henry Luce; writers Archibald MacLeish, John Hersey, William F. Buckley Jr. and his son, Christopher Buckley; historian David McCullough; Washington power brokers Averell Harriman and McGeorge Bundy; anti-Vietnam War activist the Rev. William Sloane Coffin: Morgan Stanley founder Harold Stanley, and a wealth of other well-connected notables.
"I think Skull and Bones has had slightly more success than the Mafia in the sense that the leaders of the five families are all doing 100 years in jail, and the leaders of the Skull and Bones families are doing four and eight years in the White House," author and Yale graduate Ron Rosenbaum said on the CBS News program 60 Minutes.
Ritual and reverence
With roots stretching to 1832, Skull and Bones is the oldest of Yale's secret senior societies. There are others, however, that also meet on Thursday and Sunday evenings in their own "Tombs." Among them are Scroll and Key, Book and Snake, Wolf's Head and Berzelius.
Each chooses 15 or 16 new juniors as members on "tap night" in April. As seniors, they will spend countless hours together in their Tombs and form lifelong relationships. With varying input from alumni, each class chooses -- "taps" -- its successors.
In Secrets of the Tomb, Robbins revealed much of the ritual and reverence of Skull and Bones:
New members are assigned secret names. Some are traditional: "Long Devil" is the tallest member. "Boaz" (for Beelzebub) goes to a varsity football captain. The new member with the least sexual experience is dubbed "Gog." The most sexually experienced member becomes "Magog."
The elder George Bush was nicknamed "Magog," Robbins reported. George W. Bush was called "Temporary" because he was not assigned a name and didn't choose one. The author didn't know Kerry's secret name but "Long Devil" might be a good bet.
Kerry's Bonesman class of 1966 included Alan Cross, now a physician and director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Federal Express founder Fredrick W. Smith; and William Warren Pershing, grandson of Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, an infantry officer who died in Vietnam.
Among Bush's diverse group of Bonesmen, who graduated in 1968, were Olympic gold medalist Don Schollander; future Harvard Medical School surgeon Gregory Gallico; Jordanian Muhammed Saleh; Donald Etra, an Orthodox Jew; and Roy Austin, then African-American captain of Yale's soccer team and now U.S. ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago.
As president, George W. Bush has appointed other Bonesmen to his administration, including Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman William H. Donaldson and Assistant Attorney General Robert McCallum.
Most of Yale's secret societies set aside long sessions in which members tell their life stories in deep, intimate detail.
The lore of Skull and Bones, which began accepting women members in 1992, describes additional meetings in which each member gives explicit accounts of his or her sexual history. This is known as a "CB" or "Connubial Bliss" account.
"There was nothing perverse or surreal or prurient -- just an open exchange," a Bonesman told Robbins.
Alumni gather annually
Skull and Bones is a "dry" society. No alcohol is consumed inside its Tomb. Members dine together at 6:30 p.m. on Thursdays and Sundays in the Firefly Room, where light comes through fixtures shaped like skulls and beverages are served in skull-shaped cups.
There are also plenty of actual skulls and bones, both human and animal, inside the Skull and Bones Tomb. Initiation puts new members in coffins.
"The preoccupation with bones, mortality, with coffins, lying in coffins, standing around coffins, all this sort of thing I think is designed to give them the sense that, and it's very true, life is short," said Rosenbaum. "You can spend it, if you have a privileged background, enjoying yourself, contributing nothing, or you can spend it making a contribution."
During their senior years, members often hang out in the Tombs, which are closed to outsiders. The Skull and Bones building is described as more comfortable than plush, and the society is financed through an endowment and contributions by alumni. There are no dues.
Meetings are held behind a locked iron door in the Inner Temple, or Room 322. The number is hallowed in Skull and Bones history. In its beginnings, the society was known as the Eulogian Club and honored Eulogia, the goddess of eloquence. She "took her place in the pantheon upon the death of the orator Demosthenes in 322 B.C.," reported Robbins.
Inside their tomb, Bonesman refer to outsiders as "barbarians."
Alumni are expected to return to the Tomb for events. And members from over the years gather at least annually on Deer Island, which is owned by Skull and Bones and located just north of Alexandria Bay, N.Y.
"Bones likes to bring back its prominent alumni, especially, because the visits remind younger members of the illustrious footsteps in which they are expected to follow," said Robbins, "and that the bizarre traditions in which they participate are traditions that famous men have been following for nearly 200 years."