Skeletons in the closet

While at Yale University, both John Kerry and George Bush joined an elite secret society, the Order of Skull and Bones. How might their lifelong allegiance to the club affect their relationship - and political decisions? Suzanne Goldenberg tracks down other Bonesmen to find out

Suzanne Goldenberg

Thursday May 20, 2004

The Guardian

There is a secret that binds the two men who would be the next leader of the free world. President George W Bush and Senator John Kerry both spent a portion of their youth laying bare their sex lives in Gothic rituals presided over by a human skull and the skeletal remains of various other animal species in a windowless building known as the Tomb. They also formed an unusual attachment to the number 322, which holds a special resonance for the club's members.

Such college pastimes are not entirely unheard of among the American elite. For those in the know - pillars of government, business, media and academia - the occult rites, secret codes and nicknames are a marker of respectability: admission to the most exclusive club at the Ivy League preserve of Yale University, the Order of Skull and Bones. Those not in the know, dismissed as "barbarians" by the Bonesmen, have little chance of penetrating its mysteries. Bones membership lasts a lifetime, and alumni take a vow of secrecy.

But even those anointed few - those, for example, who could be trusted with the secret of President Bush's society nickname which was "Temporary", as he defied convention and failed to choose one - would be staggered at the odds of two Bonesmen turning up in a direct contest for the US presidency.

The society is open to only 15 students from the senior or graduating class of Yale each year, and it is believed there are fewer than 800 living members. That both Kerry and Bush will feature on the presidential ticket next November might be dismissed as weird coincidence, except for the fact that for generations the club's alumni have occupied positions of power and influence in America.

"Skull and Bones is probably the most successful elite network this country has. This is an organisation where members can call up presidents, supreme court judges and cabinet members, and ask for jobs, money and connections," says Alexandra Robbins, author of Secrets of the Tomb, an exposé of Yale's secret societies.

The rise of the Bonesmen has not gone uncharted. Conspiracy theorists have long insisted that the world is controlled by a shadowy network of Yale alumni, and the Kerry-Bush contest feeds directly into that fantasy. Some critics during this election season have demanded that Kerry and Bush renounce their old association, arguing that membership of a secret society is inimical to the presidency.

Others, including Robbins, say that Bonesmen deliberately cultivate an aura of mystery around the society to give it greater significance than it deserves. The more intriguing lore about the society includes the claim that each alumnus gets $15,000 (£8,500) on graduation (not true) and the notion that members spend an inordinate amount of time lying around in coffins (only for a few minutes on pledge night, apparently).

So far, Kerry and Bush have resisted being drawn into the debate, falling back on the society's customary secrecy. Asked about their association by one of America's most dogged interviewers, NBC's Tim Russert, neither was willing to divulge the secrets of the tomb.

"It's so secret we can't talk about it," said Bush. Kerry's reply was even more opaque. "I wish there were something secret I could manifest there," he said.

But some facts are known - despite the cryptic responses of the average Bonesman. Kerry made the the ranks of the elect - or was "tapped", to use society parlance - in the spring of 1965 when he was in his third year as an undergraduate at Yale, and probably chosen because of his reputation as a strong debater. His fellows included one of his closest friends, William Pershing, who was killed in Vietnam, and David Thorne, the brother of his first wife. Frederick Smith, a founder of the Federal Express delivery service, was also in Kerry's year.

Bush was inducted two years later, securing his entree through family connections. The first president Bush and a smattering of other Bush relatives had also been members. Bush's fellows included an Olympic gold medallist, Don Schollander, and a future Harvard surgeon, Gregory Gallico.

The 60s was not a comfortable time for secret societies. It was the Vietnam era, a time when the fixtures of the establishment were viewed with suspicion or derision, and even the boarded windows and padlocked doors could not keep the winds of social change from penetrating the Tomb.

For the first time, for instance, it became conceivable for those tapped for membership to turn down the offer. Kurt Schmoke, now the dean of Howard University's law school, is of a similar vintage to Kerry and Bush, but refused the call. "There were some people who felt that that was going to be a crowning achievement, and there were other people for whom the idea was absolutely laughable."

For Kerry and Bush, however, by all accounts their years in the crypt were among the formative experiences of their lives. Both men formed lasting friendships in the darkness of the tomb, cemented by a tradition that was a strange hybrid of debating society, group therapy and Epicurean club. The society is famed for its dinners, which often had lobster on the menu - though it does not serve alcohol.

Thursday nights were predictable affairs, devoted to structured debates on such ever-green topics as "Do manners make the man?" "You submit topics of anyone's choosing. You write them down on piece of paper, stick them in a bowl and vote on the topic," said a Bonesman of the 80s era. Speakers have five minutes to put forward their view, "at the end of which time you take a vote, yea or nay, on a topic of absolutely no importance other than it forces you to debate your views." Sunday nights were unpredictable tell-all confessionals, with the 15 members taking it in turns to illuminate the others about their private lives and sexual histories. These sessions could last for two or three hours at a time.

Presumably that is where the bonds that tie generations of Bonesmen, including Bush and Kerry, were forged. According to more contemporary alumni, until the latter years of last century, the typical male Yalie did not readily own up to having feelings, let alone share them in public - and those shared confessionals were their first experience of true conversational intimacy.

In Bush's case, the confessionals also produced tremendous loyalty. The president has surrounded himself with Bonesmen for most of his life. He used Bonesmen connections to get his first real job, finance his first oil company and his ownership of the Texas Rangers baseball team. Bonesmen have also contributed to Bush's campaigns - even sworn Democrats.

"Bush's use of Skull and Bones is an example of how this kind of secret society can propel a model of mediocrity through society," Robbins says. "And once he attained office, he rewarded members of Skull and Bones with prestigious positions in his administration."

A number of his fellow Bonesmen told the Guardian that they kept have kept in regular contact with President Bush over the past 35 years, and continue to telephone and visit regularly even now that he is president. However, they wouldn't dream of divulging the subject of their conversations, or of sharing memories of youthful escapades.

"Membership in that society taught me to respect privacy ... that conversations can and should remain private, even though someone might be president of the United States," says Donald Etra, a Los Angeles businessman.

"Even my closest friends in Atlanta wouldn't dream of broaching the subject - even my children," harrumphs Kenneth Cohen, a dentist from Atlanta who was in Bush's year.

Within the first year of Bush's presidency, all but one of the other 14 Bonesmen from the class of 1968 had spent a night at the White House. Etra was appointed to a commission on the Holocaust; another friend, Roy Astin, was rewarded with an ambassadorship to Trinidad; a third, Robert McCallum, became an assistant attorney-general.

In all, Bush has promoted at least 10 former Bonesmen of different vintages to key government posts, including the head of the security and exchanges commission, Bill Donaldson (1953) and the general counsel to the office of homeland security, Edward McNally (1979).

The Order of Skull and Bones was founded in 1832 by William Russell, a Yale student and scion of a family that had grown immensely wealthy in the opium business, and Alphonso Taft, who would later become America's secretary of war. In its early years, the Bones represented the pinnacle of prestige - or social exclusion, depending on one's point of view. Each class of Bonesmen would take it upon themselves to perpetuate the distinction by grooming its successors, seeking out the wealthy, the athletic and the academically brilliant.

But by the time that Kerry and Bush came of age, the secret societies were no longer the exclusive bastions of haut wasp privilege. As Yale began to admit minorities, the Skull and Bones was forced to adapt, admitting Jews in the 1930s and African-Americans three decades later.

It would not deign to open its portals to women until 1991, and then only after a raucous battle that saw the patriarchs lock the tomb for a year. Bones revived later on, and has prospered during the relatively conservative student culture of the 90s, but it is hard to imagine it recapturing its old cachet. "It was a wonderful experience," said the 80s-vintage Bonesman, "but it probably was more wonderful the further back you go."

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004


Informant: Harry Mobley

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