-- 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" [editor's emphasis], 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
In separate episodes of the NBC program Meet the Press, host Tim Russert asked
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
"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
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