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What binds Bush, Kerry

They're both members of Skull and Bones, a 172-year-old Yale secret society. Now just try getting its members to talk about it.

March 23, 2004|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

In the last several months, Tim Russert of NBC's "Meet the Press," one of TV's toughest interviewers, struck out with two of his biggest "gets":

In August, he quizzed Sen. John F. Kerry, "You both were members of Skull and Bones, a secret society at Yale. What does that tell us?"

Kerry: "Not much, because it's a secret."

In February, he asked President Bush, "You were both in Skull and Bones, the secret society?"

Bush: "It's so secret we can't talk about it."

Such coyness on the part of grown men! And yet, their recalcitrance does prove one thing: The guys can keep a secret.

But is that good? Secrecy, after all, leads to rumors. And the rumors about Skull and Bones -- naked confessions of sexual conquests, grave robbing, free money and, of course, plans for world domination -- don't look good on the presidential resume. Those rumors received a boost when it became apparent that, for the first time in history, two Bonesmen will face off for the presidency in November.

"It's certainly a coincidence that lends itself to attention," said the historian Kevin Phillips, whose recent work, "American Dynasty," explores how the Bushes have benefited from what he calls "crony capitalism." "Is it nefarious? I guess it's a little insidious."

Journalist and author Ron Rosenbaum (Yale '68), who wrote the seminal article on Skull and Bones for Esquire in 1977, thinks the Bush-Kerry coincidence should be treated thoughtfully. "Obviously, it's part of what shaped the character of the two presidential candidates, and yet there's a lot of overblown conspiracy theory that has outweighed the seriousness."

Indeed, a serious political discussion might examine the meaning of both presidential candidates maintaining an inherently undemocratic affiliation and refusing to address an important aspect of their university lives. Instead, discussions on the Internet, talk radio and cable TV, generally turn on suspicions that Skull and Bones has attempted to mastermind a "new world order" in which only a handful of wealthy, old-line families control the planet.

"Is this a satanic cult? No. Is this a group that operates as a shadow government? No. Is this a group that has an institutionalized superiority complex? Yes," said Alexandra Robbins, a 27-year-old journalist and Yale alumna whose book "Secrets of the Tomb" explores the 172-year-old club based on interviews with 100 anonymous Bonesmen. Bones, she said, has "a power agenda" that "prioritizes its own elitism and its own members above other concerns."

Rosenbaum disputes that there is a specific "power agenda" at work. "I would say the best way of describing it is by analogy to the old boys' network in England, where graduates of Eton and Oxford and Cambridge form a network of influence and power and share a mind-set. They know each other, they trust each other and they bonded at an early age."

If nothing else, Skull and Bones has produced some odd bedfellows. "I am a liberal Democratic criminal defense attorney who voted for George Bush, and I will vote for him again," said Bush's fellow Bonesman Donald Etra, an Orthodox Jew who lives in L.A. and was appointed by Bush to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. Etra, who called himself "a strong Zionist," said one of his closest Bones friends is a Jordanian-born Muslim. "Most of us," he said, "put friendship first and politics a far, far second."

Next month, an eclectic group of 15 juniors will be tapped for Skull and Bones by this year's seniors. There have never been specific criteria for membership, which in generations past might have included some standard campus types: the editor of the Yale Daily, an outstanding athlete, a son of a Bonesman etc. Women were admitted in 1991, after a rancorous 20-year battle.

Bones members spend each Thursday and Sunday of their senior year in the Tomb, the group's clubhouse on High Street in the middle of the Yale campus. It is windowless, ersatz Greco-Egyptian temple, readily identified on Yale maps.

"It's kind of foreboding looking," said a 48-year-old Toronto writer who sneaked into the Tomb with her boyfriend during spring break 1975. "They made it into this big mystery thing. But it wasn't. It's just like a big clubhouse, but it's not in a tree." There was a large dining room with a long table, and she recalled a room full of license plates. "They were always ripping things off with '322' on them."

The number 322 is a variation on the year (1832) that the club was founded by William H. Russell, a Yale student who modeled it after one he'd encountered in Germany. At its inception, said Dr. Alan Cross, one of Kerry's classmates and a third-generation Bonesman, the club was "basically a debating society, where members of the senior class would get together and discuss important topics of the day." (Bonesmen have a special regard for Demosthenes, the famed Greek orator who died in 322 BC.)

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