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Skulls in the closet
What does membership in a bastion of privilege say
about George W. Bush's character?
By Stephen Prothero
Jan. 21, 2000 | One evening in May 1967, a man dressed in a black hood and sporting a gold pin emblazoned with a skull and crossbones approached George W. Bush, slapped him on the back and offered him membership in Yale's oldest secret society. The governor-to-be accepted and, like his grandfather and
father before him, became a member of Skull and Bones.
Skull and Bones is one of the nation's most exclusive and powerful secret
societies. The list of past and present Bonesmen, as members are called,
makes California's Bohemian Grove retreat (also patronized by Gov. Bush and
his dad) look like your local Rotary Club. Members have served as senators,
secretaries of state, national security advisors, attorneys general, CIA
directors and Supreme Court justices. They have also become presidents of
universities, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, foundation presidents and
founders of investment banks. Two Bonesmen, William Howard Taft and George
Bush, were elected president, a post Gov. Bush now hopes to fill.
Much has been made of the Texas governor's "youthful indiscretions" and of
his gentleman's C's at Yale. But membership in Bones shaped George W. Bush
far more than road trips or college courses. In the wake of the
Clinton-Lewinsky mess, character has emerged as a leading theme in
presidential politics. An examination of the culture of Skull and Bones
should shed some light on the character of the latest Bush who would be
Though a seniors-only society, Skull and Bones is more than a tad
sophomoric. Each May on "Tap Day," senior Bonesmen troll around Yale's
campus, selecting, or "tapping," 15 juniors for membership in the upcoming
class. The initiation rites that follow sound like something out of Fred
Flintstone's Water Buffalo Lodge or a Robert Bly retreat. Each knight, as
neophytes are called, reportedly regales his fellow initiates with his
sexual exploits. (He may or may not be naked and may or may not be lying in
a coffin.) During initiation, he endures some sort of physical challenge
(mud wrestling? diving into a dung pile?) before being born again with a new
name and a new identity. In the outside world, members are never to speak
about their society. If outsiders raise the topic, Bonesmen are supposed to
leave the room.
Members take their secrecy oath seriously -- no insider has ever published
an exposť -- so it is impossible to separate the realities from the rumors
that swirl around the society. One rumor has each new member receiving a
$15,000 payout. Another says the interior of the "Tomb" (the eerie Gothic
headquarters where twice-a-week meetings are held) is decorated with human
remains, including the skulls and bones of notables such as Mexican
revolutionary Pancho Villa and Apache warrior Geronimo.
Are the rumors true? Certainly not all of them; the society is probably not
the fountainhead of a vast international conspiracy to spread Hegel's
dialectic via the drug trade. But Bush is not helping to clear the air. Like
his father, who has consistently refused to discuss Skull and Bones, he
isn't talking. And members of his 1968 Skull and Bones class whom I
contacted either neglected to return my calls or refused to comment on what
goes on inside the Tomb. "We don't discuss those things," said Roy Leslie
Austin, now a sociology professor at Penn State. "We just don't."
Skull and Bones was founded by William H. Russell in 1832, more than a
decade before Texas joined the union. At the time, men's fraternal
organizations were so popular that politicians like former President John
Quincy Adams were denouncing their secret oaths as cancers on the body of
the republic. When Phi Beta Kappa responded to the anti-masonry in the air
by abolishing its oath of secrecy, Russell (who later become Yale's
valedictorian) founded "The Scull and Bones" as an alternative. For the next
century and a half, Skull and Bones, as Russell's society came to be known,
guarded its secrecy with the zeal of Howard Hughes and the nuttiness of J.D.
In 1856, Bones incorporated as the Russell Trust Association and members
built the grim sandstone mausoleum that is still used as society
headquarters. In 1876, pranksters broke into that crypt through a window and
investigated its interior. Bonesmen responded by bricking up all the
windows, which remain sealed today. Supporters describe Skull and Bones as a
meritocracy that, by rewarding excellence in academics, athletics and the
arts, has fostered achievement at Yale and beyond. From this perspective,
the society's rites, however secretive or sophomoric, promote fading virtues
such as friendship and loyalty. And the society does have an astonishing
record when it comes to turning out leaders.
Russell saw the society as a way to promote and reward academic excellence.
But Bones gradually expanded its mission, tapping not only outstanding
scholars but also football captains, Yale Daily News editors and members of
the a cappella group the Whiffenpoofs. Eventually, the society also began
selecting Bonesmen not for what they had accomplished in life but for who
they were by birth.
George Herbert Walker Bush was no doubt selected in part because his father,
Prescott S. Bush, was a U.S. senator and a Bonesman. But the president-to-be
was also a decorated World War II pilot and captain of the Yale baseball
team. George W. Bush, who had a less illustrious youth than his father, is
more plainly a legacy member, tapped because of his genes and not his deeds.
From its inception, Skull and Bones has been a bastion of privilege -- an
ideal steppingstone from a preppie past to an establishment future. And so
the society has been regularly denounced for its elitism as well as its
secrecy. In 1878, the Yale Courant ripped Bonesmen as "vampires of
darkness." Bones, it wrote, was a "a curse to the college" that promoted
"royal and stylish living" and divided the undergraduate classes into
"castes." That same year, the Yale Daily News called the society's mummeries
"supremely silly." During the 1960s, critics claimed Skull and Bones and
other Yale-only secret societies rewarded conformity rather than
achievement. Today, denouncing those societies as anti-democratic cults is
almost as routine at Yale as Tap Day itself.
Bones waited about a century to respond to the criticism. After World War
II, it began admitting blacks and Jews. In 1991, the outgoing Bones
delegation tried to tap the first Boneswomen. Patriarchs, as Bones alumni
are called, literally barred the doors to the Tomb. Led by conservative
William F. Buckley Jr., they obtained a court order temporarily blocking
non-male members. In the society-wide vote that followed, however, the
conservative blue bloods were defeated and a few women were admitted to the
There are likely many things this society does well. I would love to have
been a skull on the wall in a private debate between, say, Sen. David Boren
and Sen. John Kerry or authors Archibald MacLeish and John Hersey (all
Bonesmen). But I doubt the Tomb fosters the sort of character necessary for
leadership in multicultural America and the new global economy. And I am
certain it is an unsuitable incubator for the presidency in the 21st
century. This is true for Bonesmen tapped for their accomplishments in
rowing or debating. But it is doubly true of those who, like Bush, were
tapped primarily for the accomplishments of their forebears.
Since our country's inception, Americans have been profoundly ambivalent
about power and wealth. That is why Horatio Alger is as much a part of the
American mythos as is the Titanic. We like to worship the high and the
mighty, but we love to see them go under. True, the rich are different from
the rest of us. So are the powerful. But both are supposed to live, at least
in this country, by some rules. The rich are expected to earn their money
through hard work or cunning. And the powerful are to earn their power in
public elections, not private clubs. Just as many years ago George W. Bush
was suddenly tapped for an exclusive society, critics today might charge
that he similarly coasted into becoming an odds-on favorite for the White
House before a single ballot had been cast.
salon.com | Jan. 21, 2000
About the writer :
Stephen Prothero graduated from Yale in 1982. He teaches in the religion
department at Boston University and is the author of "The White Buddhist:
The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott" (Indiana University Press).
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