Both George W. Bush and John Kerry are Bonesmen, but neither will divulge the secrets of the Skull and Bones Society. Walter Ellis digs into history in search of skeletons in the closet of the next US president
Like a bizarre amalgam of Animal House , the Freemasons and an early, somewhat spikier, episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer , Yale University's Skull and Bones Society sends shivers of uncertain laughter down the spines of America's political establishment.
They would like to ridicule it. But they can't or, at least, they're not sure. And what they can't laugh at, they fear. A little.
President George W. Bush was a "Bonesman", as was his father before him.
So, too, was Senator John Kerry, who is now all but certain to be the Democrat contender for Bush's job. Whatever happens in November's election, the next president of the US will have been "tapped" for the job.
Potential members of the Skull and Bones Society - only 15 are chosen at any one time - learn that they are candidates only when they are tapped on the shoulder by an existing Bonesman who asks, in a voice that one suspects is modelled on Christopher Lee's Dracula: "Skull and Bones! Do you accept?"
If the answer is "yes" - and there are no known refusniks - the Bonesman hands the mystical number 322 to the candidate along with a summons to appear naked on a given night to undergo the sacred rite of initiation.
Accounts vary as to what happens on the night in question. It has been said that the initiate must lie, without clothing or metal objects, in a coffin while his peers grill him about his sexual prowess. It has also been related that the head of the "order", who is dressed in a sheepskin, wields a dagger while proclaiming the dread words - sounding like an extract from a bluffer's guide to Tarot - that "the Hangman equals death, the Devil equals death, Death equals, er, Death".
Rebirth is the key. The concluding words of the ceremony are, allegedly, "Go, Neophyte", suggesting conversion to a new faith. In Bush Sr's day, the faith might have been interpreted as the New Deal. Later, when George Jr and Kerry were baring their breasts, it was more likely monetarism. Today, with the US imperium in full cry, it is difficult to say which trend is most ardently embraced. But "Go, Neo-Con" seems as good as any for a bidding prayer.
There has been much interest of late in the Skull and Bones. The happenstance that Bush and Kerry are both Bonesmen has been a huge boost to the society's self-image, and there can be little doubt that many Yalees will be hoping against hope that next year they will receive the tap and be invited to join the elect.
Journalists have for years tried to infiltrate the Boneheads, I mean Bonesmen. But unless, as budding hacks, they have themselves been tapped, they have failed. There has not been one proper interview with a society member in the 172 years of Skullduggery. Fear of sexual revelation may be the key to this. Once you tell fellow students who you did what with, and when, and with what embarrassing consequences, you are theirs for life.
While at Yale, Bush Jr was known for his drinking, womanising and general high spirits - all of which he has long since given up, having been born again. In the year 2000, asked by Walter Isaacson, the former head of CNN and Time magazine (himself a Harvard man and habitue of the Harvard Club in New York) whether he had felt any qualms about joining Skull and Bones, Bush was unabashed.
"No qualms at all," he replied. "I was honoured. I was fairly nonchalant. I didn't view it as a great heritage thing. I didn't even take it all that seriously." He was honoured, then, by something he didn't take seriously. But, Isaacson persisted, what of the mystique?
Bush just shrugged. "Without revealing all the great secrets? I got a few of my old club mates who could demystify it right off the bat. Someone a year ahead of me tapped me. There was an entry celebration. I can't remember whether my dad showed up or not. I don't think so."
Perhaps a bottle or two of lubricant was opened, which would at least explain his forgetfulness.
More recently, interviewed on the television network NBC, the president denied knowing that Kerry was a fellow Bonesman, but he added that membership of Skull and Bones was "so secret, we can't talk about it".
Has membership of the society helped either man to his present eminence? Perhaps. But Bill Clinton and Al Gore got by without it, while all 49 of Kerry's fellow senators make no bones of the fact that they are there without the benefit of casket-conditioning.
Kerry has refused to talk about his club membership, evidently regarding it as of no more importance than the fact that he may, or may not, belong to a supermarket loyalty scheme.
The truth is that this self-important society, with its ludicrous temple-like headquarters - which are known as "the Tomb" but are more reminiscent of a Medici knocking-shop - is of importance only as a networking tool. A mere handful of its 600 or so living members are household names. Its most famous alumni, apart from the Bushes and Kerry, are long dead. They included Howard Taft, US president in 1909-13; Harold Stanley, a founder of the Morgan Stanley investment bank; and Averell Harriman, the originator of the wartime lend-lease scheme, ambassador to the Soviet Union and governor of New York.
Skull and Bones could be viewed as networking for those who see themselves as future partners in Wolfram & Hart, the powerful satanic law firm in the hit vampire series Angel . Alternatively, it might be merely somewhere to go for students who are not allowed to drink legally until they are 21. "Fancy a pint? Let's go down the Tomb." Its big secret is that it has nothing to hide.
Fraternities, which were once two a penny at US universities, are finally dying out. But at Yale, plunked down in the middle of blue-collar New Haven, Connecticut, they remain strong. Skull and Bones, founded in 1832, is rumoured to have been given its "mysterious" 322 identification tag in reference to other such societies worldwide, especially in Germany. In the 19th century, it was seen as a bridge between Wall Street and the City of London. It is rich, in student terms, with declared assets in 1999 of $4.1 million (£2.25 million) and an annual income of $790,000. But its chief rival, the Scroll and Key - which lists among its alumni the statesman Dean Acheson, the songwriter Cole Porter and the financier Cornelius Vanderbilt - is richer and, from all that one can gather, a lot more fun.
Once Skull and Bones was a bastion of the well-heeled East Coast Establishment, steeped in racism. But for many years now, it has welcomed Jews and other ethnic-minority members. In 1991, despite opposition led by the Conservative pundit William F. Buckley Jr, the last great barrier, that of gender, was overcome and the first Boneswomen were tapped.
For a society with neither telephone number nor door knocker, Bush-Kerry is the dream ticket. They are not saying (for they never say anything), but in the Tomb these days there is a new spring in the step of the Bone People.
They are important. They decide the fate of nations. From among their ranks are chosen America's great and good. Oh, yes.