Inside George W.’s Secret Crypt

Where is the all-girl break-in team now that we need them? Where are the intrepid young women who had the nerve and daring to pull off one of the great investigative coups of our era: to sneak into the triple-locked “tomb” of Skull and Bones, the secret citadel, the sanctum sanctorum, the heart of the heart of the Eastern Establishment, the place of weird, clandestine, occult bonding rituals that has shaped the character of American ruling-class figures from the 27th President, William Howard Taft, to the 41st, George Herbert Walker Bush and perhaps the next one too: George W., Skull and Bones 1968. The place where generations of Bushes, Tafts and Buckleys and the like lay down in coffins and spewed the secrets of their sex lives. The place where many of America’s top spies and spy masters were initiated into their clandestine destinies. The place where all conspiracy theories converge. The place where the people who shaped America’s character had their character shaped.

But the superspooks of Skull and Bones had nothing on the all-girl break-in team, which managed to outwit their security, slip into the tomb and take pictures of each and every sacred ritual room. Including that dread enclosure I call the “Room With the License Plates of Many States.”

I know because I once held in my hands the fruits of the all-girl break-in Skull and Bones raid. Yes, there came a time when I gazed at some glossy black-and-white prints that revealed the innermost sanctums of perhaps the most secrecy-shrouded interior in America, the interior of the Skull and Bones Tomb on the Yale campus in New Haven.

It is a space that is likely to have even more attention focused on it in the coming months because an initiate once again is poised to become President. And because of the imminent release of a film called The Skulls transparently based on Skull and Bones. But it was only recently that I began thinking about the all-girl break-in team, which was, I believe, inspired by something I’d written–the first and I think still the only outside investigation of Skull and Bones, its secrets, its legacy, its powerful subterranean influence on American history.

In fact, it is my belief that the all-girl break-in team might be doing W. a favor by demystifying this black hole in his biography: the occult rituals he engaged in twice a week in the bowels of the Skull and Bones tomb in the crucial 21st year of his life.

In fact, if I might engage in a speculative digression about W., who was my college classmate, though barely known to me–I have a feeling there is a part of him that might secretly have approved of the all-girl break-in team’s act of clandestine mischief. An irreverent spirit, something I thought I glimpsed in a chance encounter with him and Hunter Thompson a quarter-century ago at a Super Bowl in Houston.

I can’t recall who was hanging out with whom, but it was January 1974, it was in the atrium of the Hyatt Regency, the Super Bowl headquarters hotel (I was there to write about the spectacle which featured Dolphins versus Vikes that year) and I think it was a mutual friend, a fun-loving preppy guy I knew from college who also somehow knew Hunter and W. who brought us all together in a room in the Hyatt. I don’t remember exactly what went on, but I do remember coming away with a favorable impression of W.

I remember thinking he was one of the preppy types I’d always kind of liked, the hang-loose, good-ole-boy types, many of whom took the interregnum on careerism, which the war and the draft mandated as a cue to break out of the mold a bit, wander off the reservation, poke into the sides of life their trust funds otherwise might have sheltered them from. I sensed what W. liked about Hunter Thompson was that Hunter too was another button-down good old frat boy (once) who went weird but in a good-old-boy way.

This, in other words, was W. II, the kind of a guy who just might have seen through all the suits and trappings of moral seriousness Skull and Bones attempted to imbue its initiates with, one who might have seen it as a bit silly and pompous and who might have preferred, like some of his fellow preppy prince Hals, to spend time with Falstaffian misleaders of youth such as Mr. Thompson.

If you think of W. I as the guy who was tapped for Skull and Bones at Yale, W. II was a kind of counter-W. I. We know W. II was soon to be replaced, because he’s told us he stopped doing any Bad Things in 1974. Except liquor: It was then he turned into the hard-drinking W. III. To be succeeded in 1986 when he gave up spirits as well by the solemn and preachy W. IV we have today.

My feeling is: Bring back W. II! I have a feeling W. II saw through the whole Skull and Bones charade, the pomposity of its ritual posturing, the preposterousness of its occult mumbo jumbo.

By all accounts, even W. I was a bit skeptical and alienated from the blue-blood pooh-bahs of the Eastern Establishment who ruled the roost at Yale. Yes, he went to Andover, but he grew up in Texas. I wonder how much patience he had for the self-dramatizing seriousness of the basement confessionals in the Skull and Bones Tomb.

His own father tapped him, it would have been hard to turn it down, but you get the sense the Bush family still finds confessional rituals, particularly sexual confessionals, mortifying intrusions. How do I know? Well, let me explain by describing a harrowing encounter I had 35,000 feet in the air with George and Barbara Bush on the subject of Skull and Bones. An encounter made harrowing by Barbara Bush’s knitting needles.

Ah, yes, Barbara Bush’s knitting needles. There’s a chilling line from The Waste Land : “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” But you have not known fear until you’ve been in close proximity, in stabbing range of Barbara Bush’s knitting needles when you ask her husband about Skull and Bones.

It was the summer of 1986, then-Vice President Bush was making a Congressional campaign swing through the South. I was on board Air Force Two on an assignment for The New Republic , and when my time came for a one-on-one with the Vice President, I found him ensconced in the forward cabin sitting across from Barbara Bush who–I could just tell, maybe it was my beard–deeply disapproved of me instantly. I don’t hold this against her, I disapprove of myself, too, for probably better reasons.

But her disapproval deepened into something far more profound when I brought up the subject of Skull and Bones. First of all, there was the “leave the room” protocol, the perhaps unscrupulous way I had George Bush trapped. The legendary protocol of Skull and Bones requires its members to promptly leave the room if a non-initiate even so much as mentions the words Skull and Bones (the better to forestall any participation in outsider guessing games about the deep dark secrets).

But Mr. Bush couldn’t leave the room. Not without a parachute: We were 35,000 feet in the air. (Hmm, maybe that’s why he’s subsequently become a parachute jumper.)

But there was more than the impropriety of asking the question, there was the history behind it. I’d prefaced my forbidden question by admitting I’d been the author of a magazine story about Skull and Bones that had caused a certain amount of trouble for George Bush. My story first appeared back in 1976 in Esquire under the title “The Last Secrets of Skull and Bones.” The concept of the piece was to see just what I, an outsider, could learn about the secret rituals of the ultimate secret society, in a brief, intense investigation. Plenty, it turned out.

I succeeded in confirming several long-rumored rituals, the so-called “sexual confessional” for instance, by debriefing the disaffected girlfriends of several Skull and Bones initiates who were angry and eager to talk about the peculiar practice, long a feature of the secret bonding rituals of the society.

To understand the role of the sexual confession, you have to put it in perspective of the larger, unspoken mission of Bones, which I described as a kind of “ongoing informal eugenics project” of the Eastern Establishment elite. Every year the society, the oldest and most secretive and (once) most exclusive of the dozen or so secret societies at Yale, selects or “taps” 15 members of the junior class for cultlike initiation whose ritualistic coffins, skeletons and mystical oaths derived (I believe I was the first to reveal) from the mumbo jumbo of some early 19th-century Masonic lodges in Germany. (If you’re familiar with the Bavarian Illuminati, you know the drill.)

Beginning in the fall of their senior year, every Thursday and Sunday evening, the Bones initiates disappear into the spooky windowless “tomb” of Skull and Bones and descend into the basement. There, one by one, they strip bare their souls, the better to bond with their brothers, the better to begin to rebuild their lives around the mission of Skull and Bones, which is–depending on how you look upon it–a kind of enlightened noblesse oblige elitism, or a secret conspiracy to rule the world.

One way to look at it is the WASP version of psychoanalysis, intensive group therapy for members of an ethnic group that requires loads of occult mumbo jumbo and the imprimatur of a mythic, ancient mission to let down their hair. (They pretend-date their “order” to the year 322 B.C. and claim it was founded by Demosthenes in Athens. Skull and Bones has its own special calendar that numbers the years by adding 322.)

But the heart of it, the thing that makes it weird and kind of embarrassing–but perhaps the thing that makes it work–is that sexual confessional session. The sexual confessional session is also, I believe, at the heart of the eugenic function.

Skull and Bones can be seen as the American equivalent of Britain’s old-boy network, but a far more conscious rather than casual old-boy network. It’s one that has produced stewards of the ruling class from Henry Stimson and Henry Luce, to Vietnam war architect McGeorge Bundy and current State Department mandarin Strobe Talbott.

A conscious–and shrewd–eugenic project because built in to the Bones experience is a combination of outreach and inbreeding. Outreach beyond the inbred Bones families, the Tafts, the Bushes, the Whitneys and the like. Outreach to the best and brightest new talent to punch up the stagnant WASP gene pool. Because each year in addition to tapping “legacy” candidates like George W. who showed no special luster beyond his name, they also take brains (typically the chairman of the Daily News ), brawn (the top athletes, the football or crew star) even, recently, tokens of diversity (they began tapping the occasional black and Jew back in the 50′s).

Here’s where the sexual confessional comes in. As I put it, ever so delicately, in my original story:

“Most Sunday-night sessions start with talk of prep school masturbation and don’t stop until the intimate details of Saturday night’s delights have come to light early Monday morning.… It may have served some eugenics purpose in the founders’ vision: a sharing of birth control and self-control methods to minimize the chance of a … future steward of the ruling class being trapped into marriage by a fortune hunter or a working-class girl–the way the grand tour for an upper-class American youth always included an initiation into the secrets of Parisian courtesans so that, once back home, the young man wouldn’t elope with the first girl who let him get past second base.”

The problem–and here I’m getting to why the tempo with which Barbara Bush’s knitting needles stabbed into her fabric stepped up as I broached the subject–was the reaction of a certain group of women: the girlfriends of Bones initiates at newly coeducational Yale who didn’t appreciate having their most intimate secrets disclosed to a bunch of strange men. They were my best sources–and perhaps the ones who later became the nucleus of the all-girl break-in team (although perhaps with the complicity of a male mole in Bones).

Or as one of them put it: “I objected to 14 guys knowing whether I was a good lay … it was like after that each of them thought I was his woman in a way.” Skull and Bones broke into their privacy–so turnabout was fair play: They broke into Bones’.

And so the trouble began for Skull and Bones. In the years since my story appeared, it has served as a lens for each new crop of potential candidates–and their girlfriends. It was a source of a growing agitation for the coeducation of secret societies, an agitation which all the societies but Skull and Bones succumbed to in the 80′s. An agitation Bones resisted to the bitter end–threatening to throw out entire classes of initiates who wanted to tap women, threatening to exclude them from the promised land of old-boy networking for even the thought of such a transgression. It wasn’t until heated debate and a secret vote in the early 90′s that women were finally allowed in.

I don’t want to claim I was solely responsible for ending the all-male regime at Skull and Bones, but I’m glad to have played a part. I’m not as happy for another unintended consequence of my story, the further enshrinement of Skull and Bones as an icon, as a kind of Rorschach of American conspiracy theory literature. A fevered fantasy literature that projected upon the sealed interior of Skull and Bones every possible conspiratorial connection imaginable up to and including the rise of Adolf Hitler.

It began in 1980 when George Bush was first running for the Presidency. At the height of the closely contested New Hampshire primary, the right-wing Manchester Union Leader , the most powerful paper in the state, made an issue of Mr. Bush’s Skull and Bones membership, quoting my story in a way to make it seem more sinister. Soon the Tomb became a conspiracy theory icon, the Bush family sinister puppet masters in the literature.

My story, for anyone who cares to read it (and for those who do it will be reprinted in a forthcoming collection of my work from Random House, The Secret Parts of Fortune ), tried to take a nuanced view of how power in America works. That it wasn’t a matter of a cabal getting together in the basement of Skull and Bones and ordering assassinations.

They didn’t have to conspire to exercise power: At the height of what Bones member Henry Luce called “the American century,” all they had to do was breathe, i.e. get born into the right family in an elite that practically did rule the world. That and a wink and a nod to a trusted friend now and then, no need for a secret handshake: Their power was public, in-your-face, had no need to hide itself.

The irony, which got lost in translation, was that Skull and Bones and the elite it represented was at a moment of crisis and decline in 1976 when my story appeared. I called my story an elegy: an elegy for mumbo jumbo.

But back to Air Force Two: I wondered what Barbara Bush really thought of Skull and Bones. On the one hand, I don’t think she could have been very comfortable with the sexual confessional. After all, she and George were already wed in his war-interrupted final years at Yale. She might well have been the subject or felt she’d been the subject–or learned she’d been the subject from my story–of her husband’s sexual confessions.

On the other hand, one suspects she might have been responsible for orchestrating the Skull and Bones “intervention” in George Bush’s political career–one that might have occurred about the time of my Air Force Two encounter with them. The “intervention” is my term for something Bob Woodward disclosed in his 1988 investigation of the role of Skull and Bones in George Bush’s political career.

Mr. Woodward revealed that at a certain point late in George Bush’s Vice Presidency he reached out to (or was reached out to by ) several of his fellow Skull and Bones initiates. There was some kind of Skull session that focused on whether the Vice President had handed over his principles (read: cojones ) to Ronald Reagan. Whether he had the requisite independence to be his own man and run for President. Something this uncommunicative WASP apparently could only talk about to his lifelong fellow communicants of “the Order,” as they call it.

By the way, do you know “the Order” recently reached out to try to silence some of its overly chatty members? This little noticed but utterly fascinating item appeared in the January-February 2000 issue of Washington Monthly :

“A friend of ours has a brother who was in Skull and Bones … the secret society George W. Bush belonged to. The brother recently got this note from the Skull and Bones command center:

‘In view of the political happenings in the barbarian world, I feel compelled to remind all of the tradition of privacy and confidentiality essential to the well-being of our Order and strongly urge stout resistance to the seductions and blandishments of the Fourth Estate.’ Translated, we think this adds up to: ‘Don’t go tattle on W.’” (Of course, somebody did tattle on the

anti-tattle directive, didn’t they?)

What are we in “the barbarian world” to make of this? (Don’t you completely love that they call us “the barbarian world”?) Well, for one thing, they still care about their silly secrets. Certainly my awkward attempts to apologize for the unintended conspiracy theory consequences of my Skull and Bones story didn’t cut much ice with Barbara Bush on Air Force Two. The chill was enough to give you frostbite, believe me. Probably because she was right in thinking my apology wasn’t completely sincere.

Then I tried a question for her husband, the Vice President. What influence did his secret society have on his career as a politician, did it inculcate an ethos of leadership?

“Well, it wasn’t about leadership per se,” Mr. Bush said, “so much as it was about friendship.” That was all he’d say, although Barbara Bush’s flashing stabbing knitting needles were a warning–they spoke eloquent volumes about how welcome further inquiry would be.

Which is why I think the all-girl break-in team would be doing them a favor.

The reappearance of the all-girl break-in team photos might be the best thing that ever happened to George W. Bush and Skull and Bones. Can you say “demystification”?

I can’t disclose the circumstances, the means by which the photographs were conveyed to me. The details have completely faded from my memory, maybe they used one of those forgetfulness sprays like Will Smith’s character used in Men in Black . But my strongest impression of that long-awaited moment when I got a chance to glimpse the inner sanctums I’d written about, investigated but never seen, was not of the ritual rooms. Not even Room 322, which sort of lived up–in its shabby genteel mock-Masonic trappings–to what I’d imagined it to be. No, there was this other enclosure, the room I’ve come to call the “Room of the License Plates of Many States,” that stayed with me. It was just what it sounds like: the kind of thing you’d expect to find in some second-tier Midwestern frat house. A wall covered with a bunch of license plates. Gee, look at all the places the brothers have been! Get me a brewski!

Which is why I think it would be good for everyone if the all-girl break-in team comes forward and releases–ideally through yours truly–the secret Skull and Bones photos. They give you both sides of Bones, the melodramatic occult ritual trappings and the mundane, frat-house license-plate reality.

Seeing the trailer for The Skulls further convinced me full disclosure is the best course for the embattled not-so-secret society. I’d once tried and failed to write a film based on Skull and Bones, but was defeated more than anything, I believe, by the difficulty of translating the subtle way in which elitist power actually works into the conspiratorial melodramatizing of a feature film. It seems from the trailer that the makers of The Skulls had not allowed themselves to be defeated on that score.

They went for the melodrama. My favorite part of the trailer was the tag line: “If a secret society can give you everything you desire, just imagine what they can take away .” (Curiously enough, Universal, which said it would screen the film before this story went to press, postponed the screening at the last minute. Something about the print not arriving in time. Coincidence?) So, please, you daring all-girl break-in team members: Send me the photos to publish! And come to think of it, there’s one more group of women I’d like to ask to come forward, clandestinely, if necessary: The newly initiated women in the years since Skull and Bones finally went coeducational. The women who didn’t have to break in, who were invited in–well, after 150 years of exclusion.

They could be the ones who could really demystify the old boys’ club. Unless, of course, in a certain sense, they’d become old boys themselves, so to speak.

I have a feeling there are some who might feel they’d be doing “the Order” a favor by telling “the barbarian world” about what it’s like to be a female initiate of Skull and Bones. Let me be the barbarian you confide to: Send me something anonymously (along with some corroborating detail; I’ve seen the inside of the tomb, remember).

Write me, tell me something, anything about what it’s like for a woman in the heart of the heart of the citadel of the elite patriarchy. Do they make women participate in the weird sexual confessional, too? Or have they abolished it? Write me, clue me in. If you insist, I won’t write about it. I just want to know . I can keep a secret.