Skull and Bones, Denying Its Rite, Suckers AOL-TW

“…the author has, in fact, made appropriate changes in the text in response to your letter of June 24….Little, Brown will be taking steps to notify reviewers….”–Deputy general counsel AOL Time Warner Book Group

Hey, kids! More fun with Skull and Bones, George Bush’s secret club! This time they’ve really shot themselves in the foot. From now on, you could call them “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” but a better name might be “The Gang That Couldn’t Lie Straight.”

It would all be a lot more pure fun if the inept attempt at a dirty trick played by one Skull and Bones member (I think we’ll call him Deep Dunce)-and perhaps others-hadn’t threatened to blight with error a new book by a young journalist victimized by Deep Dunce’s deceit. The whole affair has turned into a juicy literary and political scandal that reaches from the Tomb of Skull and Bones in New Haven to the temple of publishing that is AOL Time Warner (founded by Henry Luce, Skull and Bones ’20)-and, who knows, perhaps even to the White House, where this latest instance of embarrassing Skull and Bones behavior can’t be pleasing to its most prominent member, George W. Bush.

Because he’s a values guy, George W., and this is a values story: a story about the true nature of the values inculcated by the President’s secret society, as well as the values of New York publishing and Ivy League ambition.

At last we know, at last we’ve heard the authentic voice of Skull and Bones; at last we’ve learned the true ethos of the Yale secret society that counts two Presidents named Bush and countless bankers, Senators, spies, diplomats, publishers, Supreme Court justices and other American potentates as its members. We’ve heard these values expressed in the voice of a young initiate of the secret society, which professes to devote itself to the ideals of leadership, public service and the elite fellowship of “Good Men.”

It’s the voice of the initiate quoted in the original galleys of the book that Little, Brown has now had to revise, the voice of the overprivileged, under-intelligent Skull and Bones punk who “laughed heartily” and boasted, “We just wanted to fuck with that prick.”

That prick , the target of this pathetic, sub-Tarantino, phony-macho imprecation was-not to put too fine a point on it- me .

I only learned about the dishonorable and inept Skull and Bones attempt to “fuck with that prick” on Saturday, June 20, when I got word that galleys were circulating of a book about Skull and Bones that claimed to discredit a story published here in The Observer on April 23, 2001. In that story we revealed, for the first time, details of Skull and Bones’ long-secret initiation rite, based on videotapes made from a clandestine perch overlooking the courtyard of the Skull and Bones Tomb on the Yale campus in New Haven.

You can read the details of our videotape caper in the April 23, 2001 Observer ; perhaps you saw some snatches of the videotape as played on ABC’s World News Tonight or Fox News Television, or perhaps you heard the cries and whispers on NPR and other radio outlets.

Yes, the ritual was silly in so many ways: the juvenile attempts to scare the initiates, the pseudomystical slogan “Death Equals Death” (well, duh!), the obscene bullying (“Lick my bumhole, Neophyte!”), the skull-kissing, the throat-slashing tableau that had a lot to learn from Scream 3 .

But there was a dark side as well, and I think that was what provoked this recent inept attempt at retaliation. We also documented a certain ugly attitude of the society’s overprivileged members: the way they made a joke out of the racist assault on Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in order to scare the initiates (one of the senior members cried out, as if he were an initiate being assaulted: “Take that plunger out of my ass, Uncle Toby!”).

And then there was the sordid triumphalism of another initiator, posing as newly inaugurated Skull and Bonesman George W. Bush, mock-scaring the new initiates by threatening: “I’m gonna ream you like I reamed Al Gore.”

As for the initiation itself, what made it interesting, historically and anthropologically, was that Skull and Bones is not some ordinary frathouse; the initiation was just the beginning, the first of a lifelong series of bonding rituals that helped forge the powerful Bones Old Boy network-a network at the heart of the heart of the American Establishment. Historically, the people who had done so much to shape America’s character in the world-the Tafts, the Luces, the Stimsons, the Harrimans, the Buckleys, the Bundys and the Bushes, among others-had their character shaped in the Tomb of Skull and Bones, and a version of these silly rituals, at least at first, played a part.

At the time the story appeared, there was only silence from Skull and Bones quarters. No admissions, no denials-but now, at last, my source told me, The Empire had Struck Back.

They were making the claim to a gullible journalist who wrote the Little, Brown book that what we videotaped wasn’t the real initiation, but a hoax entirely set up for me. On one level, the idea was flattering: Some two dozen Skull and Bones members cared that much about what I’d written in the past to stage an elaborate three-hour charade for me that made fools of their entire society. Dumb, but not utterly impossible. If the journalist had proof, I was prepared to say, “My bad.”

My source promised to fax me the relevant pages from the book’s galley on Monday, but over the weekend, as I checked in with the intrepid team who had done the videotaping and listened again to my audiotape, I must admit I had conflicting emotions: satisfaction in the sense that, after all this time, I’d really gotten to these arrogant, overprivileged secret-society punks, but also concern about defending the validity of our story, no matter how ludicrous the hoax claim was. Fortunately, one of the team members reminded me that we had rock-solid proof in our possession, documentary proof that would soon blow the hoax claim out of the water and cause the publisher-Little, Brown-to take the unusual step of making “appropriate changes” to the galleys and notifying reviewers that changes had been made.

But that’s getting ahead of my story.

When the galley pages detailing the “proof” for the alleged hoax charge arrived on Monday, it was hard to tell whether to laugh or cry-laugh at the pathetically meretricious “proof” offered for the charge, or feel deeply sad for the reporter whose evident ambition led her to be so eagerly credulous.

One wants to be sympathetic to her: She’s a younger reporter, and she published a piece on George Bush and Bones a couple of years ago. And, in a sense, she’s more a victim of Skull and Bones skullduggery than I was. I won’t name her, to spare her the shame. But we know she’s very intelligent; she tells us so herself when she conspicuously includes in her book’s bio the fact that she graduated from Yale, class of 1998, summa cum laude .

Summa cum laude ! That’s very impressive. Still, when one looks at her alleged “proof” that I was “hoaxed”-well, to put it kindly, it’s not exactly a summa cum laude job of journalism.

It’s not even a magna . It’s a joke.

In the original galley version of her book, she cites three reasons why the initiation we reported on and videotaped was a “hoax”:

1) She wasn’t in Skull and Bones-she was a member of another secret society she won’t disclose-but as “a veteran of Yale secret society initiations myself,” she tells us grandly, “I knew that the ceremony described in Rosenbaum’s article was much too vulgar for Skull and Bones.”

Clearly much too vulgar for someone like her Skull and Bones source, Deep Dunce, who utters statements like “We just wanted to fuck with that prick.”

2) The second pillar of her argument is equally baseless and equally snooty: We must have witnessed a hoax because “the rites are,” as a Bonesman from the late 1970′s explained to her, “a passing on of something of importance.”

Here again, testimony from someone who wasn’t there, a clueless fogey who didn’t like the sound of what he heard and therefore said imperiously, in effect, “It just couldn’t have happened, because I don’t like the sound of young people today.”

Even the author contradicts her source here, conceding that the Skull and Bones initiation “ceremony … surely has its sophomoric moments. Skull and Bones does use some silly methods to evoke temporary fear in initiates, but the ceremony is not full of the ‘ooga booga’ embarrassment that Rosenbaum detailed.”

But the “‘ooga booga’ embarrassment” appears on the audiotape of the previous year’s initiation (as she could have read in my story); it was one senior member’s screaming riff designed “to evoke temporary fear in the initiates.”

The existence of the previous year’s audiotape is the fact, the smoking gun that proved Deep Dunce’s words a lie, and that convinced Little, Brown that changes needed to be made in the galleys.

3) Finally, we come to the third and last pillar of the author’s hoax claim, Deep Dunce himself. The first two “sources,” after all, weren’t really sources at all, merely the author herself and some older Bones dunce-neither present at the ceremony, but both sure that it was too, too vulgar to be true.

The third source, the real basis for her entire three-page buildup to the hoax claim, is described as “One Bonesman I spoke with” who “laughed heartily” and uttered those immortal words, which now will forever be ensconced as the true motto of Skull and Bones: ” We just wanted to fuck with that prick .”

Thank God for Deep Dunce’s dimwittedness. (I suspect he’s a “legacy” candidate.) He, too, is obviously reading-challenged, or he would have realized that we had an audiotape of the April 2000 ceremony whose similarities to the alleged April 2001 “hoax” made it clear that that ceremony was substantially the same as the one a year earlier, updated with some contemporary references to George W. “reaming” Al Gore, Abner Louima and the plunger, and that charming phrase, “Lick my bumhole, Neophyte.” Nor can they claim that they staged the ceremony two years in a row to hoax me, because I was nowhere near and in no way involved with the audiotaping in 2000. (There’s no evidence they knew I was there in 2001, either.)

What’s really fascinating to me, though, is that the author could take these three pieces of “evidence”-capped by an obviously self-interested Deep Dunce, whose very words ooze malice-and accept them at face value as the basis for a bald, unquestioning assertion of a hoax. Can you say “reckless disregard for the truth”?

Didn’t her summa cum laude intelligence suggest to her that Deep Dunce might have been a bit self-interested in his claim? That the members of the class of 2000 and 2001 (we know your names) might have gotten some heat from the higher-ups in the society for giving Bones such a black eye in the press, just at the moment when George Bush was inviting his Skull and Bones buddies to the White House and the society was basking in its restoration to Oval Office primacy?

Wouldn’t a minimal regard for truth have led her to question whether her source might be self-interested, trying to deflect the heat by claiming it was all a hoax? Wouldn’t her editor or someone at Little, Brown have suggested this to her? And finally, wouldn’t she have attempted to contact me, at which time I could have saved her the embarrassment of being compelled to make “appropriate changes” when her book was already in galleys, very likely causing some people to cast a skeptical eye on all her other alleged facts? As it was, I saved her the even worse possibility of the Skull and Bones hoax played on her not being revealed until the book was printed, and then-as has happened to others recently-being withdrawn or pulped for libelous error. The thank-you note must be in the mail.

It’s my belief that what happened is that her summa cum laude ambition pushed her summa cum laude intelligence out of the way.* She wanted Deep Dunce’s hoax story to be true, because she, in effect, wanted to do what Deep Dunce wanted to do to me. Perhaps she wanted to make a P.R. splash by sliming a rival reporter who had been able to get a glimpse of a part of the initiation ritual she had not been privy to. (We didn’t claim that this was the entire ritual; we only reported on the phase visible outside in the Bones courtyard.)

But how did such a radical allegation with virtually no credible corroboration get into print-or at least into galleys?

What many people don’t realize is that, as a rule, magazine stories are far more thoroughly fact-checked than most published books. Some publishers give their copy editors a quasi-fact-checking role. But it’s nothing like the fact-checking department that Henry Luce set up at Time magazine, for instance.

As for Little, Brown, I have to give them partial credit so far.

Here’s what happened: Because it’s my impression that publishers don’t respond with much alacrity to ordinary citizens’ concerns unless they receive a lawyer’s letter, I asked my literary attorney, Daniel J. Kornstein, to fax them a letter detailing our concerns as soon as I’d read the “proof” for the hoax. The deputy general counsel of the AOL Time Warner Book Group called him back quickly, and after Mr. Kornstein made her aware that we had an audiotape from the year before proving that what we videotaped in April 2001 was authentic-that, in other words, as Dan’s letter said, “It was your author and Little, Brown who have been the ones hoaxed by your unnamed Skull and Bones source”-the publishing house acted responsively. They had some difficulty, they said, contacting the author, who was on a vacation-apparently someplace remote-but by the end of the week, they’d called us to say that the author would be making “the appropriate changes,” changes that will appear in the finished hardcover book, and that Little, Brown would “notify reviewers” that changes had been made.

Here’s what I mean when I say that Little, Brown deserves partial credit, though.

Given the opportunity, neither Little, Brown nor the author claimed to us that they had counter-evidence that what the book said was true. They quickly agreed to make “appropriate changes.”

But they refused to tell us how the hoax passage-which was the climax of a three-page-long opening segment of a chapter called “The Initiation”-would be changed, or whether it would simply be fudged. They just asked us to trust them.

And then they played a game with book reviewers as well.

They told us in their letter of July 2 (from the deputy general counsel of the AOL Time Warner Book Group) that, in addition to the standard notice on galleys, “Little, Brown will be taking steps to notify reviewers that changes have been made in the text and that any quotes, excerpts or references to the text must be based only on the text in the finished book.”

But they wouldn’t tell the reviewers what had been changed. Why make it a guessing game for reviewers to figure out what’s true and what’s false in the galleys? (It’s a bit unfair to the author.) Why hint that something important has been changed, but refuse to say what?

As of press time, Little, Brown has refused our request to be more specific about the changes in their notice to reviewers. One of the reasons I decided to write this piece is as a public service to the reviewers of America (mixed with a bit of self-interest, I’ll admit) to let them know. Here’s another reason for writing this story: the light it throws on Skull and Bones and the values that George Bush’s secret society inculcates, the kind of character represented by Deep Dunce’s “We just wanted to fuck with that prick.”

I don’t really think these are George W.’s own values (full disclosure: I was a classmate of his at Yale, although I didn’t know the guy.) All the more reason he should publicly repudiate the dirty tricks and Abner Louima jokes.

But targeting me has not only proved stupid and inept, it’s ungrateful as well. I’m one of the few non-conspiracy-theory-type reporters to present a balanced picture of the secretive institution. It’s true that I was the first (I believe) to point out in print how the legendary “sexualconfessional”-the bizarre sexual autobiography each new initiate was compelled to present to the other 14 initiates in the Skull and Bones Tomb-left the girlfriends of Skull and Bones members feeling exploited and violated once they learned their most private intimacies were being shared with 14 other adolescent males on those nights.

These outraged women (Yale went coed in 1969, but Skull and Bones refused women for more than two decades, once threatening to lock out an entire class that wanted to “tap” women) had become some of my best sources for my original 1977 Esquire story on Skull and Bones.

And it’s also true that I had provoked an uncomfortable silence in the forward cabin of Air Force Two when, in the mid-80′s, I had asked then–Vice President George H.W. Bush to talk about the influence of Skull and Bones on his career. (An account of that encounter and my original Esquire piece can be found reprinted, with further updates, in my recent collection, The Secret Parts of Fortune .)

And it’s true that I had reported on Skull and Bones’ intelligence-world connections. The planning for the Bay of Pigs, for instance-one of the most spectacular fiascoes in the history of the clandestine operations attempted by this country-was dominated by four people, three of whom were Skull and Bones members. Here we may see, on a worldwide canvas, the traditions of overprivileged, clandestine ineptness recently illustrated by Deep Dunce.

I’ve also reported, in the April 23, 2001, initiation-videotape story, some dicey interpretations of the tax regulations that have allowed Skull and Bones to claim an exemption for their summer-resort island in the St. Laurence River. I don’t think it’s the Enron of the Ivy League, but it deserves further investigation.

But on the other hand, I’ve gone out of my way to discount and debate overblown conspiracy theories about Skull and Bones (and believe me, there are plenty of them out there; I once found myself debating whether Skull and Bones members engaged in ritual sacrifice with a conspiracy-theory radio talk-show host). I have portrayed the way Bones exercises its influence as more of an informal Old Boy networking affair, more subtle and effective than the vision of the conspiracy theorists, who had them plotting the Kennedy assassination in the Tomb.

One thing I had wrong about Bones, though, was its staying power. I’d ended my 1977 piece on Skull and Bones on a kind of elegiac note-an elegy for the decline of the Eastern establishment that Bones then represented. I guess I was right about the decline in its professed values : Bones was then largely despised on campus for being full of fairly stupid “legacy” candidates. It was no longer attracting the best and brightest; it was cynically used for connections, but otherwise not taken seriously. (One of my Bones-girlfriend sources passed on her boyfriend’s boastful but inaccurate claim that members get a direct financial benefit from joining; the benefits are more indirect and have more to do with financial connections .)

But I was wrong about its decline in power: In fact, if you look at recent history, the Eastern establishment in general and Bones in particular haven’t done too badly for themselves: Two out of the last three Presidents were Skull and Bones, and one likely Democratic opponent of George Bush in 2004 will be John Kerry, also Skull and Bones-which might mean a Presidential election that is a Bones-versus-Bones smackdown, as someone once said. (O.K., I did.)

Meanwhile, the question remains whether the higher-ups in Bones had complicity in this recent attempt to perpetrate a fraud on the media. (It would be terrific fun to get them all to tell us, under oath, the “true” details of their rites.)

And Yale itself should do some soul-searching about Skull and Bones and its “fuck with that prick” values. Does Yale want to continue bearing the taint of its misbehavior?

But meanwhile, what lessons can one draw from this latest fiasco? I think first of the line from F. Scott Fitzgerald about the careless thuggishness of the overprivileged. It was the line he used in The Great Gatsby to describe the damage that Tom and Daisy Buchanan had left behind them. Tom Buchanan, of course, is a Yale man who sounds a bit like Deep Dunce. Deep Dunce could have ruined the gullible young author who believed his hoax claim. But why should he care? He was a Skull and Bones guy, and he was set for life. And much as I’d like to take the whole thing as a joke, there’s something very ugly about a representative of one of the most powerful secret societies in the world targeting a journalist because they don’t like what he’s written about them.

“They were careless people,” Fitzgerald wrote, “they smashed up things … then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they made.”