It’s the primal scene of American power, of Bush family values. For two centuries, the initiation rite of Skull and Bones has shaped the character of the men who have shaped the American character, including two Presidents named Bush.
And last Saturday, April 14–for the first time ever–that long-secret rite was witnessed by a team of outsiders, including this writer.
Using high-tech night-vision video equipment able to peer through the gloom into the inner courtyard of the Skull and Bones “Tomb” in New Haven, The Observer team witnessed:
· The George W. effect: intoxicated by renewed proximity to Presidential power, a robed Bonesman posing as George W. harangued initiates in an eerily accurate Texas drawl: “I’m gonna ream you like I reamed Al Gore” and “I’m gonna kill you like I killed Al Gore.”
· Privileged Skull and Bones members mocked the assault on Abner Louima by crying out repeatedly, “Take that plunger out of my ass!”
· Skull and Bones members hurled obscene sexual insults (“lick my bumhole”) at initiates as they were forced to kneel and kiss a skull at the feet of the initiators.
· Other members acted out the tableau of a throat-cutting ritual murder.
It’s important to remember this is not some fraternity initiation. It is an initiation far more secret–and far more significant, in terms of real power in the United States–than that of the Cosa Nostra. If the Bushes are “the WASP Corleones”–as the ever more stingingly waspish Maureen Dowd has suggested–this is how their “made men” (and women) are made.* It’s an initiation ceremony that has bonded diplomats, media moguls, bankers and spies into a lifelong, multi-generational fellowship far more influential than any fraternity. It was–and still remains–the heart of the heart of the American establishment.
Further revelations turned up by the Observer Bones Investigation Unit include:
· The words to the secret Skull and Bones “death mantra.”
· Copies of the Skull and Bones tax returns, obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, raise questions about the legitimacy of the secret society’s claim to charitable tax-exempt deduction status–particularly relevant considering recent criticism of the Bush tax plan for favoring the privileged few.
· A possible explanation emerged in the course of the initiation ceremony for George W.’s decision to run for President in the first place.
‘The Devil Equals Death’
The Observer Mission Impossible expedition had its inception several months ago with a phone call from Peggy Adler, the research associate on my previous Skull and Bones piece in The Observer (July 17, 2000). She is the demon investigator and former Iran-contra committee staffer who, among other coups, cross-referenced corporate boards to crack the “RTA code,” the corporate shell game by which the corporate shell of the Skull and Bones society, the Russell Trust Association, shielded its paper trail from prying eyes by changing its name to RTA Inc.
Ms. Adler said she had been approached by a member of the Yale community who wanted to share with us a remarkable coup of his own: He had found a way last year, in April of 2000, to audiotape the Skull and Bones initiation ceremony. And he wanted to know if we’d be interested in an attempt to videotape it this time.
And so one afternoon last December, shortly after the Bush electoral victory had been certified, I met with the intrepid fellow; he booted up his laptop and let me listen to the sounds of a ceremony that had been the subject of fevered speculation for nearly two centuries now.
Of course, there is more to Skull and Bones than the mystical mumbo-jumbo of its rituals. The rituals are less important than the relationships–the bonds of power and influence that develop between Skull and Bones initiates after they graduate. But the relationships are first forged by the rituals and fact that the founders of Time Inc. and the C.I.A., as well as several Secretaries of State and National Security Advisors–the men who made the decision to drop the Hiroshima bomb, invade the Bay of Pigs and plunge us into Vietnam, the Tafts, the Bundys, the Buckleys, the Harrimans, the Lovetts–all took part in this initiation ritual may have something to do with the real world power of those bonds. The unspoken understanding, the comfort level with the clandestine, the nods and winks with which power is exercised.
The initiation ceremony begins the process of inculcating into the elect of the elite (just 15 out of 1,300 in every Yale class) the same mystical sense of mission that allowed the British Old Boy network to rule a worldwide empire.
The whole phenomenon is rarely looked into beyond the exotic ritual trappings (although Evan Thomas and Walter Isaacson talk about the world-wide web of Bones foreign policy mandarins in The Wise Men ). But it’s something I’ve been investigating off and on for a quarter of a century now. I am the Ahab of Skull and Bones, pursuing the white whale (or white male) leviathan to the utmost depths. As an undergraduate at Yale I lived next door to the Skull and Bones Tomb, and back in 1977 I published the first outsider’s investigation into Skull and Bones, its rituals and its influence on American political culture (an updated version of that piece, revised to include my chilly exchange with George and Barbara Bush on Air Force Two, can be found in my recent nonfiction collection, The Secret Parts of Fortune ).
And so it was momentous for me to actually hear the sounds of the Skull and Bones initiation on that laptop. But in listening to it, awe gave way to a mixture of puzzlement and embarrassment–and an even deeper, unsatisfied curiosity.
In part it was the fact that the ritual was heard but not seen. My Yale source had found a previously unexploited perch from which to record the sounds of the ceremonies, but could glimpse them only incompletely. He reported a figure dressed like the devil, another one in a hooded-skeleton costume and others in robes. The thing that stood out for me, listening to it, was what I’ve come to think of as “the death mantra.”
Yes, the death mantra–here it is, the three-line Skull and Bones initiation-ritual theme that has bound three Presidents (including the present one) to their secret society:
‘THE HANGMAN EQUALS DEATH!
THE DEVIL EQUALS DEATH!
DEATH EQUALS DEATH!’
Most of the speculative lore about the Skull and Bones ritual has centered on its death fixation. Beyond the obvious skull-and-crossbones insignia, of course, the most persistent story is that initiates spend their senior year in the basement crypt of the Bones Tomb taking turns lying in a coffin and, in two long, intense, psycho-drama autobiographical sessions in said coffins, recount their personal and sexual history to the other 14 chosen ones. The better to bond for life with those they know best and prepare for their destiny as stewards of the ruling class.
The death-centered imagery, the injunction to initiates that they must “die to the barbarian world” and be reborn in the Elysian company of the elect of “The Order,” as they call it, is what makes Skull and Bones as radically different from a college fraternity as the Gambino family is from the “hunting and fishing club” that was their nominal headquarters.
The hangman equals death. The devil equals death. Death equals death ….
What the hell is going on there? Is it a puzzle in logic, like “All men are mortal. Socrates is mortal …”? Does it solve out to “The hangman equals the devil?”
Could one detect a capital-punishment theme here–the hangman as executioner presaging George W.’s prolific execution rate as Texas governor? “George W. equals death,” you might say.
And what about the devil? (Well, the figure dressed like the devil.) Is that the secret they’ve been covering up ever since the society was founded in 1832, the offshoot of a German secret society: devil worship? A fulfillment of the paranoid fantasies of the fundamentalist right, who believe the Eastern establishment is a front for Satanic conspiracy.
Probably not, but it made me more eager to participate in this year’s caper: the attempt to see as well as hear it, to capture it all on video–for educational, historical and journalistic purposes to document a defining rite of passage of the American ruling class.
Oh, yes–before we get to the night-vision videotape, there was one more thing, the embarrassing part of the audiotape, the OOGA-BOOGA part. Part of the ceremony on the tape involved an initiation master ordering the neophytes to fetch bones and uttering the (I guess) fake Tarzan-movie “native” chant “OOGA BOOGA.” It left me feeling embarrassed for Skull and Bones. Hard to ever take seriously again anyone whose defining life-mission moment includes an OOGA BOOGA.
But as it turned out, “OOGA BOOGA” was not evident in this year’s ceremony, as far as we were able to tell. Perhaps it was an improvisation, like this year’s impersonation of George W. (“I’ll ream you like I reamed Al Gore”) was.
The Observer Mission Impossible Force met to plot strategy an hour before sunset on initiation night, Saturday, April 12. It is not widely known, but Tap Night, which occurs on Thursday, is not generally the same as initiation night. The good stuff happens on Saturday night, and already limos are cruising the quiet streets that crisscross the Yale campus, conveying initiates of other secret societies to their rituals. Bones initiates come on foot, knock on the massive triple-locked wooden door of the Tomb and are conveyed to the first stage of the ritual. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Let me just mention how much I admired the intrepid Yale members of the Observer Bones Task Force for displaying the kind of curiosity, initiative and heretical, skeptical impulse apparently absent on most Ivy campuses, if you believe David Brooks’ recent Atlantic Monthly cover story on get-along-go-along premature careerists. The guys on my team will make more of a real contribution than any of the smug secret-society types.
First on the agenda was a quick examination of the Bones income-tax filings, which an outside consultant to the team had obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. He and Peggy Adler pointed out to me a couple of dubious assertions on the Form 990’s (Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax), which called into question certain of the grounds for charitable exemption. In particular, there was the assertion in the 1997 RTA Incorporated filing (Part VI, line 80b) that the organization was not “related … through common membership, governing bodies, trustees, officers etc. to any other exempt or non-exempt organization.”
Contradicting that assertion is information on the filing of the Deer Island Club Corporation. Deer Island is the private island of the Skull and Bones Society, located in the St. Lawrence River. It is the place where Bones members bring their families for summer get-togethers. It is wholly owned and run by Skull and Bones members, apparently contradicting Bones’ claim of “no relationship” to another exempt organization, and appearing to contradict the strictly educational and charitable mission for which RTA gets its exemption for Skull and Bones.
The consultant argues in a memo that the purpose of the 80b question on the Bones deduction claim form “is to prevent tax exempt charities from undertaking non-charitable activities by hiding them in another corporation. This is of course precisely what RTA Inc. is accomplishing through the Deer Island Club Corporation. In order to conceal this arrangement however RTA Inc. denies its connection to the DICC.”
In fact, he goes on, “RTA and the DICC are so closely linked that for all intents and purposes RTA Inc. does own Deer Island despite its claims to the contrary.”
I’m not going to go into the whole tax issue here. Perhaps the Bones shell corporation has a good and valid reason for claiming that it has no connection to the Bones private-island country club.** Perhaps this sort of thing goes on all the time among the private charities of the privileged. I don’t think Deer Island will become George W. Bush’s Whitewater. But one might think that a scrupulous White House counsel would want to look at the kind of tax information George W.’s secret society is filing on his behalf. Particularly since he’s promising enormous windfalls for the privileged, the tax breaks his secret society takes should be utterly beyond suspicion. Does the President, I’d like to know, claim his Skull and Bones dues as a charitable deduction, when the only charity seems to be providing a club house and country house for the privileged? The RTA filing claims Skull and Bones exists “for the benefit of Yale University.” But Yale–which celebrates three centuries of luminous atainments this weekend–ought to question what “benefit” it gets from chants of “lick my bumhole” and the mockery of Abner Louima.
Anyway, as night came falling and we choreographed the evening’s caper, I felt that we were carrying on an old-fashioned, longstanding tradition: the natural reaction of the democratic (small D) tradition to elitist power that conceals itself within the cloak of privilege and secrecy. And for me, it was a culmination of my own quarter-century quest, one that had become personalized lately by the fact that our Skull and Bones President had been a classmate of mine at Yale.
‘Run, Neophyte, Run!’
At last, zero hour approached. For two centuries, the outside world had wondered and fantasized about what was about to happen, what actually went on in the fabled Skull and Bones initiation. There’s a long tradition of Yale secret societies (including Bones) raiding other secret societies to capture their ritual artifacts. In the 1970’s, an all-woman break-in team published photographs of the Bone’s Tomb’s interior. But tonight, for the first time ever, we would attempt to capture the actual secret initiation ritual and bring it to light for anthropological study. Our team’s equipment included three night-vision-capable digital-video cameras, one tape recorder, a stepladder and two walkie-talkies. (I could never get mine to work.) Because of a recent injury which limits my mobility, I was stationed at a listening post with my tape recorder while the video-cam team proceeded to their more perilous perch at the forward base (as those of us in special ops call it). We planned to rendezvous afterward for me to view the tape.
We split up just as the whoops and groans, the screams and moans began to emanate from inside the Tomb and the masters of the Skull and Bones initiation began establishing the posts they’d man for the occult psycho-drama to come.
From my post, I could see through an open window shadowy figures walking very close above my head. Later I’ll put my audio impressions together with the video-cam record the other team obtained for a more complete picture, but first let me transcribe some of the notes I made from listening in. Fragmentary as they are, they capture some of the strangeness, and perhaps the kind of disorientation the initiates themselves experienced there in the courtyard of Skull and Bones.
First, there was the guy posing as George W. He seemed to be a bit disgruntled at being given this role–a feeling he expressed by calling out in his George W. drawl to another “Patriarch” (as they’re called): “I got the power to bomb the crap out of China and they give me this station.”
Then someone–one of the initiates?–called out “Uncle Toby!” (Many Bone ritual personae are taken from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy – you gotta give them credit there for good taste.)
“Uncle Toby!” the cry repeated.
“Shut up, neophyte.”
“Take that plunger out of my ass, Uncle Toby.”
Presumably, this mocking Louima reference was a ploy to scare initiates into thinking Uncle Toby was going to give them the plunger treatment.
That cheerful rectal theme was followed up by:
“I’m gonna ream you like I reamed Al Gore!” from the George W. imitator.
Followed by “Help me! It’s the devil!”
And then “George W.” really getting into it: “I’m gonna kill you like I killed Al Gore.”
Silence. Then a door opened. Voices–half of them, it seemed, women–were screaming: “Run! Neophyte! Run, neophyte!”
(The neophytes are, of course, the new initiates.)
From my post, I could only see hooded figures racing about in the darkness above my head, accompanied by cries of:
“Find the femur!”
And (again): “Take that plunger out of my ass, Uncle Toby!”
Then silence for awhile. The neophyte seemed to have gone back inside the Tomb. After which one of the Patriarchs complained, “We ought to get better blood than this fuckin’ syrup, man.”
It was only later that I learned what the blood was for: the whole throat-slitting “barbarian” tableau after the skull-kissing.
But first there was a different kind of kissing being referred to. There were cries of “Lick my bumhole, neophyte!” “Lick my ass, neophyte!” “Do you like my bum, neophyte?” (Despite these heartfelt pleas, we did not witness any of those acts being consummated.)
The bumhole tribute was followed by more cries of “Get the femur!” and at least part of the death mantra I’d heard before: “DEATH EQUALS DEATH.”
Following which, “George W.” chimed in with “I’m the President of the motha-fuckin’ U.S.A.”–apparently just for the sheer pleasure of saying it. (He was sounding more like the real George W. all the time.)
It began to be clear that what was going on outside in the courtyard was the climax of an initiation ceremony that began inside the Tomb. There, it’s reputed, the initiates must first enter into a coffin and “die to the barbarian world,” to the world of “savages” (all but the Skull and Bones elect), in order to be reborn as a member of “The Order.” Then comes the skull-kissing and the throat-slashing.
Two hours later, after all 15 of the initiates had burst out to be harangued and scared, I approached the rendezvous point with the night-vision camera team. This was the moment of truth: The night-vision team wasn’t sure what their digicams had picked up. With their own eyes they’d gotten evocative glimpses, but the playback on the camera’s swing-out view screens would be the first time, so far as we knew, any outsider had really seen the legendary ritual. A ritual three Presidents, a few Supreme Court justices, maybe a dozen Senators (including 2004 Democratic Presidential contender John Kerry–which would mean a head-to-head, Skull-to-Skull smackdown with George W.), several Secretaries of State, literary and cultural luminaries including John Hersey and William F. Buckley, had all undergone.
The footage was ghostly, it was grainy–but from the angles of the night-vision cams, we were able to piece together a narrative of what happened when the initiates emerged one at a time from the preliminaries inside the Tomb.
First they were led forward by a figure in a devil costume. Not really a sinister, Satanic-looking figure but, as one of the team put it, “More like Satan’s Little Helper.”
A shrill, menacing and sometimes blood-curdling chorus of cries and screams and imprecations accompanied the emergence:
” Hurry, neophyte!” ” Run, neophyte!”
“Find the femur, neophyte!” Along with the occasional “Lick my bumhole!” “Remove the plunger!”-type outcries.
The devil figure pulled them into a white tent in the courtyard where, we think, they found their femurs and emerged with what looked like a thigh bone, although it was impossible to tell whether it once belonged to a human or not.
When they reemerged from the tent, they were led to the centerpiece of this part of the ritual.
They were forced face-to-face with a shocking tableau: a guy holding what seemed like a butcher knife, wearing a kind of animal-skin “barbarian” look, stood over what seemed to be a woman covered in fake blood and not much else. The neophyte then approached a skull a few feet away from the knife-wielder-and-victim tableau. The neophyte knelt and kissed the skull, at which point the guy with the knife knelt and cut the throat of the prone figure. (Well, pretended to cut the throat.)
I’m not sure what it all means. I’ve yet to decode the mystical significance of this, although I do love to think of former President George Bush kissing the skull. Obviously, it has something to do with subservience. Kiss the skull of power. Bow down to The Order. But what about the “barbarian” cutting the throat of his victim?
Does it mean “One dies to the barbarian world”? Does it mean “Death to the barbarians”? Does it endorse cutthroat tactics? Is that how they enforce silence and secrecy?
I plan to continue my relentless study of the hermeneutics of the Bones rituals, myths and symbolism based on these new revelations, and perhaps with the help of a Bones graduate who feels the time has come to lift the veil on the silly (and no longer even secret) symbolism of their society. (Contact me privately c/o The Edgy Alliance, 577 Second Avenue, Box 105, N.Y., N.Y. 10016.)
All that death imagery, though: Maybe it’s meant to be a first ritualistic confrontation with Mortality, the skull as a memento mori designed to instill in the “neophyte” a sense of the gravity of one’s mission in life.
In that regard, consider the direct relevance of at least one aspect of the ritual to George W. That recurrent phrase: “Run, neophyte, run!”
Think about it. When George W. was first considering the fairly serious shift from baseball-team owner (whose major achievement was trading away Sammy Sosa) to governor of Texas, or when he was considering the shift from one-term governor of Texas to President of the United States, what decided him–what made him think he could pull it off, despite years as a semi-permanent neophyte? Could it be that what he heard, echoing in his brain, down the corridors of the years, was the injunction from that long-ago April night when he was a Skull and Bones initiate? When he bent down to kiss the skull and heard, resounding in his ears, the command: ” Run, neophyte, run !”