Kerry, W.: It’s Time For All Good Men To Quit Dumb Clubs

No more Mr. Nice Guy. I’m getting a bit tired of trying to be fair and balanced about Skull and Bones. Why don’t all you big-shot Bones guys stop cowering in your little hidey-holes, come out and speak for yourselves? Oh, that’s right-your secrets are so precious, so profound. It would be a tragedy of epic proportions if the banality of your ridiculous little rituals were exposed to the world.

Well, from now on, you’ll just have to fend for yourselves. I’m tired of “contextualizing” your nonsense. I just don’t have the time. Ever since the John Kerry nomination became a certainty and it became clear that we would be facing a Presidential contest between two members of Skull and Bones, or-as I put it when I first discussed the possibility in these pages in an April 23, 2001, column-a “Skull-to-Skull smackdown,” I’ve been getting an onslaught of requests from print and TV journalists from all over the world seeking to interview me about my reporting on the Yale Secret Society that counts both George W. Bush and John Kerry as members. Networks and newspapers from Germany, Belgium, Brazil, the Netherlands, Japan and the U.K., not to mention CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times , the Daily News , The Washington Post , the Los Angeles Times , The Baltimore Sun . I regret having avoided or declined many of these requests. I don’t mean to be impolite.

It’s not that I can’t understand the interest, or that I resent the calls. In a way, it’s a gratifying validation of the reporting on Skull and Bones, its impact and its influence, that I began doing as far back as 1977-reporting that was largely ignored in the mainstream media for a quarter of a century, until Bonesman George W. ran for President and I began to write about his secret little club in The Observer . Indeed, it’s more validation than I could have expected: I never would have imagined, when I wrote what I believe to be the first mainstream media investigation of Skull and Bones back then (in the September 1977 Esquire ), that we would see what I’ve come to call “the three out of four” phenomenon: If Kerry wins, it will mean three out of the last four U.S. Presidents will have come from the same exclusive and secretive Yale club. Even if Kerry loses, it will mean the White House will have been occupied by a Bonesman for three of the last five Presidential terms.

In fact, when I first wrote about Skull and Bones, the line that people at Yale took was that Bones was in decline, along with the rest of the Eastern elite establishment. But the establishment has proven more resilient than people imagined: The blue blood has recruited new blood, so to speak, although Bush and Kerry are not exactly new blood. (I’ve subsequently come to believe that the Bones-in-decline line is one that Bones and other secret-society types like to spread: They don’t want to admit that they could possibly have been helped to their positions of power by secret-society connections; they’d rather believe they’ve achieved their eminence through their peerless merit alone.)

I now wonder whether my original article might have inadvertently helped to revive the floundering secret society by spotlighting for prospective candidates all the luminaries who’d achieved eminence after they passed through the Skull and Bones “Tomb” in New Haven-thus making it more attractive to careerists and social climbers who put up with the silly rituals as undergraduates because they wanted to use the Bones connection to boost their post-college prospects.

Do I have to do the luminary litany once again? The way I put it in that original 1977 article-which you can find reprinted, with updates, in my recent collection, The Secret Parts of Fortune -was that some of the key figures who shaped America’s national character had their character shaped in the Tomb of Skull and Bones. People like the two Henrys-Henry Luce, the founder of Time-Life, and Henry Stimson, F.D.R.’s Secretary of War, who mentored a generation of State Department and national-security nabobs. Together, they shaped America’s internationalist character in the 30’s and thereafter (not all a bad thing, by the way). Of course, some of their disciples stumbled: the Bonesmen in the national-security and espionage establishment who oversaw planning of the Bay of Pigs; the two Bundy brothers, McGeorge and William, who helped to maneuver us into Vietnam. And don’t forget the pillars of the O.S.S. and the C.I.A. and their successors, including George H.W. Bush, who headed the C.I.A. before running for President (read Robin Winks’ excellent study of the Ivy League spies, Cloak and Gown , and Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas’ The Wise Men , about postwar diplomacy, to see how influential Bonesmen have been in shaping our national character, public and private).

And then, of course, there are the investment bankers (William Donaldson, now head of fellow Bonesman Bush’s S.E.C.) and the likes of Brown Brothers Harriman, which have made Bones such an attractive stepping stone, the stairway to networking heaven for the ambitious I-banker, lawyer or politician (the number of Senators is fairly impressive: Cooper, Chafee, Kerry, Boren and Taft, to name a few recent ones). And, of course, there have been a couple of Supreme Court justices and influential activists of the Right and Left, such as William Buckley Jr. and William Sloane Coffin Jr.

So, if I inadvertently saved Skull and Bones from irrelevance and decline, do I now want to destroy it? No, but I would like Bush and Kerry to resign for the sake of “transparency.” People in a democracy have a right to distrust candidates with secret associations. And Skull and Bones is not just something Bush and Kerry belonged to as undergrads and left behind. Media reports that say Bush and Kerry “were” in Skull and Bones are wrong; they still are in Skull and Bones. It’s something one joins at Yale, but belongs to for the rest of one’s life. Unless one resigns, which is what I’m now calling on George Bush and John Kerry to do forthwith.

Why now? Partly for selfish reasons. I’m just tired of taking time out from my own work to explain Skull and Bones in a nuanced, non-conspiracy-theory way when Skull and Bones refuses to explain itself. I did do a 60 Minutes segment last year and a brief Paula Zahn CNN segment this year to attempt to put the story in the perspective of history rather than conspiracy-theory hysteria. And I’ve tried to cooperate with serious-minded print reporters, because you get more time to attempt to contextualize the story with them than you do on TV.

And the story needs contextualizing, because there’s a vast ocean of conspiracy theory of the occult/satanic/world-domination variety out there. But there’s a different story, a real story there, which is worth documenting by real journalists. To consign it all to outré conspiracy theory is to miss the point.

Which is that Skull and Bones is a real network of powerful and influential individuals, many whose character and mind-set were shaped by their membership. That the concentration of Bonesmen in diplomacy, politics and espionage is worth examining for its effect on the culture of policy-making. And the effect that membership has had on the two Presidential candidates, and the ethos and values that the secret society inculcates in its influential initiates is also worth study. It should be the subject of the kind of reporting Bob Woodward did, for instance, in the six-part Washington Post profile of George H.W. Bush back in 1988. Woodward managed to learn about the way-while Bush senior was still Vice President-that several of his Skull and Bones classmates staged a kind of intervention that shaped his subsequent Presidential candidacy.

So it’s of interest psychologically, sociologically, anthropologically and, yes, politically as well: The fact that Skull and Bonesmen will occupy the White House for at least three out of the last five Presidential terms suggests something about the way power works in America, about the persistence and power of elitists and elitism in American society-and about the nature of the leaders we choose. We like to imagine America is a land that has left elitism behind for meritocracy, and to a certain extent that’s true. But-obviously-elite connections still matter.

The best analogy for Bones, I keep repeating like a mantra to journalists, is not some Protocols of the Elders of Connecticut, or a secret directorate of occult puppetmasters, but rather the well-recognized, well-reported-on Old Boy network in the U.K., which allowed Old Etonians and their Oxbridge analogues to administer a world empire for two centuries with a relatively few key like-minded people who bonded early in their lives and manifested a shared mind-set.

As I say, I’ve tried to be fair and balanced about Bones in all these interviews, discounting the sinister, occult Internet conspiracy-theorizing-which extends to satanic rituals, human sacrifice and the like-and instead advocating sober examination. But I’m getting tired of being the one standing up for rational discourse about Skull and Bones when Skull and Bones members won’t stand up for themselves.

So no more Mr. Nice Guy. Especially when George W. Bush and John F. Kerry themselves feed the conspiracy-theory frenzy with their evasive answers and condescending arrogance. Anyone who watched Tim Russert’s game efforts to ask both George W. and John Kerry about Skull and Bones on Meet the Press would have to feel puzzled or indignant about the sleazy, uneasy way they both tried to laugh off questions about it. A reaction that demonstrated that the secrecy of their little club was more important than the right of the American people to know about the nature of their presidents’ associations and how they affect who they really are.

“What does that tell us?” Mr. Russert asked John Kerry, after noting that the two major Presidential candidates were from the same secret society.

“Not much, because it’s a secret,” Kerry replied, according to the transcript that Lloyd Grove reprinted in the Daily News .

But Bush’s response was even more squirmy.

“You were both in Skull and Bones, the secret society?” Russert asked Bush about him and Kerry several months later.

“It’s so secret we can’t talk about it,” Bush said, trying, lamely, to make a joke about it.

There followed, shortly thereafter, one of the strangest exchanges (or non-exchanges) between a President and a journalistic interlocutor on national TV.

“Number 322?” Russert asked Bush, with a mixture of mischief and provocation.

Bush laughed to himself, looked down and moved on to the next subject.

Number 322! Blogger Daniel Radosh wondered about the weirdness of these little private conversations with code names and numbers on national TV: It’s “just odd,” he wrote. Will they talk in code during the Presidential debates? Or will they both, as Lloyd Grove puckishly suggested (referring to the rumored mandate that Bonesmen flee the room at any mention of Bones), leave the debate if the moderator mentions Skull and Bones?

It is odd that Bush and Kerry would, each in his own way, shield their little secret society and its influence from public scrutiny. The number 322, by the way, is sacred to Skull and Bones members, it is generally agreed, because that’s the number of human sacrifices the society requires every year. Just kidding! In fact, 322 B.C. is the date of the death of Demosthenes, the Athenian orator, who is regarded as the spiritual godfather of the Skull and Bones society in its own private mythology. Why couldn’t Bush have just said that? Because it’s such a sacred secret the American people can’t be trusted with its profundity? I mean, I made that public 25 years ago. Is it because we won’t be able to handle the profound, mythic implications of the truth? I guess, in their deluded imaginations, they must believe that.

Which is why Candidates Bush and Kerry should resign from Skull and Bones. Resignation might not change much, but it would be an important symbolic act. I don’t want to say it’s a case of dual loyalty by the duo, but I think the public would like to feel that they aren’t hiding anything about their psyche and their loyalties from us. It just goes against the grain of democratic openness, of “transparency” in government. Especially when it comes to nitty-gritty issues of conflict of interest.

Back when George W. and I were classmates, Skull and Bones and other secret societies at Yale used to take a whole page in the senior-class book to show off the names of their initiates. But for some reason, they stopped doing it by the 1980’s (I wonder if it had anything to do with my 1977 article). It is now very difficult to find out the complete roster of Skull and Bones members. So while we know that older Bonesmen like William Donaldson, head of the S.E.C., was a member, and that Bush’s classmate, Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum, is a member, we don’t know who else in the Bush administration has that special lifelong bond with others in the administration and the private, corporate institutions dependent on its favor. (I should say that I know Mr. McCallum and think he would make a far better Attorney General than the incumbent, despite his Bones affiliation.)

I’m not saying they should all resign too, but I think full disclosure by Skull and Bones of its membership lists-certainly full disclosure by any members in positions of public trust-should be required, if not by law, then by the spirit of democratic openness, at the very least.

Come out of your skeletal closets, Bonesmen. Say it loud: “I’m Bones and I’m proud!” Or how about, for the arrogant elitists among them: “We’re here. We sneer. Deal with it.”

What has motivated me in my reporting, aside from the curiosity I felt after having lived next-door to the Bones Tomb on the Yale campus, and what should motivate reporting on Skull and Bones in general, is the healthy distrust that small-D democrats have for the combination of power and privilege operating in secrecy that Skull and Bones represents. And it’s precisely this contempt for the public and the press that both Bush and Kerry displayed on Meet the Press -particularly in their lame attempts to make a joke out of privileging the secrets of their society over the public’s interest in their prospective President’s associations-that makes their resignation necessary.

I’m not the first to suggest resignation. A Washington Post reporter who was interviewing me (not Dana Milbank, the Post reporter on the Bush White House beat who is also a Skull and Bones member, but who has credibly demonstrated his independence-to my mind, at least) told me he’d seen an editorial quoted in a letter on the Web calling for the dual resignation, and it immediately struck me as a good idea.

But it’s more than the conflict of interest that’s irritating about the Bones connection: It’s the arrogant sense of entitlement and privilege that may account for key aspects of both candidates’ characters. It’s there in Bush’s dubious assertion of his special relationship to God, and in Kerry’s dubious assertion of a special relation to Gide.

You know about the former, but the latter is even more dubious, if you ask me. Did you see former Kerry aide Jonathan Winer’s quote in The Times , when he sought to portray Kerry’s alleged flip-flops on issues as due to the fact that, unlike other politicians, Kerry had a deeply nuanced mind, a deeper sense of the complexity of the human condition itself, not to mention mere political positions. To prove this, Mr. Winer cited Kerry’s use of a quotation from André Gide.

Only he got it wrong. (I’m assuming it was he who got it wrong rather than The Times ‘ reporter, because I didn’t see any Times correction.) Not only did he get it wrong, but he got it wrong hilariously. Winer’s version of the Gide quotation that was so close to Kerry’s heart and mind was: “Don’t try to understand me too much.”

“Don’t try to understand me too much”! The actual quotation is “Please do not understand me too quickly.” In other words, don’t jump to an instant interpretation of what I say-there may be more to it, more profound depths you haven’t glimpsed in your initial response. But many news sources have gone with Winer’s gibberish version.

“Don’t try to understand me too much” sort of means-if it means anything-don’t pay much attention to me, or don’t try to understand much of what I say. This is so self-evidently nonsense that it calls into question Kerry’s sagacity in hiring aides who apparently don’t notice how nonsensical they’re making their boss appear.

But even if, as the evidence indicates, Kerry himself knew the correct form of the Gide quotation, there’s more to the story.

It seems to imply that Kerry just happened to come across that line about complexity in the midst of his deep, wide-ranging reading of Gide. When, in fact, I think I know where he got his Gide quote: It’s the epigraph to Norman Mailer’s 1955 novel The Deer Park -and therein lies a story. In one of Mailer’s famous political pieces, he talked about meeting J.F.K. and how J.F.K. impressed him because he didn’t make the obvious move and mention The Naked and the Dead , but rather chose to tell Mailer (probably spuriously) that he had read the less well-known The Deer Park .

Now everyone knows that John F. Kerry has a J.F.K. fetish. It was evident to me when I was a freshman at Yale and he was a Big Man on Campus who styled himself after J.F.K. So if Kerry bought the blarney that J.F.K.-1 really liked The Deer Park , it’s quite likely that J.F.K.-2 would read it to see what his hero saw in it. And might well have encountered the Gide quote, that single sentence-“Please do not understand me too quickly”- there , rather than from his deep reading of Gide.

I don’t know if it’s the arrogance of privilege, thinking he could put one over on the proles, or if it’s a specifically Skull and Bones arrogance. But it’s arrogance.

And it’s arrogant for Skull and Bones to be such cry babies about those who investigate their rituals (see my columns of April 23, 2001, and July 15, 2002) and then snipe from behind the cloak of anonymity. It’s arrogant to expect the “barbarians” of the world (as they call all but those who belong to S. and B.) to spend their time being fair and balanced on their behalf.

Put up or shut up, Bonesmen. Publish your membership lists so we can know about potential conflicts of interest. I’ll begin by publishing the names of Bush’s and Kerry’s Skull and Bones classmates (see below).

But whether Bones publishes or perishes, it’s time for Bush and Kerry to resign.


Bockstoce, John R.

Bradford, Timothy McFall

Brown, George Clifford

Cross, Alan W.

Dalby, Michael Thomas

Howard, James Ernest

Kerry, John Forbes

Laidley, Forrest David

Pershing, Richard Warren

Rumsey, David McIver

Singer, Ronald Leonard

Smith, Frederick W.

Stanberry, William Burks (Jr.)

Thorne, David Hoadley

Vargish, Thomas


Austin, Roy Leslie

Birge, Robert Richards

Brown, Christopher Walworth

Bush, George Walker

Cohen, Kenneth Saul

Cowdry, Rex William

Etra, Donald

Gallico, G. Gregory (III)

Guthrie, Robert K.

Kolar, Britton Ward

McCallum, Robert Davis (Jr.)

Saleh, Muhammad Ahmed

Schmidt, Thomas Carl

Schollander, Donald Arthur

Thorne, Brinkley Stimpson. Kerry, W.: It’s Time For All Good Men To Quit Dumb Clubs