IT is October and the US presidential election’s first televised debate between Senator John Kerry and George W Bush is under way. Suddenly, someone shouts out ‘Skull and Bones’, whereupon the two candidates silently leave the room.
Walking out when the name of Yale University’s eccentric but influential secret society is mentioned in company, is a Bones’ requirement for members. And for the first time in US history, whoever is elected president is bound to be a member of this elite sect, founded in 1832.
Bush (Bones 1968) acknowledged in his 1999 memoir, A Charge to Keep, that he is a member, but added that the society’s secrecy requirements forebade his saying any more. Kerry (Bones 1966) has also kept silent about his membership, but is known to use its mystical number, 322, as a memory aid. Three US presidents – both Bushes and William Howard Taft (1857-1930) – have been Bonesmen. The fourth could be Kerry.
Skull and Bones provides an easy target for mockery and mirth, what with its sepulchral secret headquarters at the Yale campus in New Haven, Connecticut; its bizarre initiation ceremony with enforced naked wrestling; its grandiose names for members such as Caliban, Odin, or Baal; and its general predilection for the absurd. But the society’s acolytes rise to the top echelons of US business, finance, civil service, and politics. Bonesmen wield enormous, but concealed, power.
Members pledge to always help each other, and the combination of this obligation and the secrecy of their vows encourages a disturbing tendency towards something Americans criticise elsewhere: crony capitalism. Indeed, as demonstrated by the authoritative book, Alexandra Robbins’ Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power (Little, Brown, 2002), the prime example of this is George W Bush himself.
His remarkable rise to wealth and power, despite a dismal record in business and oil exploration, has been attributed to help from his father’s friends, but the real connection was clearly fellow Bonesmen.
Seven members of the Bush dynasty joined the society and President George HW Bush also benefited directly from his Bones brotherhood. The family’s long Yale tradition almost certainly got George W into the university, despite his poor academic record (114th out of 238 at school).
In 1971 he was rejected by Texas University law school, so he called Robert Gow (Bones 1955) at his Houston agricultural company, Stratford of Texas, and although he was not looking for anyone, Gow made Bush a management trainee.
In 1977, when Bush started his first oil company Arbusto Energy (arbusto is Spanish for bush), he asked his uncle Jonathan Bush (Bones 1953), head of a New York investment firm, to help him find investors. They mustered 28, who contributed US$565,000, but the largest investor, with US$172,550, was California venture capitalist William Draper (Bones 1950).
Even Bush’s baseball deal to acquire the Texas Rangers in 1989, promoted as his own effort, also got Bones help. Of four main investors, one was Dudley Taft, grand-nephew of Bonesman President Taft, from the only family with more Bones members than the Bushes. Another investor was multi-millionaire Edward Lampert (Bones 1984).
In Bush’s political career, the secret society rallied again. In the 2000 election, the head of a large billboard advertising company spent US$1 million on billboards for Bush – Stephen Adams (Bones 1959). At least nine other Bonesmen contributed more than US$25,500 to his 1998 Texas gubernatorial campaign, and 58 Bonesmen contributed US$1,000 each to his presidential bid.
What is striking about these favours – and Bush has eagerly returned them – is his public scorn for Yale and its ‘elitist snobs’, while surreptitiously reaping the benefits.
Perhaps this attitude can be expected from a secretive group that refers to outsiders as ‘barbarians’ and makes no bones, if that’s the word, about stealing the artefacts that litter its ‘tomb’ headquarters. One is the skull of the Apache chief and hero Geronimo, stolen in 1918 by Bonesman Prescott Bush, George W’s grandfather.
In the 1980s the tribe’s request for the return of its ancestor’s skull to Arizona was refused by George W’s uncle Jonathan.
The Bush Dynasty: The Unofficial History
The Next President of the United States will be an initiate of the Order of the Skull and Bones
The John Kerry Experience