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Keepers of the crypt
Yale's Bonesmen swear they'll carry the secrets of Bush, Kerry and their other brothers to the grave.

Baltimore Sun | March 23 2004

WASHINGTON - Presidential hopefuls have long feared the skeletons in their closet. But this year's contenders may have reason to rest easy: If they've got skeletons, at least some are safe in the hands of their fellow Bonesmen.

That would be the men of Skull and Bones, the secret society at Yale University to which both President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry belonged as students - an exclusive club composed of 15 elite seniors at an already-elite school, campus hotshots whose many talents included the ability to guard each other's private lives to the grave.

Inside the tomb, as the society's meeting place is called, the two men bared their souls. Decades later, only select details about their experiences rise from the crypt - and most hew closely to their official campaign script.

"John used to say, 'I'd like to be president of the United States some day,' " says William "Chip" Stanberry, who remembers a young Kerry proudly voicing his lofty ambitions. "John was more in the mold of what I would call a leader."

Don Etra, Bush's Bones brother, recalls Bush in a way his campaign team would approve - as a charismatic guy with mass appeal on campus.

"The president's warmth, his personality and friendliness hasn't changed since college," Etra says. "He has much bigger responsibilities now than any of us did then, but he's the same warm, lovable guy now as he was then."

But inside that windowless stone building on High Street in New Haven, Conn., more than 35 years ago, a handful of students saw what many voters now crave - the unguarded side of the men who would one day fight for the presidency. Their tomb time did not overlap, because George W. Bush joined the seniors-only secret society as a member of the class of 1968, and Kerry, class of 1966, had belonged two years earlier. But they share this: For both, the unselfconscious and potentially revealing moments they experienced inside that club are subject to a lifelong gentlemen's agreement of secrecy.

And, on that score, their fellow Bonesmen remain silent.

Ron Rosenbaum, author of the book Explaining Hitler and a columnist for The New York Observer who has written extensively about the secret society, calls Bones a kind of extended family with the protections and loyalties and locked lips that such a family affords.

"You often see news reports that say Bush and Kerry were in Skull and Bones, but in fact they still are in Skull and Bones," says Rosenbaum, a classmate of Bush's at Yale who has long been curious about the club, even videotaping a nighttime rite in the secret society's courtyard a few years ago. "When you have two presidential candidates who come from that same extended family, I think it's a challenge ... to examine the influence that this family has had on them."

If Kerry wins, three of the last four presidents will have hailed from Skull and Bones, Rosenbaum points out. The presumptive Democratic nominee and the Republican incumbent share this old-guard tradition, as did the first President Bush.

The men know the mysteries behind the padlocked door - the nicknames and insider lingo, the mix of ruling-class tradition and creepy death imagery that conjure The Official Preppy Handbook as much as Dante's Inferno.

On the inside

Inside the tomb there were encounter-group confessions and commitments to noblesse oblige; members of the once all-male club spent ritualized evenings telling each other their life histories, their sexual histories, their ambitions. The philosophy behind the death theme - coffins and skulls and bones form the decor in the sprawling interior - stems partly from the idea that life is short, so the Skull and Bones initiates had better make it count by contributing to society and fulfilling their personal goals.

Since they've become presidential candidates, Bush and Kerry have laughed off questions about their Bones days in separate interviews on NBC's Meet the Press, refusing to address the chapter of their lives that began when they were tapped as juniors to spend their senior year in the private club.

Last month in an interview with Bush, Tim Russert, the show's moderator, mentioned that both the president and Kerry were in Skull and Bones. He waited for a response from Bush, who replied, "It's so secret we can't talk about it."

In an interview several months earlier, when Russert asked Kerry what he could say about the two candidates' association with Skull and Bones, Kerry answered, "Not much, because it's a secret."

Their reactions aren't surprising: Though one of the world's most exclusive societies clearly influenced both men, candidates striving for Everyman appeal don't usually play up Ivy League code talking on the campaign trail.

While conspiracy theorists may run with the idea of a secret ruling junta nestled in the heart of Yale, others see the Bones ties as evidence of something less suspicious but still significant - that despite some populist political successes, America still relies heavily on established networks of influence and power and connection.

Bones alumni include President William Howard Taft; Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart; Time magazine founder Henry Luce; Washington power brokers such as W. Averell Harriman and Henry Stimson; writers such as Archibald MacLeish and William F. Buckley Jr.; and many Central Intelligence Agency operatives and corporate titans.

No guarantee of success

But not every Bonesman is destined for professional success - many are living modestly without a hint of influence on the national scene. And not all Bonesmen even keep in touch or make a big deal about the brotherhood.

Sometimes, former members actually come to disdain the ethos of this group. In the late 1960s, anti-Vietnam War activist the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. took aim at the club and its male bonding rituals, regretting that he'd ever belonged in the late 1940s.

"It's an awful indictment that you have to disappear into a tomb to have a meaningful relationship," he told The New York Times in 1967, when he was quoted in a front-page article about the selection of the next crop of Bonesmen, a group that included Bush.

Others famously rebuffed Bones, finding it ostentatious in its secrecy and its embrace of the establishment. Kingman Brewster Jr., Yale's president when Bush was a student, was a hero on some parts of the campus for turning down Bones when he was tapped nearly three decades before. Former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said the society seemed uncool as anti-establishment feeling swept the Yale campus in the 1960s and 1970s; he rejected Bones on Tap Night.

Defenders of the secret society say it's no wonder the members became leaders - they were, after all, picked for the club because they were among the best and brightest at a school that celebrates independent thinking and public service.

For Bush and Kerry, the Bones relationships are still strong. Members of Bush's group gathered for his wedding and celebrated most of his political triumphs together. Eleven of Bush's 14 brothers have visited Camp David during his presidency, according to the White House, which lists them simply as friends or donors. Bonesmen say they convened at the Four Seasons hotel in Austin to celebrate Bush's inaugural as Texas governor, and shortly after Bush became president, The New Yorker reported that one of his first social functions at the White House was a gathering with the Bonesmen of 1968.

Similarly, Kerry still hangs tight to the crypt. A decade ago, he orchestrated one of the biggest reunions his Bones class had ever had. The Massachusetts Democrat gathered almost all 15 together to mark the 25th anniversary of the death of their fellow Bonesman, Richard Pershing, Kerry's close friend who was killed in action in Vietnam.

Kerry credited Bones for the strength of their friendship.

"I have never felt so void of feeling before," Kerry wrote in a letter to his parents after Pershing died, according to The Boston Globe. "With the loss of Persh something has gone out of me - he was so much a part of my life at the irreplaceable, incomparable moments of love, concerns, anger and compassion exchanged in Bones that can never be replaced."

At the sober reunion in honor of Pershing, Kerry led his fellow Bonesmen to Arlington National Cemetery, where they reminisced by their friend's grave. A Marine played taps. Everyone spoke at the grave, including Kerry.

The classmates then returned to Kerry's Senate office for more catching up over a catered lunch.

And there, in the halls of Congress, they heard the rattle of Bones.

Commemorative photo

Kerry told his friends about a picture taken years before in the Senate president's chambers with then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, the late Rhode Island Republican Sen. John H. Chafee and then-Sen. David L. Boren, an Oklahoma Democrat. According to a fellow Bonesman, Kerry had the photograph snapped because all four power brokers were in Bones.

"John has been one of the major conveners" of his Skull and Bones group, says Dr. Alan Cross, a Bonesman with Kerry and now a professor of social medicine and pediatrics in the school of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Cross says his friend enjoys their shared past, planning reunions with a mellow, rich atmosphere: "A bunch of us [Bonesmen] had dinner at his house in Boston four years ago at his birthday party. We had a great time - nice wine, good food, good companionship, pretty house."

Four years ago, classmates say, Kerry confided to his Bones brothers that should Bush become president, he would challenge him in 2004. A victory in the presidential election would be the fulfillment of a goal that Kerry had been telling his friends about since college.

"John didn't do the things that you normally associate with being a popular Big Man on Campus - he didn't drink a lot, party a lot, cut classes a lot, hang out shooting pool," recalls Stanberry. "On top of that, his personality was, let's face it, serious. Some might say somber and some have said aloof. I saw it more as reserved. And I'd kid him about this - that he was almost too serious for his own good."

Classmates say Kerry was tapped for Skull and Bones largely because of his prominence as head of Yale's political union and his near-perfect record as a member of Yale's debate team, whose discussion topics included not just politics but also lighter subjects - like why "a woman is just a woman but a good cigar is a great smoke."

In the family

Bush, conversely, was what some would call a legacy tap. Though he didn't meet some of the usual member characteristics - others in his group were standout students and athletes - Bush's father, grandfather and other relatives had been Bonesmen. It was his own father, then a congressman, who reportedly came to Bush's dorm room one night and asked him to join the Bush tradition at Yale's oldest secret society, formed in 1832.

"George was very aware of being a Bush - it didn't stop him from being an individual, but the thought of damning the family name I'm sure would have been abhorrent to him," Dr. Kenneth Cohen, an Atlanta dentist and a fellow Bonesman with Bush, recalled during Bush's first presidential campaign.

"He joined because he was asked."

But friends recall the future president soon warming to the club, spending more time in the tomb than the mandatory twice-a-week meetings required.

Inside the "Firefly Room," where men drank from skull-shaped cups at dimly lighted official gatherings, Bush offered his pals a glimpse of his softer side and surprised those who saw only his bravado on campus.

One classmate called that inner sanctum a "microcosm of a better world," where the men saw themselves changing the future. Bonesmen don't recall Bush, then president of the hard-partying fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon, showing much interest in politics or being highly outspoken on the subject of the war. In 1968, Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard and was not sent to Vietnam.

Kerry, the son of a diplomat who was never so much a part of the campus "in" crowd as a world-weary observer of it, spent his time in the tomb focusing on politics, his classmates say. He discussed foreign affairs - even inviting William Bundy, a senior State Department official and an architect of the war in Southeast Asia, to address the group about the escalating conflict in Vietnam.

Classmates also remember Kerry taking refuge behind the society's triple-locked doors when, a few weeks before delivering his Class Day speech at graduation, he ripped up the standard platitudes and rewrote his address. In his remarks he reportedly called for a restricted U.S. role in Vietnam - though he also spoke of the duty to serve. A few months earlier, Kerry had enlisted in the Navy; he would serve two tours in Vietnam.

Secret stuff

Kerry's friends say he knew of Bush, though the president is said not to have remembered Kerry. But both knew the secrets of Bones, like the mysticism surrounding the number "322" (lore has it that the club's secret number unlocked former Bonesman Averell Harriman's briefcase when the presidential adviser was shuttling classified documents between Allied leaders during World War II).

Both men know why the Bones clocks are always five minutes fast and why there's a rumor that Bonesmen lie in coffins for initiation and what all those nicknames mean (Bush's reportedly was "Temporary," because he never chose one; Kerry's remains a mystery).

Skull and Bones began admitting women in 1992 - one of the last of Yale's secret societies to do so. Barbara Bush, the president's 22-year-old daughter and a junior at the school, was either snubbed by the society on Tap Night or rejected the request to join, depending on which tabloids are doing the reporting. Regardless, it's too soon to tell whether Bones will work any similar magic for women on the path to power.

Today, a number of Bones alumni can be found around Washington. Some have taken jobs in the Bush administration, including two from the president's class. Dr. Rex Cowdry is the associate director of the National Economic Council and Robert McCallum Jr. is serving as the associate attorney general at the Department of Justice.

Kerry's connections to Bones appear strongest in his personal life. He met his first wife, Julia Thorne, through her brother, David Thorne, a fellow Bonesman and, later, a political adviser to Kerry. The candidate's second wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, was first married to another member of the society, the late Republican Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania.

The success of Bonesmen is likely to breed more success for the club.

"With two presidential candidates, they probably won't need major recruiters after this," says Rosenbaum, the occasionally Bones-obsessed columnist. "For those who are looking for a ladder up, it sure looks promising."

But even if the 2004 election is a boon to Bones, it's safe to assume the candidates won't be talking about that in their campaigns. As they try for the common touch, Bush and Kerry probably aren't going to call their VFW crowds "barbarians" - Bones-speak for anyone who isn't in the club - or reminisce about the good old days in a society whose blood remains plenty blue.
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