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Skeleton key to the White House

Both John Kerry and George Bush were members of Yale's secretive Skull and Bones society. Matthew Wells scours the university for future presidents


London Guardian
Tuesday February 24, 2004


The Skull and Bones lodge, also known as the "tomb", houses one of Yale university's estimated 10 secret societies. Photograph: Matthew Wells

"The Hangman equals death, The Devil equals death, Death equals death!"
It's weird to think that the two men who are now contesting the most powerful job in world politics, both apparently went through an occult ritual that involved dressing-up and chanting the words above, prostrate in front of a fellow student wielding a butchers' knife and dressed in animal skin.

John Kerry and George Bushs junior and senior were members of the secretive Skull and Bones society at Yale university. The final words of the initiation ceremony, according to the intrepid New York Observer journalist Ron Rosenbaum, who has secretly recorded the secret incantations, centre around the command, "Run neophyte!"

Well, in maturity, both men are certainly running, and it's impossible to know how much their membership of the exclusive Skull and Bones Society has helped them reach the positions of eminence they now occupy: President of the United States, and senatorial lead-contender for president.

"I think most people here would want to be asked to be a member, though I don't think it has the power it did in Bush and Kerry's day. I mean, there weren't even women admitted then..."

I am talking to a bunch of 19-year-old male sophomores (second-year students), finishing off a mountain of food in the dining hall of one of Yale's prettiest colleges.

They had just been talking amongst themselves about the irony of the near-certainty that a "Bonesman" will end up in the White House again next year, and they're not sure whether it's a good idea, or just plain bad.

"If I was hiring for a job, and I found out they were a Bonesman. I'd definitely want to meet them," says one laconic youth. "Yeah, they're captain of the football team-types. Real assholes," says another. "I would still want to know them, and I probably would join if I could."

Accompanied by my guide for the afternoon, secretary of the Yale College Democrats, Alissa Stollwerk, we walk by the Skull and Bones lodge - home to the bizarre initiation rites outlined earlier - which is known to all on campus as the "tomb". It is an enormous, ugly, triple-locked building that doesn't even have a doorbell.

After a bit of poking about, the only signs of human occupation are two large sacks of washing propped-up against a basement door. Allisa is wary of my investigative urges and walks down the block to avoid being seen with me. She finds the place a bit creepy.

Only around 15 new members per year are admitted from each class of 1,300. It is a privilege offered only to final-year students. Howard Dean's daughter is quietly studying here, as well as one of the Bush twins. Who can tell if she has supped from the same old skull as her dad, or brandished the same femur?

The Bush tribe do not take kindly to inquiries about the elite order, and John Kerry has refused to answer questions about his involvement. It is known that those other famous also-ran "Yalies" of the political year - candidates Howard Dean and Joe Lieberman - were not members while they were here. Though with an estimated 10 secret societies at this Ivy League institution, who can be sure who belonged to what?

Away from the cloak-and-dagger world, George W Bush was a big-shot fraternity guy when he was here, while JF Kerry was president of the Political Union, which seems to exist to mirror the debating rowdiness of the British House of Commons.

None of this curious history, which simply goes to underline Yale's extraordinary ability to churn out Presidential-material graduates, was getting in the way of the Yale Democrats weekly meeting last night.

Looking around at the 50 or so young people in the room, you marvel at how professionally and seriously they take their politics here. Two recruiters from the Democrats' national grassroots organisation are offering jobs where they promise 12-hour days:

"We like to win, and we like to work with people who like to win," says one. Alissa is not taking her Howard Dean poster down from her bedroom wall yet, and like many others here, she put in weeks of free time campaigning in New Hampshire.

"Everyone has their passion. There are a lot of us who feel that way about politics here. I will do something political, but I'm not sure what yet. I definitely don't want to be writing the news, I want to be making the news and promoting activism," she says.

The president of the university Democrats, Nirupam Sinha, and the campaigns coordinator, Amia Srinivasan, are also buzzing with purpose and the thought of the hard contest ahead.

"I find it so exciting and energising in places like Washington DC. And when you're here, there is so much political activity. I just think Yale attracts that kind of student, from all walks of life now - not so much the old Ivy League," says Amia.

Yale students certainly do not hang about with forging their political careers. Democrats dominate the campus, as they do the city of Newhaven, where the university has been based since 1701. Ben Healey is only 22, but he is already on the local council, as the alderman effectively representing his fellow students.

Earlier, Alissa's two roommates, Karen and Esther, discussed what it was like living with a political junkie: "I definitely feel under pressure to have a political opinion on things now, when I never used to read papers and stuff like that," says science major Esther.

"There are people looking to just further their resume and network, but it's Yale, and people here do speak their mind and show extraordinary leadership. We should just take advantage of that."

Walking back through the Oxbridge-style quads to the reality of Newhaven's nondescript downtown streets, I wonder what these earnest and driven students do to unwind. I haven't been offered a single drink or seen a single beer bottle. Where are the noisy on-site bars spilling drunken oafs onto the lawn to form human pyramids?

It's only Monday night, and there is an election to win.
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