Skull And Bones At
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|Skull and Bones is an elite
secret society at Yale University that includes some of the
most powerful men of the 20th century.
A 60 Minutes Special
Oct 5, 2003 10:03 pm
YORK (CBS) There are secrets that George W. Bush guards at least
as carefully as any entrusted to a president.
to share these secrets even with the vice president -- secrets he
has held ever since his days as an undergraduate at Yale.
his senior year, Mr. Bush - like his father and his grandfather -
belonged to Skull and Bones, an elite secret society that includes
some of the most powerful men of the 20th century.
Bonesmen, as they're called, are forbidden to reveal what goes in
their inner sanctum, the windowless building on the Yale campus that
is called "The Tomb."
There are conspiracy theorists who see
Skull and Bones behind everything that goes wrong, and occasionally
even right in the world.
Apart from presidents, Bones has
included cabinet officers, spies, Supreme Court justices, statesmen
and captains of industry - and often their sons, and lately their
It’s a social and political network like no
other. And they've responded to outsiders with utter silence – until
an enterprising Yale graduate, Alexandra Robbins, managed to
penetrate the wall of silence in her book, “Secrets of the Tomb.”
Correspondent Morley Safer reports.
”I spoke with about 100
members of Skull and Bones and they were members who were tired of
the secrecy, and that's why they were willing to talk to me,” says
Robbins. “But probably twice that number hung up on me, harassed me,
or threatened me.”
Secret or not, Skull and Bones is as
essential to Yale as the Whiffenpoofs, the tables down at a pub
called Mory's, and the Yale mascot - that ever-slobbering bulldog.
Skull and Bones, with all its ritual and macabre relics, was
founded in 1832 as a new world version of secret student societies
that were common in Germany at the time. Since then, it has chosen
or "tapped" only 15 senior students a year who become patriarchs
when they graduate -- lifetime members of the ultimate old boys'
“Skull and Bones is so tiny. That's what makes this
staggering,” says Robbins. “There are only 15 people a year, which
means there are about 800 living members at any one time.”
But a lot of Bonesmen have gone on to positions of great
power, which Robbins says is the main purpose of this secret
society: to get as many members as possible into positions of power.
“They do have many individuals in influential positions,”
says Robbins. “And that's why this is something that we need to know
President Bush has tapped five fellow Bonesmen to
join his administration. Most recently, he selected William
Donaldson, Skull and Bones 1953, the head of the Securities and
Exchange Commission. Like the President, he's taken the Bones oath
Ron Rosenbaum, author and columnist for the New
York Observer, has become obsessed with cracking that code of
“I think there is a deep and legitimate distrust in
America for power and privilege that are cloaked in secrecy. It's
not supposed to be the way we do things,” says Rosenbaum. “We're
supposed to do things out in the open in America. And so that any
society or institution that hints that there is something hidden is,
I think, a legitimate subject for investigation.”
investigation is a 30-year obsession dating back to his days as a
Yale classmate of George W. Bush. Rosenbaum, a self-described
undergraduate nerd, was certainly not a contender for Bones. But he
was fascinated by its weirdness.
“It's this sepulchral,
tomblike, windowless, granite, sandstone bulk that you can't miss.
And I lived next to it,” says Rosenbaum. “I had passed it all the
time. And during the initiation rites, you could hear strange cries
and whispers coming from the Skull and Bones tomb.”
a lifetime of attempts to get inside, the best Rosenbaum could do
was hide out on the ledge of a nearby building a few years ago to
videotape a nocturnal initiation ceremony in the Tomb's courtyard.
“A woman holds a knife and pretends to slash the throat of
another person lying down before them, and there's screaming and
yelling at the neophytes,” he says.
Robbins says the cast of
the initiation ritual is right out of Harry Potter meets Dracula:
“There is a devil, a Don Quixote and a Pope who has one foot
sheathed in a white monogrammed slipper resting on a stone skull.
The initiates are led into the room one at a time. And once an
initiate is inside, the Bonesmen shriek at him. Finally, the
Bonesman is shoved to his knees in front of Don Quixote as the
shrieking crowd falls silent. And Don Quixote lifts his sword and
taps the Bonesman on his left shoulder and says, ‘By order of our
order, I dub thee knight of Euloga.’"
It’s a lot of
mumbo-jumbo, says Robbins, but it means a lot to the people who are
“Prescott Bush, George W's grandfather, and a band of
Bonesmen, robbed the grave of Geronimo, took the skull and some
personal relics of the Apache Chief and brought them back to the
tomb,” says Robbins. “There is still a glass case, Bonesmen tell me,
within the tomb that displays a skull that they all refer to as
“The preoccupation with bones, mortality, with
coffins, lying in coffins, standing around coffins, all this sort of
thing I think is designed to give them the sense that, and it's very
true, life is short,” says Rosenbaum. “You can spend it, if you have
a privileged background, enjoying yourself, contributing nothing, or
you can spend it making a contribution.”
And plenty of
Bonesmen have made a contribution, from William Howard Taft, the
27th President; Henry Luce, the founder of Time Magazine; and W.
Averell Harriman, the diplomat and confidant of U.S. presidents.
“What's important about the undergraduate years of Skull and
Bones, as opposed to fraternities, is that it imbues them with a
kind of mission for moral leadership,” says Rosenbaum. “And it's
something that they may ignore for 30 years of their life, as George
W. Bush seemed to successfully ignore it for quite a long time. But
he came back to it.”
Mr. Bush, like his father and
grandfather before him, has refused to talk openly about Skull and
Bones. But as a Bonesman, he was required to reveal his innermost
secrets to his fellow Bones initiates.
“They're supposed to
recount their entire sexual histories in sort of a dim, a dimly-lit
cozy room. The other 14 members are sitting on plush couches, and
the lights are dimmed,” says Robbins. “And there's a fire roaring.
And the, this activity is supposed to last anywhere from between one
to three hours.”
What’s the point of this?
believe the point of the year in the tomb is to forge such a strong
bond between these 15 new members that after they graduate, for them
to betray Skull and Bones would mean they'd have to betray their
fourteen closest friends,” says Robbins.
One can't help but
make certain comparisons with the mafia, for example. Secret
society, bonding, stakes may be a little higher in one than the
other. But everybody knows everything about everybody, which is a
form of protection.
“I think Skull and Bones has had
slightly more success than the mafia in the sense that the leaders
of the five families are all doing 100 years in jail, and the
leaders of the Skull and Bones families are doing four and eight
years in the White House,” says Rosenbaum.
Bones is not
restricted to the Republican Party. Yet another Bonesman has his eye
on the Oval Office: Senator John Kerry, democrat, Skull & Bones
“It is fascinating isn't it? I mean, again, all the
people say, ‘Oh, these societies don't matter. The Eastern
Establishment is in decline.’ And you could not find two more
quintessential Eastern establishment, privileged guys,” says
Rosenbaum. “I remember when I was a nerdy scholarship student in the
reserve book room at, at the Yale Library, and John Kerry, who at
that point styled himself ‘John F. Kerry’ would walk in.”
“There was always a little buzz,” adds Rosenbaum. “Because
even then he was seen to be destined for higher things. He was head
of the Yale Political Union, and a tap for Skull and Bones was seen
as the natural sequel to that.”
David Brooks, a conservative
commentator who has published a book on the social dynamics of the
upwardly mobile, says that while Skull & Bones may be elite and
secret, it's anything but exciting.
“My view of secret
societies is they're like the first class cabin in airplanes.
They're really impressive until you get into them, and then once
you're there they're a little dull. So you hear all these conspiracy
theories about Skull and Bones,” says Brooks.
“And to me, to
be in one of these organizations, you have to have an incredibly
high tolerance for tedium 'cause you're sittin' around talking,
talking, and talking. You're not running the world, you're just
Gassing or not, the best-connected white man's
club in America has moved reluctantly into the 21st Century.
“Skull and Bones narrowly endorsed admitting women,” says
Robbins. “The day before these women were supposed to be initiated,
a group of Bonesmen, including William F. Buckley, obtained a court
order to block the initiation claiming that letting women into the
tomb would lead to date rape. Again more legal wrangling; finally it
came down to another vote and women were admitted and initiated.”
But Skull & Bones now has women, and it’s become more
“It has gays who got the SAT scores, it's got
the gays who got the straight A's,” says Brooks. “It's got the
blacks who are the president of the right associations. It's
different criteria. More multicultural, but it's still an elite,
On balance, it may be bizarre, but
on a certain perspective, does it provide something of value?
“You take these young strivers, you put them in this weird
castle. They spill their guts with each other, fine. But they learn
something beyond themselves. They learn a commitment to each other,
they learn a commitment to the community,” says Brooks. “And maybe
they inherit some of those old ideals of public service that are
missing in a lot of other parts of the country.”
And is that
relationship, in some cases, stronger that family or faith?
“Absolutely,” says Robbins. “You know, they say, they say
the motto at Yale is, ‘For God, for country, and for Yale.’ At
Bones, I would think it's ‘For Bones.'”
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