Secret societies have a problem; they depend on publicity to earn their mystique.
The Skull and Bones, which dates from 1832, may now be the most famous such institution in the United States. It is perhaps unsurprising therefore that the myth should have begun to outstrip its comparatively humdrum present-day reality. In the past Skull and Bones had close connections with the CIA and many of the architects of post-war American foreign policy, such as Averill Harriman, were Bonesmen. "The only agenda of Skull and Bones is to get its members into positions of power and then to have those members hire others to positions of prominence. The organisation has an enormous superiority complex that partly fuels their secrecy," argues Alexandra Robbins, author of Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power.
As Ron Rosenbaum, a classmate of Bush’s, wrote in a famous Esquire article in 1977 the idea behind Skull and Bones was once that of "converting the idle progeny of the ruling class into morally serious leaders of the establishment".
Interest in the society’s activities could only be piqued by the revelation that the 15 members recruited - or tapped - each year would have to lie in an open coffin while recounting their life story and deepest, most personal existential fears and phobias.
As an article in Bush’s 1968 yearbook recounted, "the initiate faces the delegation and the alumni alone and is physically beaten. Next he is stripped and made to engage in some form of naked wrestling." Later in the year the fledgling Bonesman would be "quite brutally evaluated by the others".
Both Bush’s father and grandfather had been Bonesmen - as had another future President, William Howard Taft - and it was widely assumed that young George would follow in the family tradition. For a while however it appeared that George W might join an open, blithely jolly and hedonistic society, the "Gin and Tonic" instead. But, according to his biographer Bill Minutaglio, his father, then a US Congressman, visited his son at Yale and asked him to join Skull and Bones.
Yet even then, however, the societies were in decline. The Yale Daily News reported that "even social prestige is declining as a reason to join a society ... the number of undergraduates who regard society members with suspicion rather than fear and admiration has been growing." Yale in the 1960s was changing fast, trying to shake off its preppy, privileged past and opening its doors to students from all kinds of backgrounds, many of whom had little time and often much contempt for the old days and ways.
Bush maintained a "gentleman’s C" grade average throughout his time at Yale and never became involved in campus politics. But although the future President would say in his ghost-written "autobiography," that: "We were young men trying to enjoy what should have been the last carefree days of youth," his time in New Haven played a part in his future rejection of his New England ancestry as he reinvented himself as a bona fide Texan.
"What angered me was the way such people at Yale felt so intellectually superior and so righteous," he has said, and it seems reasonable to conclude that Yale, however inadvertently, played a part in convincing the younger Bush to reject, at least outwardly, the trappings of privilege.
Kerry was not so quick to shrink from Yale’s high society. A champion debater at the university Kerry was, as his diplomat father would have expected, involved in political life on campus. He was leader of the University Liberal club and Kerry’s ponderous gravity made it clear that this was a serious young man intent on a serious future.
The future Senator retained an affection for the club well beyond graduation. In 1986 he tapped Jacob Weisberg, now the editor of the online magazine slate.com, for membership. Weisberg was appalled that a liberal Senator from Massachusetts would countenance and encourage membership of a secret society that at that point still did not admit women. He turned down the opportunity to join.
By 1992 Skull and Bones had finally decided to admit women. Black and Jewish students had been admitted, albeit in comparatively small numbers, for decades, but now the final frontier fell. Since then, Yalies report, the society has become less significant; not, they stress, because women have been admitted but because the secret societies are seen as an anachronism. Indeed, few think they even necessarily attract the best and the brightest any more, being concerned with ensuring that they have a sufficiently diverse membership that comes close to mirroring the student body as a whole. In the Ivy League these days even secrets have to be politically correct.
In recent interviews, NBC’s Tim Russert has asked both men about their membership in the society. "Is there a secret handshake? Is there a secret code?" he asked Kerry.
"I wish there were something secret I could manifest there," replied the Democratic candidate. Bush for his part, quipped, "It’s so secret we can’t talk about it."
In replying to these questions, both men were breaking a cardinal Bonesman rule - namely that when the club was mentioned in conversation a Bonesman should leave the room or deny membership in such a way that his denial both confirmed his membership and brought the discussion to an end.
As Rosenbaum argues, "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. You can spend it, if you have a privileged background, enjoying yourself, contributing nothing, or you can spend it making a contribution."