NO ONE answers when you knock on the iron doors of the Skull and Bones society in the middle of the campus at Yale University. If you have to knock, you are not wanted in.
Behind its Greco-Egyptian faade on the High Street in New Haven, the society is said to be one of the most powerful and influential in the United States.
Now, for the first time, two Bonesmen, as members are known, could go head to head for the post of President of the United States of America and Commander in Chief.
Skull and Bones is a social and political network like no other. With all its ritual and macabre relics, it 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’ club.
George W Bush (1968) admitted to being a Bonesman in his autobiography: "My senior year [at Yale University] I joined Skull and Bones, a secret society, so secret, I can’t say anything more."
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts (1966), currently the frontrunner in the race to become the Democratic candidate in the November presidential elections, revealed his membership of the society in an interview for US television programme Meet the Press.
Though Howard Dean (1971) has never said if he was a member of Skull and Bones, the former governor of Vermont is a Yale graduate.
Since 1988, three Yale graduates have led the United States. George Bush Sr and Bill Clinton both attended the university, though the latter was not tapped to be a Bonesman. This Yale succession is historic. Never before have three (or even two) successive US presidents studied at the same university.
The Bush family has been associated with Skull and Bones for generations. Prescott Bush, George W’s grandfather (1917) was a member of the band that stole for the society what became one of its most treasured artefacts: a skull that was said to be that of the Apache chief Geronimo, though this was later found to be untrue.
George Herbert Walker Bush (1948) was also a Bonesman.
Alexandra Robbins, author of Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power, said George W was "a somewhat ambivalent" Bonesman.
She said: "New members of Skull and Bones are assigned secret names, by which fellow Bonesmen will forever know them. George W was not assigned a name but invited to choose one. According to one report, nothing came to mind, so he was given the name Temporary, which, it is said, he never bothered to replace."
Conspiracy theories and hysteria surround the reporting of the influence of the society. Its rituals are said to be bizarre. Initiates must masturbate in a coffin while recounting their sexual exploits, for which they will be rewarded with a no-strings-attached gift of $15,000.
Kerry often told his fellow Bonesmen of his political ambitions. Even then, he knew he would pursue a career in public service and aim for the top.
Clark Abbott remembered a short exchange with Kerry during their first week at Yale. "I met this tall, athletic-looking fellow from St Paul’s [an elite boarding school in New Hampshire] and I asked him: ‘What do you want to do?’" Abbott said. Kerry’s response stunned Abbott: "I’d like to be president of the United States."
Kerry worked hard and played hard at Yale. He often woke up at 5am to study and went to Pamplona in Spain to run with the bulls with classmate David Thorne.
Dean was at Yale from 1967 to 1971,
the type who invited you back to his room to finish off the keg that was left over from the social events he helped organise, said friend Richard Willing, a national correspondent for newspaper USA Today.
As for politics, there were no indications that the aspiring doctor from the Upper East Side in New York was headed for a career in government.
"He was political, but he certainly wasn’t thinking about being a political office holder, let alone a president," said roommate Ralph Dawson, 54, a lawyer in New York.