Listen up: The conversations here are with William F. Buckley and Ron Rosenbaum–the first trying stylishly to obscure, the second earnestly to decipher, the strangest, almost unmentionable development in our politics: that the presidential campaign rivals George Walker Bush and John Forbes Kerry were each and both inducted, two years apart, into the most secret and powerful of the Yale senior societies, Skull and Bones. We would not believe such a story unfolding anyplace else in the world–in Zimbabwe, say, or Turkey, or China. Surely the response would be: are they kidding themselves about their “democracy”? Or are they kidding us?
Bush-Cheney in 2000 was the first “all-oil” ticket in our history, though only a few, like Kevin Phillips, got the joke at the time. Bush v. Kerry is the first “all Bones” contest. And again we don’t know how to talk about it. The candidates will be no help. Bonesmen like Bush and Kerry are obliged to leave any room in which their fellowship is discussed. It’s “too secret to talk about,” as President Bush told Tim Russert on Meet the Press last winter. But can the rest of us come to some understanding here? Does Bones stand for satanism? for undergraduate silliness? for some subtler symptoms of democratic disease?
Partial self-disclosure here: I was tapped in the Spring of 1961 into the Wolf’s Head Society at Yale, which stands in relation to Skull and Bones roughly as the Boston Red Sox stand in relation to the New York Yankees, or perhaps vice versa. We have had our championship seasons. Wolf’s Head has had its share of Tafts and Pillsburys, hockey captains and famous authors , like Stephen Vincent Benet. Yale presidents Whitney Griswold and Benno Schmidt were Wolves. So are Chip McGrath of The New York Times and Paul Goldberger of The New Yorker. Also the Palestinian scholar now at Columbia, Rashid Khalidi, and the New York activist and sometime candidate Lew Lehrman. So we are not an invisible or entirely undistinguished lot. Yet some of us find the public presumption of these Bones guys astonishing.
I’ve never much cared whether they wrestled in the nude at Yale, or whether patriarch Prescott Bush actually stole Geronimo’s own skull and brought it to the Bones mausoleum on High Street in New Haven. Every boy, as Bill Buckley agreed, is entitled to a few secrets from his tree-hut days. And still I have three major misgivings about the Bones overgrowth in politics.
First, the early accreditation without merit. It is Nick Lemann’s coinage that three kinds of people make it to the upper reaches of the American meritocracy: Mandarins, Lifers and Talents. Mandarins are the ones who got their tickets punched at the right institutions–Bill Clinton (Georgetown, Oxford, Yale Law) is the perfect type–with the ultimate seal of the Rhodes Scholarship. Lifers are the guys who make it up through the corporation, or the U.S. Senate, or the Army with faithful time in grade. Bob Dole, Joe Lieberman, Colin Powell and perhaps Dick Cheney could be described as Lifers. Talents (the saving grace of the open American way) are the men and women who come out of nowhere, with Moxie and something to say or do. This is of course the only rule in jazz, sports and show biz. Eddie Murphy is pure Talent. So is Ross Perot. So was Ronald Reagan. So perhaps is John Edwards. So also Arnold Schwarzenegger, apparently. We’ll see. There are mixed types, too. I put myself among the many people I know who are really Mandarins but pretend (or are practicing) to be Talents. I think of John Kerry as a Mandarin and a Lifer, both. John McCain looks like a hybrid Lifer and Talent. But George Bush a Parody Mandarin, who got his ticket punched at Andover, Yale and Harvard Business School, but never did the work. As I said to Bill Buckley, Bush was the kind of guy at Yale–and there were lots of them–of whom we said: “he hasn’t had his first serious thought.” Bush knows full well that he is a joke on the whole game. He told Yale’s graduating seniors in 2001 that he had come back to New Haven to demonstrate that a C student could become president. He added the caution (I’m paraphrasing): don’t drop out of Yale, or flunk out as Dick Cheney did, or you’ll only get to be vice president! George Bush got to be a legacy candidate for President, only because he first succeeded as a legacy candidate for Andover, Yale and Bones. It’s an embarrassment that our politics seems to work the same old way.
Second, Bones means never having to say you’re sorry. I remember Jimmy Breslin observing in 1970–around the time of the Nixon-Kissinger invasion of Cambodia and the gunning down of protesters at Kent State: “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with this country–the Berrigan brothers are in jail, and the Bundy brothers are on the street.” Daniel and Philip Berrigan were Catholic priests and militant peaceniks, endlessly in trouble with the law. William (Yale and Bones, 1939) and McGeorge (Yale and Bones, 1940) Bundy were mandarins of intelligence and international policy, up to their necks in the planning and execution of the Vietnam war, and unapologetic till their dying days. Poor Robert McNamara still travels the world, like a wandering Russian monk, trying to understand “what went wrong” with the Vietnam war he ran. It’s an exercise that would never have occurred to the Bundy types. Surely that defiant arrogance has something to do with the lessons of secrecy, blind loyalty and silence they learned in Bones.
Third, the “all Bones” race can be taken as confirmation of too many deeply anti-democratic symptoms in our time of dynasticism (yes, Hillary Clinton), plutocracy, polarization and selection (as opposed to election)– all the nasty forms of elitism that put George Bush–through a 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision–into the White House in the first place.
In fairness, let’s hear the case in favor of the Bones tap as the hand of destiny, in one of the great peans to Yale’s society system in general and to Bones in particular:
“It would of course be foolish to judge an individual solely by his society connections, but it would be far less foolish than to judge him solely by the number of prizes, or scholarships, or honors he could lay claim to, as is not infrequently the pratice. To set up any one arbitrary standard whereby to judge character is manifestly unfair, yet, if it is to be done, there is no single test which embraces so many, in making an estimate of a Yale man’s importance, as his share in the society system.“
The lines are from a book titled Four Years at Yale by Lyman H. Bogg, Yale class of 1869, in the dawn of the Gilded Age. Perhaps there is no pithier statement of the case for President Bush’s reelection, though John Kerry could claim the endorsement just as proudly.
So much for what I think. Listen to the experts:
Bill Buckley (Yale 1950) knows all about Skull and Bones from the inside, but of course in our too discreet conversation we did not blurt out the name of the association we were talking about. He was happier speaking of his lifelong admiration for William Sloane Coffin (Yale and Bones, 1949), his opposite number in the right-left politics of the 1960s, and speculating about whatever it was in the New Haven water that produced so many political contenders from the ’60s, when we all thought the action and the “ergs of idealism” were cut of California.
Ron Rosenbaum (Yale 1968), a classmate of President Bush, knows almost all about Skull and Bones from the outside. In his famous investigative piece in Esquire in 1977, Rosenbaum claimed he could actually hear the rites of initiation from his room in Jonathan Edwards College next door. In our conversation he voiced a common-sensical distrust of power and privilege connected to secrecy. He has written that both Kerry and Bush should resign their Bones memberships because no president should have secrets he could never share with the American people. The polymathic Ron Rosenbaum writes the Edgy Enthusiast column in The New York Observer. His new book is an anthology of his own writing: Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-Semitism.