Keepers Of The Crypt

Yale's Bonesmen swear they'll carry the secrets of Bush, Kerry and their other brothers to the grave.

March 23, 2004|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Presidential hopefuls have long feared the skeletons in their closet. But this year's contenders may have reason to rest easy: If they've got skeletons, at least some are safe in the hands of their fellow Bonesmen.

That would be the men of Skull and Bones, the secret society at Yale University to which both President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry belonged as students - an exclusive club composed of 15 elite seniors at an already-elite school, campus hotshots whose many talents included the ability to guard each other's private lives to the grave.

Inside the tomb, as the society's meeting place is called, the two men bared their souls. Decades later, only select details about their experiences rise from the crypt - and most hew closely to their official campaign script.

"John used to say, `I'd like to be president of the United States some day,' " says William "Chip" Stanberry, who remembers a young Kerry proudly voicing his lofty ambitions. "John was more in the mold of what I would call a leader."

Don Etra, Bush's Bones brother, recalls Bush in a way his campaign team would approve - as a charismatic guy with mass appeal on campus.

"The president's warmth, his personality and friendliness hasn't changed since college," Etra says. "He has much bigger responsibilities now than any of us did then, but he's the same warm, lovable guy now as he was then."

But inside that windowless stone building on High Street in New Haven, Conn., more than 35 years ago, a handful of students saw what many voters now crave - the unguarded side of the men who would one day fight for the presidency. Their tomb time did not overlap, because George W. Bush joined the seniors-only secret society as a member of the class of 1968, and Kerry, class of 1966, had belonged two years earlier. But they share this: For both, the unselfconscious and potentially revealing moments they experienced inside that club are subject to a lifelong gentlemen's agreement of secrecy.

And, on that score, their fellow Bonesmen remain silent.

Ron Rosenbaum, author of the book Explaining Hitler and a columnist for The New York Observer who has written extensively about the secret society, calls Bones a kind of extended family with the protections and loyalties and locked lips that such a family affords.

"You often see news reports that say Bush and Kerry were in Skull and Bones, but in fact they still are in Skull and Bones," says Rosenbaum, a classmate of Bush's at Yale who has long been curious about the club, even videotaping a nighttime rite in the secret society's courtyard a few years ago. "When you have two presidential candidates who come from that same extended family, I think it's a challenge ... to examine the influence that this family has had on them."

If Kerry wins, three of the last four presidents will have hailed from Skull and Bones, Rosenbaum points out. The presumptive Democratic nominee and the Republican incumbent share this old-guard tradition, as did the first President Bush.

The men know the mysteries behind the padlocked door - the nicknames and insider lingo, the mix of ruling-class tradition and creepy death imagery that conjure The Official Preppy Handbook as much as Dante's Inferno.

On the inside

Inside the tomb there were encounter-group confessions and commitments to noblesse oblige; members of the once all-male club spent ritualized evenings telling each other their life histories, their sexual histories, their ambitions. The philosophy behind the death theme - coffins and skulls and bones form the decor in the sprawling interior - stems partly from the idea that life is short, so the Skull and Bones initiates had better make it count by contributing to society and fulfilling their personal goals.

Since they've become presidential candidates, Bush and Kerry have laughed off questions about their Bones days in separate interviews on NBC's Meet the Press, refusing to address the chapter of their lives that began when they were tapped as juniors to spend their senior year in the private club.

Last month in an interview with Bush, Tim Russert, the show's moderator, mentioned that both the president and Kerry were in Skull and Bones. He waited for a response from Bush, who replied, "It's so secret we can't talk about it."

In an interview several months earlier, when Russert asked Kerry what he could say about the two candidates' association with Skull and Bones, Kerry answered, "Not much, because it's a secret."

Their reactions aren't surprising: Though one of the world's most exclusive societies clearly influenced both men, candidates striving for Everyman appeal don't usually play up Ivy League code talking on the campaign trail.

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