George W., Knight of Eulogia

A rare look inside Skull and Bones, the Yale secret society and sometime haunt of the presumptive Republican nominee for President

Illustration by Pat Oliphant

On High Street, in the middle of the Yale University campus, stands a cold-looking, nearly windowless Greco-Egyptian building with padlocked iron doors. This is the home of Yale's most famous secret society, Skull and Bones, and it is also, in a sense, one of the many homes of the family of George W. Bush, Yale '68.

Bush men have been Yale men and Bonesmen for generations. Prescott Bush, George W.'s grandfather, Yale '17, was a legendary Bonesman; he was a member of the band that stole for the society what became one of its most treasured artifacts: a skull that was said to be that of the Apache chief Geronimo. Prescott Bush, one of a great many Bonesmen who went on to lives of power and renown, became a U.S. senator. George Herbert Walker Bush, George W.'s father, Yale '48, was also a Bonesman, and he, too, made a conspicuous success of himself. Inside the temple on High Street hang paintings of some of Skull and Bones's more illustrious members; the painting of George Bush, the most recently installed, is five feet high.

There were other Bush Bonesmen, a proud line of them stretching from great uncle George Herbert Walker Jr. to uncle Jonathan Bush to cousins George Herbert Walker IIIand Ray Walker. So when George W. was "tapped" for Skull and Bones, at the end of his junior year, he, too, naturally became a Bonesman—but, it seems, a somewhat ambivalent one.

New members of Skull and Bones are assigned secret names, by which fellow Bonesmen will forever know them. Some Bonesmen receive traditional names, denoting function or existential status; others are the chosen beneficiaries of names that their Bones predecessors wish to pass on. The leftover initiates choose their own names. The name Long Devil is assigned to the tallest member; Boaz (short for Beelzebub) goes to any member who is a varsity football captain. Many of the chosen names are drawn from literature (Hamlet, Uncle Remus), from religion, and from myth. The banker Lewis Lapham passed on his name, Sancho Panza, to the political adviser Tex McCrary. Averell Harriman was Thor, Henry Luce was Baal, McGeorge Bundy was Odin. The name Magog is traditionally assigned to the incoming Bonesman deemed to have had the most sexual experience, and Gog goes to the new member with the least sexual experience. William Howard Taft and Robert Taft were Magogs. So, interestingly, was George Bush.

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; Temporary is how Bush's fellow Bonesmen know him today. (In recent interviews I asked a number of Bush's Bonesmen classmates about the name and elicited no denials.)

The junior George's diffidence in the matter of his secret name seems to reflect a larger ambivalence toward Yale and its select, the most elite of whom are the members of Skull and Bones. The elder George holds his fellow Yalies—particularly his Bones brethren—in great esteem, and over the years has often gone to them for advice. George W., in contrast, has publicly made a point of his disdain for the elite northeastern connections that shaped his father's world and, to some extent, his own. Fay Vincent, the former commissioner of baseball, who is a Bush family friend and himself the son of a Bonesman, says, "Young George is as unlikely a Bonesperson as I've ever met." Young George has not attended a Yale reunion since he graduated.

Bush's dismissal of Yale and all it stands for may be a response to the repeated charges of political opponents that he is not much more than a papa's boy. Kent Hance, who trounced Bush in his 1978 congressional race, insinuated that Bush was not a true Texan and accused him of "riding his daddy's coattails."

If George W. truly wanted to detach himself from his father and from the traditions of a long line of ancestors, he chose a curious path—in effect, retracing his father's footsteps.

Skull and Bones is the oldest of Yale's secret societies and by far the most determinedly secretive. As such, it has long been an inspiration for speculation and imagination. It still is. The society is, of course, the inspiration for the new Universal Pictures thriller The Skulls, about a nefarious secret society at an Ivy League school in New Haven. In 1968, when George W. Bush was in Skull and Bones, there were eight "abovegrounds," or societies that met in their own "tombs," and as many as ten "undergrounds," which held meetings in rented rooms. In an article in the 1968 Yale yearbook Lanny Davis, a 1967 Yale graduate and a secret-society member who would go on to become a White House special counsel in the Clinton Administration, described how Bones, famous for its distinguished list of members, held more sway than the others.

Come "Tap Day" ... if you're a junior, despite the fact that you've banged your fist at the lunch table and said, "This is 1968," and have loudly denounced societies as anachronisms, when the captain of the football team is standing by your door and when the tower clock strikes eight he rushes in and claps your shoulder and shouts, "Skull and Bones, accept or reject?" you almost always scream out, "Accept!" and you never, never, pound your fist at the lunch table, not for that reason ever again.

Fewer than a tenth of Yale's 1,400 seniors are members of the university's secret societies, which many undergraduates view as self-serving vehicles for real and aspiring aristocrats. Certainly this view seems to have some validity when it comes to Bonesmen. Until 1992, when it became one of the last two secret societies to admit women, Skull and Bones had a history of picking the same kinds of people over and over. Davis's yearbook article explained,

If the society had a good year, this is what the "ideal" group will consist of: a football captain; a Chairman of the Yale Daily News; a conspicuous radical; a Whiffenpoof; a swimming captain; a notorious drunk with a 94 average; a film-maker; a political columnist; a religious group leader; a Chairman of the Lit; a foreigner; a ladies' man with two motorcycles; an ex-service man; a negro, if there are enough to go around; a guy nobody else in the group had heard of, ever.

Indeed, George W.'s 1968 brethren slip easily into the desired slots: among them were the Olympic swimmer and gold medalist Don Schollander; a future Harvard Medical School surgeon, Gregory Gallico; a future Rhodes scholar, Robert McCallum; the Whiffenpoofs' pitch, Robert Birge; Donald Etra, an Orthodox Jew; Muhammed Saleh, a Jordanian; a future deputy director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Rex Cowdry; and the black soccer captain Roy Austin. Only George W. himself fell into none of the aforementioned categories. He was generally regarded as a legacy tap.

Given the society's history as an incubator and meeting point for rising generational elites, it is not surprising that an especially susceptible kind of "barbarian"—the Bones term for a nonmember—has long seen the society as a locus of mystery, wealth, and conspiracy. One doesn't need to scratch deeply to uncover accusations of sinister ties with the CIA, the Trilateral Commission, the Illuminati, the Council on Foreign Relations, even the Nazis. It turns out that the Yale admissions committee that voted to admit George W., despite his poor record at Andover, included three members (out of seven) who were Bonesmen; those seeking evidence of malign influence will surely raise an eyebrow. (For the conspiracy-minded, the most useful omnium gatherum is the British writer Antony C. Sutton's feverish 1983 tract An Introduction to the Order.) World domination aside, the most pervasive rumors about Bones are that initiates must masturbate in a coffin while recounting their sexual exploits, and that their candor is ultimately rewarded with a no-strings-attached gift of $15,000. Bonesmen, who are sworn to secrecy at initiation, have not publicly denied or confirmed these rumors; they have usually made a point of refusing to speak to the press about the society at all. As The Skulls was about to be released, and as George W.'s quest for the Republican presidential nomination looked increasingly certain to succeed, the society sent all members a memo reminding them of their vow of silence. Still, as I recently discovered in the course of looking into Skull and Bones, not all Bonesmen see the necessity of remaining tight-lipped about a society whose biggest secret may be that its secrets are essentially trivial.

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