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2004-01-22

Skull & Bones: The Secret Society That Unites John Kerry and President Bush

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A little-known fact unites Democratic frontrunner John Kerry and President Bush: they are both members of Yale’s secret society Skull and Bones. We speak with the author of "Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power" that reveals details about the secret society and its members. [includes transcript]

The New Hampshire primary is just a few days away and Howard Dean’s status as the frontrunner has almost totally dissipated. The latest Boston Herald poll now shows that John Kerry holds a 10 point lead–a major surge for the Massachusetts Senator. Still reeling from his victory in Iowa, Kerry is starting to act like the frontrunner, shifting his focus from comparing himself to the other Democrats to putting his record up against President George W. Bush, saying he is the only candidate who can beat Bush and who represents a real difference from the current occupant of the White House.

But there is a fact about Kerry’s past that brings him closer to Bush than any of the other candidates. Both Bush and Kerry are members of a secretive society dating back to their respective days at Yale University–Skull and Bones. This fact has not been widely reported but when Kerry’s campaign spokesperson was asked about it, she said, "John Kerry has absolutely nothing to say on that subject. Sorry."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to and watching Democracy Now, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan Gonzalez.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Welcome to all of our listeners and viewers around the country. The New Hampshire primary is just a few days away, and Howard Dean’s status as a frontrunner has almost totally dissipated. The latest "Boston Herald" poll now shows that John Kerry holds a 10-point lead, a major surge for the Massachusetts senator. Still reeling from his victory in Iowa, Kerry is starting to act like the frontrunner, shifting his focus from comparing himself to the other Democrats to putting his record up against President George Bush, saying he’s the only candidate who can beat Bush and who represents a real difference from the current occupant of the White House.

AMY GOODMAN: But there is a fact about Kerry’s past that brings him closer to Bush than any other candidate. Both Bush and Kerry are members of a secretive society dating back to their respective days at Yale University. It’s called "Skull and Bones." This fact has not been widely reported, but when Kerry’s campaign spokesperson was asked about it, she said, quote, "John Kerry has absolutely nothing to say on that subject. Sorry." In a moment, we’ll be joined by Alexandra Robbins, the "New York Times" best-selling author of, "Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League and the Hidden Paths of Power." But first, we turn to an interview that I did with Kevin Phillips, the author of "American Dynasty, Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics Of Deceit in the House of Bush." When I asked him about the significance of that Yale secret society, Skull and Bones.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, I hate to overdo the secret societies because the average person has no idea of this. I went to Harvard Law School, and Harvard has these secret societies, too, but the ones at Yale, I think, if anything are more influential, and it’s sorta hard to cold turkey right in and say, my god, Skull and Bones, this is virtually like a diplomatic or international business piracy. You can almost see the pirate flag, but they all take it very seriously, because Admiral Harriman, instead of going to Harvard and getting involved in the "Porks," so to speak, which was the big club up at Harvard, he went to Yale and did Skull and Bones. There was a crowd of people who were involved in operations like National CitiBank and Guaranteed Trust and just a whole lot of people who were major players in finance were Skull and Bones. And the crowd that was at W.S. Harriman was full of Skull and Bones people, and Prescott Bush was Skull and Bones. A lot of these people who were Skull and Bones wound up in the intelligence services, or they were assistant secretaries for aviation and the war department and things like this. It was a whole network.

AMY GOODMAN: But for people who don’t know what Skull and Bones is, what you are referring to.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: It’s a Yale secret society. Yale has other secret societies. Another one was called "Book and Snake." So, they came up with these names. But these people took secrecy incredibly seriously. Books that have been written about Skull and Bones–they’ve got a vault at Yale. Nobody is supposed to be able to get in there. You can’t even tell your wife about Skull and Bones. Avril Harriman, his wife received a letter that was in hieroglyphics, and she didn’t know what to make of this and Avril Harriman said, "Well, that’s Skull and Bones, and I have to tell you about that, and he said, no, I can’t tell you about that." If you want to know why they deal in secrecy, (a) you have Skull and Bones, and (b) so many of them were in the intelligence services and that whole side of Washington and New York.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about that, the beginning of intelligence, and how the Bush family fits into the beginning of the intelligence agencies?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, this gets complicated because nobody quite agrees when the intelligence agencies started. But Yale was front and center, because the statue that’s in front of the C.I.A. is Nathan Hale. Nathan Hale’s statue that they copied that from appears in front of Connecticut Hall at Yale in New Haven. So, if you go back to the revolution you have Yale and the Secret Service.

AMY GOODMAN: It goes back to Andover where Bush went as well.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Andover was really in the thick of this sort of stuff. They had a secret society sort of junior grade where you practiced to be at Skull and Bones at Yale when you were in Andover. It sounds like a joke today, but it wasn’t then. What happened was the crowd that was in with Prescott Bush and George H. Walker at W.A. Harriman, a number of them became prominent in the intelligence community and then when you get to the firm that was merged out of W.A. Harriman, which was Brown Brothers Harriman, one of the partners there was Robert A. Lovett, who was the son of one of the big cheeses in Harriman’s railroad operation, which is how they knew George H. — I mean, it all fits together. Robert A. Lovett was the man who came up with the blueprint for the C.I.A. after World War II, which was never acknowledged and only became public knowledge maybe 15, 20 years ago. So, he was a major player, and Prescott Bush, I have no doubt, was very close to the intelligence agencies. During World War II he was a director of two companies. One was Dresser Industries, which is now part of Halliburton, and the second is Vanadium Corporation of America. They were both involved in atomic energy projects. Prescott Bush was a friend of Alan Dulles who went on to be the C.I.A. Director, but he was also a lawyer during the 30’s for some of Brown Brothers Harriman international gamesmanship, so to speak. So, they were very tightly knit into all of this. And the real thing about the Bushes is how far back they go in this loose combination of investment banking, Wall Street law, the intelligence community, international business, the State Department, and the War Department.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Kevin Phillips. He is author of the new book, "American Dynasty, Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics Of Deceit In The House of Bush." As we turn now to Alexandra Robbins, the "New York Times" best-selling author of the book, "Secrets of the Tomb — Skull and Bones, the Ivory League and the Hidden Paths Of Power," who was formerly on the Washington, D.C. staff of the New Yorker Magazine. She is a 1998 graduate of Yale University and was the first reporter to publish George W. Bush’s transcript from Yale when he was a student there. We welcome you to Democracy Now!.

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: Good Morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Juan.

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: Thanks for having me.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Alexandra, I’d like to start out–in your book, you mention John Kerry several times. For those folks who might think this is something of the college days and in the 60’s when Kerry was at Yale, but you mentioned an experience that Jacob Weissberg, the editor of "Slate" magazine had about 20 years later in 1986. Can you talk a little bit about that.

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: Sure. Skull and Bones is really much more than a college club. In fact the year that the members spend in it, their senior year at Yale (there are 15 members tapped for Skull and Bones membership each year) is really just the beginning. Skull and Bones is a powerful alumni network, perhaps the most elite network in the country and it really focuses on life after college. What Kerry did was he tried to recruit Jacob Weissberg from his senate office in Washington to become a member of Skull and Bones. And Weissberg ended up declining the invitation, but he was shocked that Kerry was a member of the society, which so clearly exhibited a history of misogyny, and he challenged Kerry on it. Kerry sort of blew him off. He said, "Oh, well, you know, you should look at my record–for women, defending battered women, et cetera," and Weissberg said "I can’t be a part of this," but he was shocked that Kerry would have his secretary call Weissberg into his office in the senate in order to try to make this recruiting possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Could you actually explain that, the fact that he was an intern at the "New Republic," and he got this call, what this meant to him?

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: Yeah. He got a call from Senator Kerry’s office, from his secretary, and Weissberg was spending the semester away from Yale. He was spending it, his junior year in Washington. And he got the call, and the secretary said, "Senator Kerry would like to meet with you tomorrow morning." And all sorts of things are going through Weissberg’s head. He was thinking, oh, maybe he likes my writing, maybe he’s going to give me a scoop. He said, "Okay, I’ll be there, do you know what it’s about." The secretary said, "No, he wouldn’t tell me." He gets there the next morning, about 8:30, I think. And he’s sitting in the senator’s office and the senator is kind of schmoozing him and making small talk and Weissberg is wondering why (I guess he’s about 20 or 21 by then), why he is sitting in Senator Kerry’s office and Kerry said, Kerry brought up Skull and Bones. Weissberg didn’t know that Kerry was a member at that point.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You mentioned the organization’s relationship to women. For those of our viewers who don’t know about that, could you explain that — the history of that relationship.

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: Skull and Bones has been an all-male group, was an all-male group beginning in 1832 when it started, up until 1991. And what happened was there was basically a 20-year fight between the younger members of Skull and Bones and the older more staunch old blue members. In 1991, the seniors in Bones, these are the 22-year-olds who were actually in the Tomb that year at Yale, (the Tomb is the name of their building, by the way) in 1991, the Bones seniors intended to tap women, but the alumni of the society heard about the plan, changed the locks of the Tomb and threatened to shut down the society completely. When the seniors threatened a lawsuit, Bones held a vote that narrowly endorsed admitting women, the day before initiation a group of Bonesmen led by William F. Buckley obtained a court order blocking the initiation. The group claimed that admitting women would lead to (and I’m quoting here) "date rape in the medium term future." Eventually, Bones held a second vote that again narrowly admitted women. Both Bushes have refused to disclose which way they voted. Senator Kerry and former Senator David Born both said they voted to admit women. Once the women were initiated, several of the older members, including a former congressman who I spoke with, distanced themselves from the society.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about George Bush on this issue? Have we ever found out how he voted on this defining moment?

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: No. Both Bushes have not disclosed the way they voted.

AMY GOODMAN: Although Bush was quoted as saying, and this was George Herbert Walker Bush, is that right, saying that women would be the downfall of Yale?

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: That’s George W. Bush.

AMY GOODMAN: George W.?

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: George W. said in the 1980’s, that — to a woman who was a graduate of Yale — that women would be the downfall of Yale. There are many other instances, some of which I point out in my book, that lead to — lead one to assume that he voted against admitting women.

AMY GOODMAN: We just heard Kevin Phillips give us kind of a chronology of people who are in Skull and Bones, and its significance in the U.S. establishment, for example, in the founding of the Central Intelligence Agency, with Robert Lovett. Can you talk more about this, for those who would say, come on as Juan was saying before, you are talking about some college club.

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: Yeah. I actually want to back way up and talk about, at least as mention exactly what Skull and Bones is, because while some people on the East Coast have heard about the society, other people across the country have no idea that we are looking right now if the polls are correct, at what would be the first Skull and Bones versus Skull and Bones presidential election. That’s pretty weird. Skull and Bones is America’s most powerful secret society. It’s based at Yale, where it’s headquartered in a building called the Tomb, and Skull and Bones has included among its members, presidents, including presidents George W. Bush and his father, as well as William Howard Taft, Supreme Court Chief Justices, C.I.A. officials, cabinet members, congressmen and senators. What makes it so staggering that we could have a Skull and Bones versus Skull and Bones, Kerry versus Bush election is that this is a tiny tiny club. There are only 800 living members. Only 15 per year. It’s staggering that two of them could be facing off for the presidency and so many of them have achieved positions of prominence. One of the interesting and I think disturbing things about Skull and Bones is that its purpose is to get members into positions of power and have those members hire other members into prestigious positions. This is something we have seen with George W. Bush since his ascendancy to the presidency, he has put several Bones members into prestigious positions, such as Bill Donaldson, the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The number two and number three guys in the Justice Department, the guy that puts out all of Bush’s secrecy memos. His assistant Attorney General is a major Bonesman. Bonesman Frederick Smith was Bush’s top choice for Secretary of Defense until he had to withdraw for health reasons. The general council of the Office of Homeland Security, the Secretary of Defense’s representative to Europe. The list goes on and on and on. That’s something that’s interesting, because George W. Bush likes to feign his distance from Yale, from Bones, from Northeastern establishment elite connections, and yet he’s going ahead and following Skull and Bones to the letter.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And besides seeking to employ or promote Bonesmen, is there any other responsibility that Bonesmen are supposed to have to each other?

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: Well, there’s loyalty of course, to each other. They’re supposed to call each other up. I revealed the code words in my book, so I assume they have since changed them, but it used to be, "Do you know General Russell. General Russell was the founder of Skull and Bones. All a Bonesman had to do was call up another Bonesman, maybe even if they have never met, and they would cough up money or connections or a plan.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break for 60 seconds, but Alexandra, if you could stay with us just for a few more minutes?

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to find out that very special number that many Bonesmen use, maybe even John Kerry, and also about your own membership in a secret society in Yale.

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: Okay.

AMY GOODMAN: Stay with us.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Alexandra Robbins. Her book is, "Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, The Ivy League and the Hidden Paths of Power." Alexandra Robbins, the number.

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: That would be 322.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the significance of that.

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: Okay. So, according to Skull and Bones lore, and this is something that both Senator Kerry and president bush would have learned, in 322 B.C., a Greek orator died. When he died, the goddess Eulogia, the goddess, whom Skull and Bones called the goddess of eloquence, arose to the heavens and didn’t happen to come back down until 1832, when she happened to take up residence in the tomb of Skull and Bones. Now Skull and Bones does everything in deference to this goddess. They have songs or they call them that sacred anthems that they sing when they are encouraged to steal things, some remarkably valuable items, supposedly, they are said to be bringing back gifts to the goddess. They begin each session in the tomb, and they meet twice weekly by unveiling a sort of a guilt shrine to Eulogia. That’s the point of the society. They call themselves the Knights of Eulogia. That’s where the 322 comes in.

JUAN GONZALEZ: John Kerry, in terms of the number 322.

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: I spoke with somebody close to Kerry, a member of Skull and Bones. He said that Kerry actually uses 322 as a code in his daily life.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how some people use it as the extension of their phone and other passwords. Alexandra Robbins, you, too, are a member of a secret society at Yale. Can you explain what that is?

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: Sure. I was a member. Ever since "Secrets of the Tomb" came out, I cannot get members of my own society to talk to me. I believe that means I’m out. Which is okay, because you only joined it for the free alcohol in the first place. The society is called. Scroll and Key, the second oldest society at Yale. It was helpful for me to tell the Bonesmen whom I interviewed, I interviewed more than 100, that I was a member of Scroll and Key. They assumed that it has a similarly prestigious roster, although no presidents, that I would be able to put their information in context and align with them in their views towards secret societies, which of course, I didn’t. I don’t believe these kinds of secret societies have a place in this country or world unless they have value to the community. And Skull and Bones stands out as, I believe, the one Yale secret society that doesn’t do anything for the community or for any other entity other than itself.

AMY GOODMAN: Why was John Kerry recruited?

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: That’s a good question. I could go look up his Skull and Bones bio, but they basically choose people who they — whom they believe will reflect honor and prestige back on the society. They are basically trying to figure out, okay, who is the who’s who here of the Yale junior class who is going to be the most successful. One other thing interesting about Kerry that I wanted to mention is that both of his wives have been directly related to members of Skull and Bones. A sister and daughter which is another connection to Skull and Bones that people don’t usually know about.

AMY GOODMAN: Alexandra Robbins, our guest, "Secrets of the Tomb" is her book. What about the induction ritual.

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: That’s a weird one. It’s sort of a cross between Harry Potter novel and a haunted house. The heart of the initiation is a ceremony that takes place in Skull and Bones’ most secret room which now we know is probably called — well, you would think it probably is, I can tell that you it definitely is called room 322. It’s also called the Inner Temple. I did get a hold of the script for initiation. I lay that out in my book. But to give you a little teaser, there is somebody dressed as the devil, somebody dressed as Don Quixote, somebody who is dressed as a pope who has one foot sheathed in a monogrammed white slipper resting on a skull, and the other knights are dress as alumni or patriarchs. In part of that ceremony, the neophytes must kiss the pope’s foot, drink quote, unquote, blood from the eurich, which is a skull container and the initiation ends when the initiator is shoved to his knees in front of Don Quixote as the shrieking crowd falls silence and Quixote taps the junior on the shoulder with a sword and he says, "By order of our order, I dub you the knight of Eulogia."

JUAN GONZALEZ: One of the articles you wrote elicited a direct response and maybe a threat?

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: When I wrote the first article for "Atlantic Monthly," I dismissed Bones as a harmless organization, because my secret society didn’t have the power agenda, so I didn’t think that Bones did either. After the article came out, I got a call at my office from the New Yorker from a journalist whom I knew by name to be a member of Skull and Bones. He scolded me for writing the article. He said, I’m quoting, "Writing that article was not an ethical or honorable way to make a decent living in journalism." He asked me how much I had been paid for the story. I refused to tell him and he hung up on me. 15 minutes later, he called back. He says, "I have just gotten off the phone with our people." I laughed. I knew he meant other Bonesmen because I didn’t think somebody would actually say our people. He told me that the society demanded to know where I got my information. I wouldn’t tell him, of course, and then he spent the next 15 minutes or so, berating me for writing about Skull and Bones for having the gall to expose thing about his secret society. He ended the conversation by saying, "There are a lot of us at newspapers and political journalism institutions across the country. Good luck with your career." He slammed down the phone. I was 23 then. I was an aspiring investigative reporter, so that did shake me a little bit, but what really appalled me was that I found out since that in the years since that call, this guy has been actively going out and trying to destroy my career as a journalist, simply because I wrote about Skull and Bones.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, would you like to let us know who he is?

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: I wish I could. Don’t want to give him any fodder.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting. At the beginning of this segment we quoted Kerry’s campaign spokesperson and she is quoted in the "Boston Globe" saying, "John Kerry has absolutely nothing to say on that subject. Sorry." We’re used to politicians declining to speak about something. That’s no problem, but it sort of gives new meaning to or new meaning behind what she is saying.

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: If this turns out to be a Skull and Bones versus Skull and Bones election. I guarantee people across the country are going to clamor for more information on the secret society. I think this is the point of my book and probably the point of your program, too. I don’t think that the elected officials who represent our country especially the president should be allowed to have an allegiance to any secret group. Secrecy overshadows democracy. We need a transparency so we can hold elected officials accountable. I don’t think its coincidence that I what I would call the most secretive government in America today since the Nixon era is run by the world’s most infamous secret society. That’s something we want to avoid in the future.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You mentioned that — or the caller mentioned there were many journalists who were members of Skull and Bones. It would be interesting to perhaps keep track of the journalists who are, and how they’re covering the current presidential race and analyze their coverage of both Kerry and Bush.

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: There are a slew who are members of Skull and Bones, and some of them are biased. Some of them are not. Dana Milbank of the "Washington Post" is certainly not a biased journalist. He doesn’t hold allegiance to his Skull and Bones connections, which is nice. There are others who follow their profession more than the society, but you will get people in Skull and Bones who favor Skull and Bones. That’s the point of the group.

AMY GOODMAN: Who are the other reporters who are Skull and Bones?

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: There’s a list of them going back to Henry Lucent in New Haven. There are the founders of "Time" magazine. "Time" and "Newsweek" have Skull and Bones origins, which is kind of strange.

AMY GOODMAN: Who else?

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: I could give you the list, but I think I will hold off.

AMY GOODMAN: When it comes to, you know, who are Skull and Bones, and who covers this issue, what kind of coverage has the john Kerry connection to Skull and Bones gotten? George w. Bush and George Bush Sr., we — that has been covered somewhat.

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: Little to none. And when people have tried to ask him about it, he clams up. I heard this second hand. I didn’t actually watch the show myself. I don’t know how reliably to take this, but somebody told me that Kerry was asked by Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" directly about Skull and Bones, and according to the person who saw this he said, Kerry looked like he was about to pass out. He wouldn’t say a word. People don’t think much about Kerry and Bones. I think partly because for George W. Bush, his Skull and Bones connections sort of work with the whole theory that he’s riding his father’s coattails and that he has gotten his way in life because of his connections, which I would agree with, and which I have traced in secrets of the tomb, to align closely with his Skull and Bones connections. He turned to Skull and Bones throughout his career for help. Even his Rangers deal, which is supposed to be the one thing he achieved on his own, had at least one Bonesman involved. Kerry has not relied on Skull and Bones. He hasn’t made it a huge part of his life in terms of something that would boost his career or really put the — propel him although he has turned to Skull and Bones in his personal life. But Kerry has been just as involved as Bush, I think. Although he will be as quick to deny that as the president will.

AMY GOODMAN: Does it matter to Skull and Bones who wins this presidential race?

ALEXANDRA ROBBINS: No. That’s a good question and one that I asked many Bonesmen and the way they describe it is a win-win situation. As long as there’s a Bonesman in the White House there are going to be many more Bonesmen in the administration.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for joining us. Alexandra Robbins has been our guest. Her book is "Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, The Ivy League and the Hidden Paths of Power." Alexandra Robbins, a member of another Yale secret society, or at least she was, and also worked for the "New Yorker" magazine among other publications.

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