Stupid Question ™
Jan. 26, 2004
By John Ruch
Q: If John Kerry wins the Democratic presidential nomination, he and George W. Bush, a fellow member of Yale’s secret Skull & Bones Society, will face off in the general election. Has that ever happened before, and how did the powerful secret group select a winner?
—anonymous, Chicago, Illinois
A: If—and with all due respect to the significance of the opinions of Iowans, it’s still a big if—Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry wins his party’s nomination, it will be the first presidential election that pits Bonesmen versus Bonesman.
The secretive Yale frat may just want to stick its invisible hand in its pocket rather than pull any strings. It wins either way, right? To Skull & Bones, Bush and Kerry might as well be on the same ticket.
A brief refresher: Skull & Bones is one of Yale’s many overblown seniors-only frats, with a secrecy oath, a windowless headquarters building, a trophy collection that reputedly includes Geronimo’s skull and bizarre rituals that include kissing the foot of someone dressed like the pope.
Its equally overblown reputation for secret power is based largely on a handful of 20th century loonies and war-mongers it produced, including conservative commentator William F. Buckley, publisher Henry Luce and both George H.W. Bush and his son, the current president.
Founded in 1832, Skull & Bones has since managed to produce three presidents, which puts it somewhere below the Whig party on the power scale. Most of the alumni were and are completely unremarkable. The real power comes from the family wealth that Yale enrollment implies (a few decades ago even more than it does now), and the sort of incestuous nepotism that explains our current president much more than any secret society does.
But that shouldn’t kill our fun. Let’s call this election Skull Or Bones 2004. Bush, who has surely earned it, can be Skull, and the lanky Kerry can be Bones.
Now, let’s handicap away!
It must be noted that Skull & Bones has an uneven history of backing candidates. William Howard Taft (S&B 1878) was the first-ever Skull & Bones candidate, and won the 1908 election.
But his son, Robert Taft (S&B 1910) lost the 1952 Republican nomination to Eisenhower, then promptly died.
The next S&B presidential candidate was George H.W. Bush (S&B 1948), who lost the nomination to Reagan in 1980. Of course, he came back to win in 1988, but then got his butt whipped by the non-S&B Clinton.
Then came George W. (S&B 1968), who won in what was either the shoddiest excuse for democracy in the nation’s history, or an amazing demonstration of the society’s hidden powers.
Getting the nomination won’t be an issue for Bush, so it must be said that much of the Skull & Bones power seems to weigh in his favor. All the Skull & Bones candidates have been Republicans. Also, he clearly has an advantage from having a Skull & Bones father who himself won the presidency.
Also, while neither Bush nor Kerry will break their secrecy oath, Bush has said publicly how meaningful the Skull & Bones experience was to him. It sounds ridiculous, but the ritual reportedly includes some serious soul-bearing that could indeed be life-changing.
In any case, Bush remains close with several friends from Skull & Bones days. They have helped him repeatedly, everywhere from his first failed business to his presidential run.
However, there are also some bad omens. No Skull & Bones president has won a second term. And worse still, First Daughter Barbara Bush was just passed over for Skull & Bones membership a few days ago—the first Bush in four generations not to get in. What is the dark meaning of this snub?
Things may look even worse for Kerry (S&B 1966). He does have Skull & Bones seniority over Bush. But the ability of Skull & Bones candidates to secure the nomination (three out of five shots) is not necessarily encouraging. And Kerry must forge ahead into virgin territory as the first Democratic Bonesman to take a crack at it.
Kerry also keeps in touch with fellow Bonesmen, but doesn’t seem as grateful as Bush. Furthermore, Kerry was deeply involved in the Bones-shattering 1991 “reform” of the group, in which he cast an alumni vote to, among other things, allow women members for the first time. Many Bonesmen withdrew funding for the group in disgust.
Will Kerry be supported by reformist Bonesmen (and Boneswomen), or will he be left to rot by grudge-keeping old-timers? And what were a “compassionate conservative” and a women’s-rights Democrat doing in a sexist frat in the first place?
All questions will be answered in time. For now, we can only lay down a challenge to Skull & Bones: If you really want to prove how powerful you are, make them both win.