Smirk from the past

In college, George W. Bush and his membership in Skull and Bones seemed to represent an Old World patronage on the brink of collapse. Or so I thought.

Published March 1, 2000 11:34AM (EST)

I have just realized, with equal parts horror and glee, that George W. Bush and I were once mirror images, linked and yet opposite. The links are quite specific: Bush and I were members of the Yale Class of 1968, and we were both asked to join Skull and Bones, the most renowned (and strangest) of Yale's nine senior societies. The opposites are everything else: Bush was a WASP from a prominent Connecticut Republican family who attended Andover; I was a Jew from an actively Democratic California family who went to a public high school. Bush joined Skull and Bones; I didn't.

None of this would be worth mentioning, of course, except that Skull and Bones is the unofficial subject of "The Skulls," a movie to be released this month, and Bush has a leading role in the quadrennial national melodrama.

My Skull and Bones story first: Three decades ago, Yale senior societies struck many people as embarrassments, harking back to an all-too-proximate past when students formed clubs of 15 men to define ever more exclusive circles of the Soon-to-be-Great. All but one of the "above-ground" senior societies (in contrast to the "undergrounds," which carried no prestige) were housed in windowless, fortress-like buildings that very much lived up to the term used to describe them: "tombs." Of course, only members could enter them. At Skull and Bones, new members were even said to enact a rebirth ritual (suggesting that the heart of New Age thought in America may be considerably to the east of California). Then, through two meetings a week over the next year, with varying degrees of candor and calculation, they revealed the secrets of their predominantly uneventful lives, such as who they'd slept with and what their ambitions were. Wanting to be president was a common aspiration, though I suspect it hadn't occurred to Bush yet.

Skull and Bones' prestige rested on the illustriousness of its membership rolls, which included such luminaries as Henry Stimson, Herbert Hoover's secretary of state; Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart; New York governor and diplomat Averill Harriman; Time magazine founder Henry Luce; "Hiroshima" author John Hersey; and William Sloane Coffin Jr., Yale's outspoken chaplain. The place took itself so seriously that members were obligated to leave the room if a nonmember mentioned its name: huffy decampments by Bones men were occasionally witnessed. In addition, there were rumors: Skull and Bones' assets made it the largest corporation in Connecticut, we heard, and each member was guaranteed a lifetime annual stipend of $20,000. Nobody knew whether the rumors were true, but they lent the place an aura of raw wealth and power.

I learned I was going to be "tapped" for Skull and Bones after being summoned to a meeting with Delaney Kiphuth, Yale's director of athletics, of all things. I met him in his office in the cavernous Payne Whitney Gymnasium, whose dark neo-Gothic design seemed to echo the foreboding Bones motif. Kiphuth, himself a Bones alum, told me I would be among the first 15 members of my class to be asked to join. I asked him why I ought to. He said he couldn't answer, as Bones men were not allowed to reveal any aspect of their proceedings. Instead, he produced a biography of Stimson, and pointed to a passage in which the great statesman extolled Skull and Bones. Because Stimson, a member of the Class of 1888, liked it, so should I.

On my way out, Kiphuth did something I thought was interesting: he told me I'd be tapped on the designated society "Tap Night," 8 p.m. on a Friday late in April, unless I specifically told him I didn't want to join. I was not so immune to the lures of prestige that I'd written off societies entirely -- indeed, I was leaning towards Elihu, the sole above-ground society that was headquartered in an actual frame house with windows. Kiphuth's statement sounded so opaque and inflexible that my immediate reaction was "Why bother telling him no?"

On the night before Tap Night, a fellow student who was a photographer freelancing for the New York Times told me the paper was planning a story about Tap Night, and asked if I knew of good photo prospects. I told him to come by my room a little before 8 p.m. He was therefore present when, precisely on the hour, I heard scuffling outside the door and then a loud knock.

When I turned the knob, the door instantly swung open and hit the wall with a smack. A hulking middle-aged man in a suit and thick glasses -- he looked like a thuggish banker -- burst across the threshold, followed half a step later by a guy I knew from Elihu, whom he had shoved out of the way. (I never did understand the point of that. Did he think I'd choose Bones because he got to me first?) As flashbulbs popped, he swung his arm across my shoulder as if bearing a cudgel, and yelled, "Skull and Bones, accept or reject?"

"Reject!" I answered. Nothing happened. The Banker stared at me as if I'd misread the script.

"Reject!" I yelled, louder this time. The Banker turned around and ran, apparently now focused on assaulting the next candidate on his list. My Elihu friend straightened himself out, took a deep breath, and, smiling, asked me to join Elihu. I never did find out the Banker's identity, but the next day his face was on the New York Times' second front page, in an action shot capturing him as he struck my shoulder while blocking his rival with his hip. "Skull was first," the caption read, "but he chose Elihu."

Bush, on the other hand, joined Bones. Bill Minutaglio reported in "First Son," a George W. Bush biography, that Bush considered joining the evocatively named "Gin and Tonic," but was swayed when his father, then a congressman, conducted the tapping ritual himself. The elder Bush's membership in Bones probably was the sole reason George W. was chosen, since W.'s only distinction at Yale was that he was president of the Yale chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon, the jock fraternity where the beer on the floor was an inch thick on Saturday nights. It was in that capacity that Bush presided over the coat-hanger brandings of 40 new frat brothers, and publicly defended the resulting half-inch-wide wounds as "only a cigarette burn." Even discounting Bush, however, Skull and Bones apparently endured a lackluster year: The place was so unpopular that it allegedly tapped 60 or 70 classmates to secure its allotted 15 members.

Just as Skull and Bones reflected the declining fortunes of Yale's traditional elite on an institutional level, Bush embodied the phenomenon in personal terms. His SAT scores (published in the New Yorker in November) were substantially below the class median; he unquestionably gained admittance simply because his father and grandfather were prominent Yalies. Yet '68 was Yale's first class with more public school than prep school graduates; the notion of developing "well-rounded" men of property and power, which had guided Yale's admissions policy for generations, was being supplanted by a preference for the intellectually skilled. Bush was outnumbered. I doubt I ever exchanged more than a few words with him, but I remember the smirk: to me it bespoke a kind of complacency, a smug confidence that he belonged at Yale because of his family and prep school background.

Yale was a fascinating place, bursting with turmoil and innovation, yet Bush wasn't interested. Astoundingly, last year he even told a Washington Post reporter that he was unaware of antiwar activity during his undergraduate years at Yale.

In his presidential campaign, Bush has argued that his behavior before his conversion to born-again Christianity is irrelevant, as if the over-40 Bush bears no relationship to the younger one. It's an odd presumption, particularly in a campaign preoccupied with "character." But more to the point, it's mistaken. In his complacency and sense of entitlement, Bush strikes me as unchanged. At Yale, he drank and played intramural sports; now he has religion and plays intramural politics. He has run his campaign as if it were an afterthought, its result already having been decided by Republican kingpins and corporate donors.

What's missing is the sense that Bush has overcome adversity or learned from experience. Until he became Texas governor on the strength of his modest charm, he was borne from one tottering business venture to another by investors who saw value in his name; his numerous setbacks carried no consequences. Now, not too surprisingly, his political maneuvering seems mechanical, unguided by conviction. Indeed, one reason John McCain's biography strikes so many people as outsized is that Bush has no biography at all.

As Bush careens from "compassionate conservative" to "reformer with results" to defender of right-wing values, from embracing Bob Jones University (before the South Carolina primary) to saying "I didn't mean it" (afterwards), he may be finding biography a more useful and elusive attribute than he'd assumed. But biographies, it turns out, aren't inherited, and don't come with membership in Skull and Bones.

By Jacques Leslie

Jacques Leslie is the author of "The Mark: A War Correspondent's Memoir of Vietnam and Cambodia." He has written for the Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine and Wired, where he's a contributing writer.

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