by Ron Rosenbaum
"...the author has, in fact, made appropriate
changes in the text in response to your letter of June 24....Little,
Brown will be taking steps to notify reviewers...."–Deputy general
counsel AOL Time Warner Book Group
Hey, kids! More fun with Skull and Bones, George
Bush’s secret club! This time they’ve really shot themselves in the
foot. From now on, you could call them "The Gang That
Couldn’t Shoot Straight," but a better name might be "The Gang That
Couldn’t Lie Straight."
It would all be a lot more pure fun if the inept
attempt at a dirty trick played by one Skull and Bones member (I
think we’ll call him Deep Dunce)—and perhaps others—hadn’t
threatened to blight with error a new book by a young journalist
victimized by Deep Dunce’s deceit. The whole affair has turned into
a juicy literary and political scandal that reaches from the Tomb of
Skull and Bones in New Haven to the temple of publishing that is AOL
Time Warner (founded by Henry Luce, Skull and Bones ’20)—and, who
knows, perhaps even to the White House, where this latest instance
of embarrassing Skull and Bones behavior can’t be pleasing to its
most prominent member, George W. Bush.
Because he’s a values guy, George W., and this is a
values story: a story about the true nature of the values inculcated
by the President’s secret society, as well as the values of New York
publishing and Ivy League ambition.
At last we know, at last we’ve heard the
authentic voice of Skull and Bones; at last we’ve learned the true
ethos of the Yale secret society that counts two Presidents named
Bush and countless bankers, Senators, spies, diplomats, publishers,
Supreme Court justices and other American potentates as its members.
We’ve heard these values expressed in the voice of a young initiate
of the secret society, which professes to devote itself to the
ideals of leadership, public service and the elite fellowship of
It’s the voice of the initiate quoted in the
original galleys of the book that Little, Brown has now had to
revise, the voice of the overprivileged, under-intelligent Skull and
Bones punk who "laughed heartily" and boasted, "We just wanted to
fuck with that prick."
That prick, the target of this pathetic,
sub-Tarantino, phony-macho imprecation was—not to put too fine a
point on it—me.
I only learned about the dishonorable and inept
Skull and Bones attempt to "fuck with that prick" on Saturday, June
20, when I got word that galleys were circulating of a book about
Skull and Bones that claimed to discredit a story published here in
The Observer on April 23, 2001. In that story we revealed,
for the first time, details of Skull and Bones’ long-secret
initiation rite, based on videotapes made from a clandestine perch
overlooking the courtyard of the Skull and Bones Tomb on the Yale
campus in New Haven.
You can read the details of our videotape caper in
the April 23, 2001 Observer; perhaps you saw some snatches of
the videotape as played on ABC’s World News Tonight or Fox
News Television, or perhaps you heard the cries and whispers on NPR
and other radio outlets.
Yes, the ritual was silly in so many ways: the
juvenile attempts to scare the initiates, the pseudomystical slogan
"Death Equals Death" (well, duh!), the obscene bullying ("Lick my
bumhole, Neophyte!"), the skull-kissing, the throat-slashing tableau
that had a lot to learn from Scream 3.
But there was a dark side as well, and I think that
was what provoked this recent inept attempt at retaliation. We also
documented a certain ugly attitude of the society’s overprivileged
members: the way they made a joke out of the racist assault on
Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in order to scare the initiates (one
of the senior members cried out, as if he were an initiate being
assaulted: "Take that plunger out of my ass, Uncle Toby!").
And then there was the sordid triumphalism of
another initiator, posing as newly inaugurated Skull and Bonesman
George W. Bush, mock-scaring the new initiates by threatening: "I’m
gonna ream you like I reamed Al Gore."
As for the initiation itself, what made it
interesting, historically and anthropologically, was that Skull and
Bones is not some ordinary frathouse; the initiation was just the
beginning, the first of a lifelong series of bonding rituals that
helped forge the powerful Bones Old Boy network—a network at the
heart of the heart of the American Establishment. Historically, the
people who had done so much to shape America’s character in the
world—the Tafts, the Luces, the Stimsons, the Harrimans, the
Buckleys, the Bundys and the Bushes, among others—had their
character shaped in the Tomb of Skull and Bones, and a version of
these silly rituals, at least at first, played a part.
At the time the story appeared, there was only
silence from Skull and Bones quarters. No admissions, no denials—but
now, at last, my source told me, The Empire had Struck Back.
They were making the claim to a gullible journalist
who wrote the Little, Brown book that what we videotaped wasn’t the
real initiation, but a hoax entirely set up for me. On one
level, the idea was flattering: Some two dozen Skull and Bones
members cared that much about what I’d written in the past to stage
an elaborate three-hour charade for me that made fools of their
entire society. Dumb, but not utterly impossible. If the journalist
had proof, I was prepared to say, "My bad."
My source promised to fax me the relevant pages
from the book’s galley on Monday, but over the weekend, as I checked
in with the intrepid team who had done the videotaping and listened
again to my audiotape, I must admit I had conflicting emotions:
satisfaction in the sense that, after all this time, I’d really
gotten to these arrogant, overprivileged secret-society
punks, but also concern about defending the validity of our story,
no matter how ludicrous the hoax claim was. Fortunately, one of the
team members reminded me that we had rock-solid proof in our
possession, documentary proof that would soon blow the hoax
claim out of the water and cause the publisher—Little, Brown—to take
the unusual step of making "appropriate changes" to the galleys and
notifying reviewers that changes had been made.
But that’s getting ahead of my story.
When the galley pages detailing the "proof" for the
alleged hoax charge arrived on Monday, it was hard to tell whether
to laugh or cry—laugh at the pathetically meretricious "proof"
offered for the charge, or feel deeply sad for the reporter whose
evident ambition led her to be so eagerly credulous.
One wants to be sympathetic to her: She’s a younger
reporter, and she published a piece on George Bush and Bones a
couple of years ago. And, in a sense, she’s more a victim of Skull
and Bones skullduggery than I was. I won’t name her, to spare her
the shame. But we know she’s very intelligent; she tells us so
herself when she conspicuously includes in her book’s bio the fact
that she graduated from Yale, class of 1998, summa cum
Summa cum laude! That’s very impressive. Still,
when one looks at her alleged "proof" that I was "hoaxed"—well, to
put it kindly, it’s not exactly a summa cum laude job of
It’s not even a magna. It’s a joke.
In the original galley version of her book, she
cites three reasons why the initiation we reported on and videotaped
was a "hoax":
1) She wasn’t in Skull and Bones—she was a member
of another secret society she won’t disclose—but as "a veteran of
Yale secret society initiations myself," she tells us grandly, "I
knew that the ceremony described in Rosenbaum’s article was much too
vulgar for Skull and Bones."
Clearly much too vulgar for someone like her Skull
and Bones source, Deep Dunce, who utters statements like "We just
wanted to fuck with that prick."
2) The second pillar of her argument is equally
baseless and equally snooty: We must have witnessed a hoax because
"the rites are," as a Bonesman from the late 1970’s explained to
her, "a passing on of something of importance."
Here again, testimony from someone who wasn’t
there, a clueless fogey who didn’t like the sound of what he heard
and therefore said imperiously, in effect, "It just couldn’t have
happened, because I don’t like the sound of young people today."
Even the author contradicts her source here,
conceding that the Skull and Bones initiation "ceremony … surely has
its sophomoric moments. Skull and Bones does use some silly methods
to evoke temporary fear in initiates, but the ceremony is not full
of the ‘ooga booga’ embarrassment that Rosenbaum detailed."
But the "‘ooga booga’ embarrassment" appears on the
audiotape of the previous year’s initiation (as she could
have read in my story); it was one senior member’s screaming riff
designed "to evoke temporary fear in the initiates."
The existence of the previous year’s audiotape is
the fact, the smoking gun that proved Deep Dunce’s words a lie, and
that convinced Little, Brown that changes needed to be made in the
3) Finally, we come to the third and last pillar of
the author’s hoax claim, Deep Dunce himself. The first two
"sources," after all, weren’t really sources at all, merely the
author herself and some older Bones dunce—neither present at the
ceremony, but both sure that it was too, too vulgar to be true.
The third source, the real basis for her
entire three-page buildup to the hoax claim, is described as
"One Bonesman I spoke with" who "laughed heartily" and uttered those
immortal words, which now will forever be ensconced as the true
motto of Skull and Bones: "We just wanted to fuck with that
Thank God for Deep Dunce’s dimwittedness. (I
suspect he’s a "legacy" candidate.) He, too, is obviously
reading-challenged, or he would have realized that we had an
audiotape of the April 2000 ceremony whose similarities to the
alleged April 2001 "hoax" made it clear that that ceremony was
substantially the same as the one a year earlier, updated with some
contemporary references to George W. "reaming" Al Gore, Abner Louima
and the plunger, and that charming phrase, "Lick my bumhole,
Neophyte." Nor can they claim that they staged the ceremony two
years in a row to hoax me, because I was nowhere near and in no way
involved with the audiotaping in 2000. (There’s no evidence they
knew I was there in 2001, either.)
What’s really fascinating to me, though, is that
the author could take these three pieces of "evidence"—capped by an
obviously self-interested Deep Dunce, whose very words ooze
malice—and accept them at face value as the basis for a bald,
unquestioning assertion of a hoax. Can you say "reckless disregard
for the truth"?
Didn’t her summa cum laude intelligence
suggest to her that Deep Dunce might have been a bit
self-interested in his claim? That the members of the class
of 2000 and 2001 (we know your names) might have gotten some heat
from the higher-ups in the society for giving Bones such a black eye
in the press, just at the moment when George Bush was inviting his
Skull and Bones buddies to the White House and the society was
basking in its restoration to Oval Office primacy?
Wouldn’t a minimal regard for truth have led her to
question whether her source might be self-interested, trying to
deflect the heat by claiming it was all a hoax? Wouldn’t her editor
or someone at Little, Brown have suggested this to her? And finally,
wouldn’t she have attempted to contact me, at which time I could
have saved her the embarrassment of being compelled to make
"appropriate changes" when her book was already in galleys, very
likely causing some people to cast a skeptical eye on all her other
alleged facts? As it was, I saved her the even worse possibility of
the Skull and Bones hoax played on her not being revealed
until the book was printed, and then—as has happened to others
recently—being withdrawn or pulped for libelous error. The thank-you
note must be in the mail.
It’s my belief that what happened is that her
summa cum laude ambition pushed her summa cum laude
intelligence out of the way.* She wanted Deep Dunce’s hoax
story to be true, because she, in effect, wanted to do what Deep
Dunce wanted to do to me. Perhaps she wanted to make a P.R. splash
by sliming a rival reporter who had been able to get a glimpse of a
part of the initiation ritual she had not been privy to. (We didn’t
claim that this was the entire ritual; we only reported on
the phase visible outside in the Bones courtyard.)
But how did such a radical allegation with
virtually no credible corroboration get into print—or at least into
What many people don’t realize is that, as a rule,
magazine stories are far more thoroughly fact-checked than most
published books. Some publishers give their copy editors a
quasi-fact-checking role. But it’s nothing like the fact-checking
department that Henry Luce set up at Time magazine, for
As for Little, Brown, I have to give them
partial credit so far.
Here’s what happened: Because it’s my impression
that publishers don’t respond with much alacrity to ordinary
citizens’ concerns unless they receive a lawyer’s letter, I asked my
literary attorney, Daniel J. Kornstein, to fax them a letter
detailing our concerns as soon as I’d read the "proof" for the hoax.
The deputy general counsel of the AOL Time Warner Book Group called
him back quickly, and after Mr. Kornstein made her aware that we had
an audiotape from the year before proving that what we videotaped in
April 2001 was authentic—that, in other words, as Dan’s letter said,
"It was your author and Little, Brown who have been the ones hoaxed
by your unnamed Skull and Bones source"—the publishing house acted
responsively. They had some difficulty, they said, contacting the
author, who was on a vacation—apparently someplace remote—but by the
end of the week, they’d called us to say that the author would be
making "the appropriate changes," changes that will appear in the
finished hardcover book, and that Little, Brown would "notify
reviewers" that changes had been made.
Here’s what I mean when I say that Little, Brown
deserves partial credit, though.
Given the opportunity, neither Little, Brown nor
the author claimed to us that they had counter-evidence that what
the book said was true. They quickly agreed to make "appropriate
But they refused to tell us how the hoax
passage—which was the climax of a three-page-long opening segment of
a chapter called "The Initiation"—would be changed, or whether it
would simply be fudged. They just asked us to trust them.
And then they played a game with book reviewers as
They told us in their letter of July 2 (from the
deputy general counsel of the AOL Time Warner Book Group) that, in
addition to the standard notice on galleys, "Little, Brown will be
taking steps to notify reviewers that changes have been made in the
text and that any quotes, excerpts or references to the text must be
based only on the text in the finished book."
But they wouldn’t tell the reviewers what
had been changed. Why make it a guessing game for reviewers to
figure out what’s true and what’s false in the galleys? (It’s a bit
unfair to the author.) Why hint that something important has been
changed, but refuse to say what?
As of press time, Little, Brown has refused our
request to be more specific about the changes in their notice to
reviewers. One of the reasons I decided to write this piece is as a
public service to the reviewers of America (mixed with a bit of
self-interest, I’ll admit) to let them know. Here’s another reason
for writing this story: the light it throws on Skull and Bones and
the values that George Bush’s secret society inculcates, the kind of
character represented by Deep Dunce’s "We just wanted to fuck with
I don’t really think these are George W.’s
own values (full disclosure: I was a classmate of his at
Yale, although I didn’t know the guy.) All the more reason he should
publicly repudiate the dirty tricks and Abner Louima jokes.
But targeting me has not only proved stupid and
inept, it’s ungrateful as well. I’m one of the few
non-conspiracy-theory-type reporters to present a balanced picture
of the secretive institution. It’s true that I was the first (I
believe) to point out in print how the legendary
"sexualconfessional"—the bizarre sexual autobiography each new
initiate was compelled to present to the other 14 initiates in the
Skull and Bones Tomb—left the girlfriends of Skull and Bones members
feeling exploited and violated once they learned their most private
intimacies were being shared with 14 other adolescent males on those
These outraged women (Yale went coed in 1969, but
Skull and Bones refused women for more than two decades, once
threatening to lock out an entire class that wanted to "tap" women)
had become some of my best sources for my original 1977
Esquire story on Skull and Bones.
And it’s also true that I had provoked an
uncomfortable silence in the forward cabin of Air Force Two when, in
the mid-80’s, I had asked then–Vice President George H.W. Bush to
talk about the influence of Skull and Bones on his career. (An
account of that encounter and my original Esquire piece can
be found reprinted, with further updates, in my recent collection,
The Secret Parts of Fortune.)
And it’s true that I had reported on Skull and
Bones’ intelligence-world connections. The planning for the Bay of
Pigs, for instance—one of the most spectacular fiascoes in the
history of the clandestine operations attempted by this country—was
dominated by four people, three of whom were Skull and Bones
members. Here we may see, on a worldwide canvas, the traditions of
overprivileged, clandestine ineptness recently illustrated by Deep
I’ve also reported, in the April 23, 2001,
initiation-videotape story, some dicey interpretations of the tax
regulations that have allowed Skull and Bones to claim an exemption
for their summer-resort island in the St. Laurence River. I don’t
think it’s the Enron of the Ivy League, but it deserves
But on the other hand, I’ve gone out of my way to
discount and debate overblown conspiracy theories about Skull and
Bones (and believe me, there are plenty of them out there; I once
found myself debating whether Skull and Bones members engaged in
ritual sacrifice with a conspiracy-theory radio talk-show
host). I have portrayed the way Bones exercises its influence as
more of an informal Old Boy networking affair, more subtle and
effective than the vision of the conspiracy theorists, who had them
plotting the Kennedy assassination in the Tomb.
One thing I had wrong about Bones, though, was its
staying power. I’d ended my 1977 piece on Skull and Bones on a kind
of elegiac note—an elegy for the decline of the Eastern
establishment that Bones then represented. I guess I was right about
the decline in its professed values: Bones was then largely
despised on campus for being full of fairly stupid "legacy"
candidates. It was no longer attracting the best and brightest; it
was cynically used for connections, but otherwise not taken
seriously. (One of my Bones-girlfriend sources passed on her
boyfriend’s boastful but inaccurate claim that members get a direct
financial benefit from joining; the benefits are more indirect and
have more to do with financial connections.)
But I was wrong about its decline in power: In
fact, if you look at recent history, the Eastern establishment in
general and Bones in particular haven’t done too badly for
themselves: Two out of the last three Presidents were Skull and
Bones, and one likely Democratic opponent of George Bush in 2004
will be John Kerry, also Skull and Bones—which might mean a
Presidential election that is a Bones-versus-Bones smackdown, as
someone once said. (O.K., I did.)
Meanwhile, the question remains whether the
higher-ups in Bones had complicity in this recent attempt to
perpetrate a fraud on the media. (It would be terrific fun to get
them all to tell us, under oath, the "true" details of their
And Yale itself should do some soul-searching about
Skull and Bones and its "fuck with that prick" values. Does Yale
want to continue bearing the taint of its misbehavior?
But meanwhile, what lessons can one draw from this
latest fiasco? I think first of the line from F. Scott Fitzgerald
about the careless thuggishness of the overprivileged. It was the
line he used in The Great Gatsby to describe the damage that
Tom and Daisy Buchanan had left behind them. Tom Buchanan, of
course, is a Yale man who sounds a bit like Deep Dunce. Deep Dunce
could have ruined the gullible young author who believed his hoax
claim. But why should he care? He was a Skull and Bones guy, and he
was set for life. And much as I’d like to take the whole thing as a
joke, there’s something very ugly about a representative of one of
the most powerful secret societies in the world targeting a
journalist because they don’t like what he’s written about them.
"They were careless people," Fitzgerald wrote,
"they smashed up things … then retreated back into their money or
their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together,
and let other people clean up the mess they made."