- NEW YORK -- The "tomb"
stands dark and hulking at the heart of the Yale University campus, almost
windowless, and shuttered and padlocked in the thick snow of winter storms.
- Built to mimic a Greco-Egyptian temple, it is the headquarters
of the Order of the Skull and Bones, America's most elite and elusive secret
society - and it has become the unlikely focus of this year's presidential
election. It turns out that four leading contestants for the White House
in November's election were 1960s undergraduates at Yale: President Bush
and Democratic rivals Governor Howard Dean, Sen John Kerry and Sen Joseph
- What is more, two are "Bonesmen". Both Sen
Kerry, now the Democrat front runner, and President Bush belong to the
172-year-old society, which aims to get its members into positions of power.
This presidential election seems destined to become the first in history
to pit one Skull and Bones member against another.
- The phenomenon of the "Yalies", as Yale alumni
are known, has provoked an intense debate over apparent elitism among Americans
amazed that - in a democracy of almost 300 million people - the battle
for power should be waged among candidates drawn from the 4,000 who graduated
from Yale in four different years of the 1960s.
- "To today's Yale undergraduates it seems quite extraordinary,"
said Jacob Leibenluft, a student and a reporter on the Yale Daily News,
the campus newspaper. "For some it's a source of pride, to others
it's a source of shame."
- In fact Yale, with annual tuition fees of $28,400 (£16,000),
has long sent graduates to the top of all professions from the campus in
New Haven, Connecticut, where it was founded in 1731.
- The Skull and Bones is the most exclusive organisation
on campus. Members have ranged from President William Taft to Henry Luce,
the founder of the Time-Life magazine empire, and from Averill Harriman,
the businessman and diplomat, to the first President George Bush.
- Alexandra Robbins, a Yale graduate and author of a book
on the Skull and Bones, Secrets of the Tomb, said: "It is staggering
that so many of the candidates are from Yale, and even more so that we
are looking at a presidential face-off between two members of the Skull
and Bones. It is a tiny club with only 800 living members and 15 new members
- "But there has always been a sentiment at Yale to
push students into public service, an ethos of the elite making their way
through the corridors of power - and the sole purpose of the Bones is power."
- The four candidates' time at Yale spans the period from
1960, when Sen Lieberman began his studies, through Sen Kerry's arrival
in 1962 and Mr Bush's two years later, to 1971, when Mr Dean graduated
- a period that swung through the bright hopes of the Kennedy presidency
to tumult and bitterness over Vietnam.
- Mr Lieberman and Mr Kerry served on the same committee
to oppose resistance to the Vietnam war draft, but otherwise the four appear
not to have known each other at the time. They all studied history and
political science, however, and had some of the same professors and academic
- Robert Dahl, the then head of the political science department,
said: "Many of us had the sense we were preparing future leaders,
but I don't think any of us had any idea we were teaching so many presidential
- While at Yale all four showed hints of the varying character
traits that would eventually propel them, on different paths, towards the
top of American politics.
- Mr Lieberman, the grandson of immigrants, arrived from
a state school, probably a beneficiary of an unofficial 10 per cent quota
of places for Jews that Yale then operated. Politically ambitious, he chaired
the Yale Daily News, the most sought-after student position on campus.
- Sen Kerry is remembered as "running for president
since freshman year". One of his contemporaries said: "He was
obsessed by politics to the exclusion of all else. At that age, it's a
bit creepy." He dated Janet Auchincloss, the half-sister of Jackie
Kennedy, the First Lady, won the presidency of the Yale Political Union,
and was initiated into the Skull and Bones before joining the United States
Navy for service in Vietnam.
- In laid-back contrast, Mr Bush achieved only a "C"
grade academically and took little interest in politics. He joined a "sports
jock" fraternity and followed his father into the Skull and Bones.
- By the time Mr Dean arrived in 1967, Yale was admitting
women and setting more store by applicants' academic merit than their social
background. The future Vermont governor showed a disdain for Yale politics
and resigned from a fraternity order in a dispute over a coffee bar.
- Whether the four men's Yale backgrounds is a plus with
voters is uncertain. Mr Dean seems embarrassed, once saying he studied
"in New Haven, Connecticut" to avoid mentioning Yale by name.
Mr Bush makes light of his student years, apparently revelling in his reputation
for socialising, not studying.
- The Skull and Bones connection is more troublesome. Mr
Kerry laughed nervously when questioned about his and Mr Bush's membership
on television. "You both were members of the Skull and Bones; what
does that tell us?" he was asked. "Yup. Not much," he replied.
- Not surprisingly, the club's rituals fascinate many Americans.
Robbins's book describes a social club with arcane rules, a hoard of relics
ranging from Hitler's silver collection to the skull of the Indian chief
Geronimo - plus a resident prostitute.
- She says initiation rites include a mud-wrestling bout,
receiving a beating and the recitation by a new member of his sexual history
- delivered while he lies naked in a coffin. Elevation of a Bonesman creates
opportunities for his fellows, and Robbins says that President Bush has
appointed 10 members to his administration, including the head of the Securities
and Exchange Commission.
- She recently surveyed 100 of the estimated 800 living
Bonesmen on their preferred election winner - Sen Kerry or President Bush.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given that both are pledged to advance the interests
of fellow Bonesmen, "They answered that they didn't care. Whichever
way it went, it was a win-win for them."
- © Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2004.