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Sam Smith: Why Skull & Bones Matters

Why Skull & Bones Matters

By Editor Sam Smith

As we learn more of the strange little society called Skull & Bones, it is useful to remember that what we know already is enough:

America is about to choose between two presidential candidates who belonged to an organization whose values were infantile, elitist, misogynist, anti-democratic and secret and whose purposes include the mutual support and protection of its members as they make their into the upper ranks of American society and throughout their adult lives. Far from apologizing for this, the two candidates refuse to give open and honest answers about their participation. Further, at least one of the candidates, Kerry, has retained a close enough relationship to the organization to have sought news members from among his young acquaintances.

The most benign view of this was expressed by the conservative columnist David Brooks, who told CBS, "My view of secret societies is they're like the first class cabin in airplanes. They're really impressive until you get into them, and then once you're there they're a little dull."

Certainly, Skull & Bones is not alone. For example, a decade ago in 'Shadows of Hope' I described a more open if just as dubious influence on American politics:


While institutions such as the Council on Foreign Relations, Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute have long added theoretical underpinnings to political policy, Clinton's arrival has forced such institutions of the New York-Washington axis to take seats behind the Cambridge-headquartered John F. Kennedy School of Government. In fact, the Clinton administration seems practically a subsidiary of this academy of wonkdom. Half of Clinton's cabinet has ties to the school either as students, officials, fellows or faculty: Les Aspin, Bruce Babbit, Ron Brown, Henry Cisneros, Robert Reich, Richard Riley and Donna Shalala.

The Kennedy School is to government what the Harvard's business school was to corporations in the 1980. There is a similar emphasis on technical skills -- decision trees, case studies and so forth -- and little interest in ethics, philosophical or humanistic principles. Not surprisingly, a lot of the money for the school comes from large corporations who are more than happy to have their tax deductible contributions used to teach public officials the Kennedy School way of governing.

"This bureaucratic boot camp did once consider creating a "chair in poverty" to study "who has been poor for a long time and why," but according to the Washington Post, then Dean Graham Allison (now in Clinton's Pentagon) was unable to come up with the money. It didn't really surprise him since, after all, most donors are "wealthy people, not poor people." The conservative nature of this institution can be gauged by the fact that flaming moderate Robert Reich was considered its left-wing, a flank that apparently did not qualify him for tenure.

Executive dean Hale Champion told the Post that "if there isn't a lot of traffic between here and in Washington, then we're not in touch with what's going on." A Kennedy School graduate student in an interview with Andrew Ferguson of the Washingtonian put it more succinctly:

"The vast majority of people [at the school] are idealists. They want to change the world. But it's more than that. To be honest, we feel that we're entitled to change the world. . . You think that's arrogant. Maybe it is. But look around you. What you've got here are some of the brightest people in this country. If the country needs to change, let's face it, we're the ones to change it."

It's not the first time that Harvard has felt entitled to such a role in Washington. In the 1960s Harvard theorists applied their paradigms to Southeast Asia with disastrous results. The 1980s were propelled in part by dubious management theses emanating from its business school. In the 1990s we find not only the Kennedy School rising to power, but former members of the Soviet bloc coming under the sway of Harvard B-School professor Jeffrey Sachs, whose plans for weaning these emerging republics from communism appear an economic version of General Sherman's approach to weaning Georgia from the Confederacy. . .

Harvard grads permeate not only the upper level of politics, but also of the media, the law and the think tanks, carrying with them an aura of what songwriter Allen Jay Lerner called Harvard's "indubitable, irrefutable, inimitable, indomitable, incalculable superiority." This Harvard old (still mostly) boy network is a significant -- yet because of its discretion underrated -- influence on the city's values and policies, reflecting, in the words of the historian and reluctant Harvard grad V.L. Parrington, the "smug Tory culture which we were fed on as undergraduates."

Seventy-five years later, this smug Tory culture quietly thrives in Washington, Not the least indication of this is the fact that products of Harvard and/or Yale comprise one-third of the top positions in an administration that said it was going to look like America.


Now the control has passed to Yale or, to be fair, the offspring of one of its most childish manifestations. It is said, of course, that if you raise such matters you are engaging in 'conspiracy theories.' In fact, this phrase is popular among the political and media elite precisely because it provides a dirty mirror reflection of the very values that this elite holds: "If the country needs to change, let's face it, we're the ones to change it." It is schools such as Harvard and Yale that inculcate their political science and history majors with a sense of change being the product of a small number of great minds working in concert with their peers. It is this arrogant illusion that kept blacks, women, and the poor so long out of the history books in such places. They called it the Great Man Theory of History.

In fact, you don't need any conspiracy at all to create a Skull & Bones, a Kennedy School, or a Washington Post newsroom. All you need is the right environment. If you want a field of corn, all you have to do is plant corn and get it enough water.esides, those who have used such institutions as Skull & Bones to make their way through life tend not to be clever enough to engage in a conspiracy. That requires social intelligence, lateral thinking, imagination, all of which are in short supply among the products of such places. That's one reason they need the institutional assistance in the first place.

I know. I was supposed to be one of them. I was punched by several "final clubs" at Harvard but quickly turned them down for I found their members among the most boring people I had met at college. Instead, I found my way to the Harvard radio station - a salon des refuse for many of the most interesting people at the school. I became news director and was subsequently elected station manager, but was unable to serve because I had been placed on probation due to my excess of extracurricular activities and inattentiveness to the prescribed curriculum.

The other day, Jim Ridgeway of the Village Voice, a former editor of the Daily Princetonian, and I were trying to think of people who had served in major Ivy League media positions yet had not become - in the manner, say, of Adam Clymer or Don Graham - totally embedded in establishment values and media. We could only think of two others: William Greider and Larry Bensky. There are probably more, but it's certainly a far smaller club than Skull & Bones. We were the weeds in the corn field. Another one, interestingly, was a guy named Howard Dean.

The problem with such people is that we actually know how the system works. We have been probationary members of it and have betrayed and deserted it taking along the secrets of the crypt. Yes, as David Brooks says, it is as boring as first class, but who said the distortion of power, the corruption of society, and narcissistic excesses of ambition had to be interesting? Power at play is often the dullest thing on earth because in the end it is only a bad substitute for what really matters.

Still, we are left with the problem that our supposedly democratic system has narrowed itself down to a choice of two members of an ersatz nobility smaller yet more powerful than the British nobility. And not only are its members not meant to say anything about it. According to them and their friends in the media, neither are we.




There are approximately 800 Skull & Bones members alive today, of whom approximately 600 are old enough to be president of the United States.

There are approximately 146 million Americans old enough to be president of the United States. What are the chances that two members of Skull & Bones would be running against each other to be president of the United States?




FEB 10, 2004
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