America: What Do Boy George and John Kerry Have in Common? What Keeps Bill Clinton Close to the Richest Republicans? All Are Members of Secret Societies Practising Astonishing Rituals

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It does not augur well for this country, I fear, that both George W Bush and John Kerry are members of the same tiny, highly secretive club. The Skull and Bones society of Yale University each year recruits 15 undergraduates who are in their senior year--and members retain a lifelong loyalty to their fellows, helping smooth each other's way through the networks of privileged America. They revel in the mystique around the club, especially in the initiation rite that has recruits recounting their sexual history while lying in a coffin.

I thought of all this nonsense a few days ago, at a Washington lunch. Two of the men there told me, separately and furtively, that they had just returned from "Bohemian Grove"--yet another secret little gathering that meets for 16 days every summer among the redwood trees of northern California. The vast majority of Americans do not even know that such a secret society exists, though every Republican president since Calvin Coolidge has been a member. The combined wealth of the 2,500 or so members, I am told, is roughly $100bn; its membership is all-male, nearly all-white, and mostly Republican.

These exclusive societies flourish in the land of the free. Skull and Bones was started in 1832, the Bohemian Club in 1872. Every college and university in the United States is ridden with fraternities, clubs that often have bizarre initiation rites, and which are formed expressly for the purpose of denying membership to others.

Perhaps it is a hidden effect of living in so competitive a society: those who belong to such bodies need to reassure themselves that they are still members of a group that others cannot join. Even successful men still feel the need to indulge themselves in this way.

Bill Clinton, a Democrat deemed sufficiently successful to be allowed into Bohemian Grove, has flown into Sonoma County airport to spend time amid the 2,700 acres 70 miles north-west of San Francisco. Last year, Dick Cheney also went on a private duck-hunt in Louisiana with Antonin Scalia, who sits on a Supreme Court that is still deliberating on whether Cheney can keep secret the business contacts of his energy task force. ("I do not think my impartiality could reasonably be questioned," said the right-wing Scalia. Oh yeah?)

Everything about the operation of Bohemian Grove reinforces feelings of elitism and exclusivity. The surrounding areas are festooned with road signs that warn "No Thru Traffic ... No Trespassing ... Members and Guests Only . …