Skull and Bones is a shadowy, elite secret society that selects 15 new members each year from the senior class at Yale. It is known both for its celebrity membership - past "taps'' include William F. Buckley Jr., President William Howard Taft, and Henry Luce, the founder of Time magazine - and for its bizarre rituals. The rites - said to include a "blood''-drinking initiation and oodles of frank sex talk by the once all-male undergrads (Bones started admitting women in 1992) - are much discussed but little known. This is, after all, a secret society.
In her 2002 book, "Secrets of the Tomb,'' Alexandra Robbins speculated that the 2004 presidential election might pit Bonesman George W. Bush (Yale, 1968) against Bonesman John F. Kerry (Yale, 1966.) Good call! Inevitably, the election will cast an unwanted spotlight on this organization once deemed to be so secretive that members had to leave the room if the society's name was ever mentioned in public. Here is the skeleton key to the two candidates' Bones-itude:
JFK: Not known
How they made their Bones:
GWB: "At 8 p.m. on Tap Night, at the moment the bells were tolling in Harkness Tower, there was a knock on George W.'s door at his room in Davenport. When he opened it up, his father, the US congressman, was standing outside, asking that his first son do the right thing and join Skull & Bones - become a Good Man'' (from "First Son'' by Bill Minutaglio).
JFK: "I remember pushing him as someone who would be a very interesting person and had no doubt he would go into public life later'' (John Shattuck, Bones '65, now head of the Kennedy Library Foundation).
GWB: Olympic gold medalist Don Schollander, a swimmer.
JFK: Fred Smith, the founder of Federal Express.
Bones to the Bone:
GWB: Both Bush's father and his grandfather, Senator Prescott Bush, were Bonesmen.
JFK: Ossuary to the max! His friend David Thorne - Kerry married Thorne's sister Julia - was Bones. His second wife's first husband, the late senator John Heinz, was Bones, as was his father.
GWB: As a Texas Rangers owner, Bush tried to save fellow Bonesman Fay Vincent 's job as baseball commissioner.
JFK: He used his Senate office in a now-infamous failed attempt to recruit then-Yale undergrad (and now Slate magazine editor) Jacob Weisberg into S&B.
When trapped, they say:
GWB: "My senior year I joined Skull and Bones, a secret society, so secret I can't say anything more'' (from his 1999 campaign biography).
JFK: "There's not much I can say, Tim, because it's a secret'' (to Tim Russert on "Meet the Press'').
Will they walk out of a presidential debate if asked about Skull and Bones?
GWB: Spokesman does not return call.
JFK: Spokesman does not return call.
Character he most resembles in the clunker movie Áa clef about S&B, "Skulls'':
GWB: Caleb Mandrake, forced to do the wrong thing by his overbearing father, also a Bonesman.
JFK: The manipulative Bonesman, Senator Ames Levritt, for whom the ends always justify the means.
Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is firstname.lastname@example.org