Correction: The photo caption in an earlier version of this article misidentified where Jack Appelbaum and Maggie Cleary are standing. This version has been corrected.
The anonymous blogger discovered the secret society’s internal e-mails and gleefully published the most amusing material: members deliberating over which ties to wear (Brooks Brothers, of course) and another insider venting about the “extremely left-wing tilt” of the Georgetown University campus tour.
The blogger’s bombshell: The top candidate for student government president was a secret-society member. Published online just days before the election late last month, the exposé sent the campus into an uproar. Web traffic at the Hoya, the student newspaper, surged from an average of 2,500 daily page views to a record 32,000 that day. And the candidate linked to the secret society, Jack Appelbaum, was narrowly defeated.
At Georgetown, only one organization can inspire that kind of mayhem: the Second Stewards Society.
The all-male group, which doesn’t identify its members or detail its activities, has long been a source of rumor and controversy on the 104-acre campus, where some students harbor suspicions that group members are pushing a right-wing political agenda — charges the Stewards call absurd.
The last time the society made big news was back in the late 1980s, when, after students’ complaints about elitism and sexism, the Stewards declared themselves dead. Now, thanks to an anonymous blogger with the very Washington moniker “Steward Throat,” the Stewards are back at the center of Hoya scuttlebutt. The most entertaining conspiracy theories — cabals, power grabs, sinister alliances — sound a lot like a campus version of “House of Cards,” the Netflix political drama.
“Whenever our name comes up, immediately a lot of people come to the conclusion that something must be awry,” acknowledged Chief Steward Sam Schneider, a Montgomery County senior who is authorized to speak to the media on the group’s behalf. Some people think that the Stewards are seeking political power, he said, “but that’s simply not true. Our anonymity is about our public service. We find that not taking credit for service can be much more rewarding, in the same way people make anonymous donations to buildings.”
By no means do the Stewards possess the lore of Yale University’s fabled Skull and Bones, whose alumni include the Bush presidents — George H.W. and George W. — and Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
The Stewards were co-founded in 1982 by prominent Washington lawyer Manuel Miranda, whose headline-making career as a GOP congressional aide and State Department diplomat has shaped the Stewards’ reputation for conservatism.
In 1992, Miranda spearheaded a successful campaign with the Vatican to compel Georgetown, the nation’s oldest Catholic university, to defund a student club that supported abortion rights.
Miranda said misperceptions about the group are the result of its support for Georgetown’s Catholic traditions. “Some of the projects we’re associated with are Catholic, but we don’t view them as political,” Miranda said. “We view them as honoring Georgetown’s Catholic identity.”
(Miranda knows something about how to run clandestine organizations: His father-in-law was the late Clair George, who in the 1980s was the CIA’s head of worldwide covert operations.)
Other Stewards, in interviews with The Washington Post, said the society’s members include gays and members of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, as well as liberals and conservatives. In fact, Appelbaum, the defeated presidential candidate, is a Democrat and a Jew.
The one thing binding them, Stewards alumni said, is their mission to perform anonymous public service to benefit Georgetown. Recent public financial documents for the society’s charitable trust, which has net assets of more than $147,000, show the Stewards have donated money to several campus groups, including a debate society, a theater organization and a right-leaning campus opinion journal.
Beyond that, the society — which is not an officially sanctioned student group and receives no university funds — zealously keeps secret its rituals, meeting places, constitution, official history, organizational structure, members’ names and finances.
Only a few details about the group have leaked out: Its symbol is two keys lying horizontally on top of each other. Its colors are crimson and gold. Its motto: Non Scholae Sed Vitae (“Not for School but for Life”).
A 2000 copy of its bylaws, obtained by The Post, reveals some cryptic officer titles: the Quaestor of the Treasury; the Keeper; the Dean of All the Years; the Master of the Ritual; and two Guardian Stewards — one of whom, the documents stipulate, “shall be a member of the Society of Jesus or [a] Roman Catholic priest.”
In December, Clara Gustafson, 22, the Georgetown student body president, was dismayed when she learned that Appelbaum was a member of the Stewards.
Why, she wondered, would he join forces with a group whose perceived history seemed at odds with what she feels is the campus’s more liberal, secular bent?
“I just said to him, ‘This is too weird to me. I don’t get it,’ ” recalled Gustafson, who endorsed him anyway.
“People’s outrage on campus comes from the group’s history,” she said, “that they have undertones of conservative religiousness, and that they’re anti-modern.”
The Stewards first came under attack in 1988. Female undergraduates complained to the university and in the student press that the secret, all-male organization had the ability to manipulate campus politics with hidden agendas.
(The Stewards, according to their internal documents, have called this period “The Great Unpleasantness.”)
So, the Stewards — in what may have been a first in the history of secret societies — called a news conference. They declared they were breaking up.
Two months later, however, the headline on the Hoya’s cover read: “Steward Alumni Consider Comeback.”
For years afterward, the Stewards rarely made news. That is, until last month, when Steward Throat decided to rock the campus elections.
Connor Jones, editor of the campus blog Vox Populi, opened his e-mail Feb. 18 and read a bizarre message. Someone, or a group of people, dubbed Steward Throat, had “acquired information” confirming several Stewards’ identities, including a prominent candidate for the student government presidency.
Voting would begin in a few days. Did Jones want the scoop? Jones asked a colleague, who told him not to bother.
“The Stewards are a nonentity, just a bunch of bros who weren’t smart enough to get into Yale and join a real secret society,” the staffer replied. “Unless we think this guy is going to tell us they sacrifice virgins in Riggs Library, I don’t think it’s worth even responding to.”
When Jones took a pass, Steward Throat published the goods online anyway: Stewards’ e-mails in an apparently open Google Group.
The campus news outlets quickly followed with the juicy nugget that Appelbaum — who had been endorsed by the Hoya — was a Stewards member, along with his campaign manager. Appelbaum, who declined to comment for this article, confirmed his membership to the Hoya and explained that his campaign was “separate” from the Stewards.
“Because it’s something that I keep private, I don’t think that I have to explain every single thing I’ve been a part of in my history,” said Appelbaum, who lost the election by a slim margin to Nate Tisa.
On Saturday, the new student government officers will be sworn in. For Appelbaum’s running mate, Maggie Cleary, a junior from Fairfax County, it still stings that she and Appelbaum won’t be among those taking office. She’d also love to track down Steward Throat. The blogger’s exposé, she said, cost them the victory.
“I keep imagining I’ll be at the Tombs one day,” Cleary said, referring to the famed off-campus bar. “Steward Throat will tell me it was him. And I’ll throw a drink in his face.”