People passing through on High Street barely notice the cryptlike Greco-Egyptian building called the Tomb.

On a snowy March morning, Yale professor Ingeborg Glier hurries to class past the grim, practically windowless, brown limestone mausoleum. For 138 years it has housed Skull and Bones -- a secret society that links President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, and is imagined by some to be the most potent in the nation's history.

"I know it exists but that's about as much as I know," says Glier, who has taught Germanic language and literature at Yale for 34 years. "Once in a while there is a sort of furtive person slinking into this building."

Bulldozing a stump in front of the Tomb's towering padlocked front doors, grounds worker Dawn Landino says that after 19 years on the job she knows "nothing" about the secret society. "I never see anyone around the Tomb," she says. "I think it's more of an after-hours club."

New Haven cabby Gerald Walthall grins knowingly. "They're supposed to have Geronimo's bones in there, but they could be anyone's bones," he says. "College kids do crazy things. . . . But because Skull and Bones doesn't tell you anything, people suspect it."

Rick Beckwith flips sausages and eggs on the grill at the Yankee Doodle diner, a Yale institution three blocks away. "From what I hear," says the New Haven native, whose grandfather opened the popular eatery 54 years ago, "it's the most powerful secret society at Yale. Looking at the number of powerful people who come out of Yale, Skull and Bones is probably everything it's made out to be."

It's no secret that Bush and Kerry are both Yalies. Bush graduated in 1968, Kerry in '66. It's no secret either that they both come from privileged preppy backgrounds. What remains shrouded in mystery is their membership in Skull and Bones, an elite, covert club for which involvement continues long past the last refrain of "Pomp and Circumstance" on graduation day.

Never before have two Bonesmen run against each other for the presidency. It's a coincidence of historic political proportions.

"What is so staggering about two Bonesmen running against each other for president is that it's a tiny club with 15 members a year and only 600-some living at any time. What are the odds?" says Alexandra Robbins, author of the 2002 book "Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power."

Don't bother asking Bush and Kerry the odds. Both would rather advocate raising taxes. Neither talks publicly about Skull and Bones -- except to say he can't talk about it.

Neither man responded to repeated requests for interviews for this article. But when Tim Russert asked Bush about Skull and Bones in February on "Meet the Press," the president said: "It's so secret we can't talk about it." When Russert asked Kerry last August what it meant that both he and Bush are Bonesmen, the Massachusetts senator replied: "Not much because it's a secret."

But the fact that both presidential candidates are Bonesmen raises a different question: How has Skull and Bones imprinted them?

Some critics say Bones produces elitist leaders who are myopic on America's social and economic challenges. Others argue that for presidential candidates to profess loyalty to a secret society -- particularly one that for a time didn't admit minorities and women -- is contrary to democratic principles.

Chicago writer and educator Steve Sewall, son of revered Yale English professor Richard B. Sewall, has even called for Bush and Kerry to resign from Skull and Bones. "They can be loyal to it, but they can't place that loyalty above the loyalty to the nation they serve," he argues.

"It is really by definition an extremely exclusive club for the wealthy and connected," says Bill Minutaglio, a Texas journalist and author of "First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty." "Put all that together and suddenly, in the year 2004, realize the two men who are running for the most important office on the planet Earth come out of that exact same mausoleum, and it should give you pause and reason to think about what it means to be privileged, enabled and protected in the United States."

A Legacy of Leadership

Skull and Bones was created in 1832 by Yale student William H. Russell, heir to a fortune made in the opium trade. During his travels, Russell linked up with an occult society in Germany and returned to New Haven with thoughts of starting a chapter, according to documents purloined during an 1876 Tomb break-in.

Rejecting the day's anti-Masonic movement that deplored all things secret, Russell lured a select few of his most promising classmates into a covenant -- sworn to secrecy for fear of repercussions by the faculty and for the prestige of exclusiveness.

Twenty-four years later, in 1856, the corporate parent of the thriving secret society, the Russell Trust Association, built the Tomb across the street from Old Campus, the university's original structures. At some early point, the society settled on a membership formula that remains today: Every spring, senior Bonesmen tap 15 juniors, students considered the most promising future leaders.

A roster of Bones alumni, known as "patriarchs," surfaced in the mid-1980s. Included are names of the nation's oldest, wealthiest and most powerful dynasties -- Whitney, Adams, Lord, Rockefeller, Payne, Pillsbury, Weyerhaeuser. Other famous names on the list: poet Archibald MacLeish; writer John Hersey; political commentator William F. Buckley; Time-Life founder Henry Luce; investment banker Dean Witter Jr. and Morgan Stanley founder Harold Stanley, among others who built Wall Street; diplomat Averill Harriman and FedEx founder Frederick Smith.

Bush's father, former president George H.W. Bush, is a Bonesman, as was his grandfather, Sen. Prescott Bush. And the family married into even more Bones links on the Walker side. As for Kerry, his brother-in-law from his first marriage was Bones; his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, was married to the late Sen. John Heinz, whose father was Bones.

Bones alumni show up as luminaries of the political power grid throughout history -- Supreme Court justices, federal judges, U.S. senators and congressmen, Cabinet members, CIA officials. And, yes, presidents -- though more Bonesmen had the president's ear than the job.

The first Bonesman in the White House was William Howard Taft, whose father was an original member. The two Bush administrations restored Bones to the presidency. If Kerry is elected, it will mean three of the last four presidents have been Bonesmen.

This legacy of Bones prominence is not surprising since Yale, like all prestigious universities, theoretically is attended by the nation's best and brightest, many of whom are from wealthy and powerful families -- a circle of success. Bones taps those who the members think are the most promising of this promising pool. But with its veil of secrecy, Bones also inspires far-fetched conspiracy theories. Skull and Bones has been accused of being a satanic group, an international Mafia, and an incubator of future agents of a "New World Order."

What feeds such suspicions is that Bonesmen are like a cross between Forrest Gump and Zelig -- always in the picture at major historical crossroads: Bonesmen oversaw development of the atomic bomb and influenced the decision to use it on Japan. They managed the postwar occupation of Germany. They helped shape U.S. Cold War policies. They were policymakers during the Vietnam War. They have ties to the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission -- two hot-button organizations for conspiracy theorists.

Conspiracy theorists have a field day over the fact that Bonesmen were among the founders of the Central Intelligence Agency. They love to point out that statues of the patriot spy Nathan Hale, Yale 1773, stand on both the university's campus and the CIA's headquarters in Langley.

But there's a simple explanation for the "cloak-and-gown connection," says Gaddis Smith, Yale history professor emeritus who is writing a book on modern Yale. During the Second World War, bright students from Yale, Harvard and Princeton were recruited into the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor of the CIA.

"Part of it was they found more people with European language skills here than they would out of Nebraska State," says Smith. After the war, the new CIA continued to recruit Yale grads, as well as other Ivy Leaguers -- no big conspiracy there.

As for Hale, captured 30 minutes into his first mission, he was "the nation's first and least successful spy," says Smith. He is remembered for his final words before British troops hanged him: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

Says Ron Rosenbaum, a journalist who wrote the first Bones expose in a 1977 Esquire article and continues to investigate the society: "Many of the people who helped shape the American national character in the past century had their character shaped in part by the bones of Skull and Bones, but this is not a secret cabal that rules the world. It is an underreported network of influence and power."

Believing the society was exclusionary, William Sloane Coffin, Bones '49, refused to associate with it during the '60s and '70s, when, as Yale's chaplain, he was renowned for his civil rights and antiwar leadership. But even so, he says today, Bones brothers leave Yale bound together for life and determined to make a difference.

Caught in the Courtyard

Much of what's public about Skull and Bones is lore, and some of it sounds more sophomoric than snobbish. Most Bones alumni contacted for this story did not reply; a few spoke, though willingness to be identified was rare.

To research her book, Robbins -- Yale '98 and a member of Scroll and Key, another Yale secret society -- says she contacted more than 300 Bonesmen; about 100 talked, but few would be identified. And since the book was published, she has been snubbed by fellow Key members.

Rosenbaum says much of his information comes from disenchanted girlfriends of Bonesmen. Rosenbaum became fascinated with Skull and Bones when, as an undergraduate in the same class as Bush, he lived next to the Tomb. After nightfall one Saturday in April 2001, he and a videotaping crew hid on a perch in Weir Hall overlooking the Tomb's back courtyard and filmed what he believes was the climax of a Skull and Bones initiation. It was a ritual that sounds like a frat party gone medieval.

The ceremony was coarse with sexual taunts, loud with shrieking and groaning, and centered on "mystical mumbo jumbo," Rosenbaum says. Bonesmen emerged in hooded robes, some carrying skulls and femur-sized bones, one dressed as the devil, another in a George W. Bush mask. Each of the 15 initiates knelt, kissed a skull and had his throat ceremoniously cut.

"This is conjecture," says Rosenbaum, "but I feel that the death imagery is designed to instill a sense of mortality, to turn preppy Prince Hals into people who have a sense of a larger mission in life."

After initiation, new members spend a week with Bones patriarchs on Deer Island, the 40-acre New York "resort" the Russell Trust Association owns on the St. Lawrence River. In the 2000 movie "The Skulls," a fictional murder mystery based loosely on Bones legend, the gathering is a hedonistic welcome that showers sports cars, fat bank accounts and prostitutes on the increasingly smug initiates. Robbins and Rosenbaum say the reality is more likely a G-rated version.

In September, the 15 new members are said to meet twice weekly to reveal their sexual histories. Some accounts say each member lies naked in a stone coffin and describes his most intimate experiences while masturbating, but Robbins speculates that the coffin confessions went out of style decades ago and Bonesmen now fess up more civilly.

The goal, supposedly, is to create lasting bonds. "That's why they do the sexual history," she says. "If you want to form best friendships as quickly as possible, it makes sense."

"Quirky, mawkish, sophomoric, whatever you want to call it," says Coffin, who just published "Credo," a book of reflections. "I can only say that in 1949, even for a pretty skeptical guy like me, it worked. It worked for the whole group."

The Secret Handshake

What is a network of friendships to some is an old-boy network to others.

"There's no specific creed that they are supposed to go out and spread," says Robbins. "They do have this agenda to further and bolster their superiority complex . . . and to get its members into positions of power, and to have those members hire other members into similar positions of power."

Many would argue that's how any fraternity -- or any circle of friends and associates, for that matter -- would operate.

Since Bush moved into the White House, he has nominated or appointed at least 10 Bonesmen to prestigious positions -- among them the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Bill Donaldson, '53; Assistant Attorney General Robert McCallum, '68; General Counsel to the Office of Homeland Security Edward McNally, '79; and his close friend Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago Roy Austin, '68.

"What's interesting about Bush is how he distances himself from the Eastern Establishment while he is installing it in high offices," says Robbins.

Bush has also benefited from Bones on his path to power. His first real job, the financing of his first oil company, his lucrative partnership owning the Texas Rangers baseball team, the big money backing his campaigns -- all had Bones backing, says Minutaglio.

"George W. went from being a self-described 'Good-time Charlie' to president of the United States largely with the help of an inner circle of his parents' friends, his own trusted pals, and brothers from Yale and Skull and Bones," he says.

But what bothers Minutaglio more is the influence he thinks Bones has had on Bush. "The Bushes like to talk about folks who are 'good men,' and they use that term almost in the sense of King Arthur and the Round Table," he says.

For a chunk of its history, Skull and Bones was criticized as a male WASP stronghold. While numbers aren't accessible, Smith and Robbins say Bones has tapped Jews since the 1930s and blacks and gays since the '60s, though only in token numbers until recent decades. Since the '90s, according to Robbins and Yale President Richard Levin, Yale's growing ethnic diversity has been reflected in Bones membership.

But the old-boy network couldn't accept women quite as easily. After Yale began admitting women in 1969, the first Bonesmen to try to tap them were in the Class of '71. The attempt was thwarted by outraged patriarchs -- among them McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser to presidents Kennedy and Johnson; investment banker Jonathan Bush, George W.'s uncle; and John "Tex" McCrary, the public relations legend. They threatened to shut the Tomb for a year and choose the next Bones class themselves.

In 1991, the patriarchs did lock down the Tomb to rebuff that class's intention to tap women. After a lawsuit was filed, women were approved narrowly. Since then, speculates Robbins, Bones has tapped five to eight women per class.

Russell Cangelosi, Bones '72 and a high school history teacher and head football coach in Tennessee, says Bones always sought diversity, in one way or another. "Where else would a jock . . . get to debate issues with an actor, a singer, a symphony musician, or a writer for the Yale Daily News? You can't get a bunch like that to agree on very much of anything, much less conspire as a group. Yet, the experience is priceless."

View From the Top

Arguably, in the larger context of Yale itself, Skull and Bones doesn't seem quite so mysterious. Framed on the wall in Yale President Richard Levin's office in Woodbridge Hall is the founding charter, dated 1701. By today's standards, it sounds plebeian: To establish a college where youth "may be fitted for publick employment both in church and civil state."

For more than three centuries, Yale has seen its job as educating future leaders -- from the 14 Yalies who served on the Continental Congress and four signers of the Declaration of Independence to four of the past six U.S. presidents (the two Bushes; Bill Clinton, Yale Law '67; and Gerald Ford, Yale Law '41).

This year's Democratic primary was flush with Yalies, in addition to Kerry: Joe Lieberman, '64 and Yale Law '67, and Howard Dean, '71. They and President Bush were undergrads when then-Yale President Kingman Brewster proclaimed Yale's goal to be to produce "one thousand male leaders every year." After Brewster turned the university coed in 1969, the statement was trimmed to "one thousand leaders."

Levin, who has been president for 11 years, often refers to Yale as "a laboratory for leadership." Aside from the university's acclaimed academic life, Yale provides undergrads a wealth of opportunities to lead. Registered on campus are 250 student organizations.

"With only 1,300 seniors, roughly one in five or six becomes the head of an organization," says Levin, sitting in the rocking chair favored by Yale President Ezra Stiles in the 1780s.

Lieberman was chairman of the Yale Daily News. Kerry was president of the Yale Political Union, the long-standing debate forum on campus. Bush presided over Delta Kappa Epsilon, the national fraternity founded more than 150 years ago at Yale.

Former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke, Yale '71, recalls that during his junior year, he proposed to Yale administrators that the class start a child-care center -- a rarity then. "Rather than having somebody say, 'That's a silly idea' or 'Come back 20 years from now when you're successful and can fund it,' there was encouragement. There was a sense of 'Give it a try and see what you can do,'" says Schmoke, now dean of Howard Law School. "Yale embraces the notion of its students thinking like leaders and doing what leaders do."

Moreover, Lieberman, Kerry, Bush and Dean were at Yale during a politically potent 11-year span ripe for sparking leadership. The early '60s were a time when a dashing Ivy-educated president inspired a generation to ask what they could do for their country. By the time Kerry gave the Class Day speech before graduation, Vietnam was turning bad and he expressed his class's concerns about the war. But true to the Yale motto, "For God, for Country and for Yale," he enlisted in the Navy and served.

Two years later, Bush and the class of '68 straddled the cultural divide that split the nation over mounting casualties and diminishing credibility in a controversial war. By the time Dean graduated in '71, the Yale campus, and nation, was a powder keg of disaffection.

"No doubt politics was in the air, it was something people talked about and thought about," says Levin. "But the specific thing about Yale is that it's really less a creation of the '60s than it is a product of long tradition."

Looking out of his office windows, Levin can see Scroll and Key's headquarters. In a sense, Skull and Bones is just a microcosm of Yale's culture of leadership, he suggests. "The truth is, it looks more prominent from the outside than from the inside. . . . It is not fraught with all the significance that the outside world tends to give to it."

What the Launderer Saw

Outside the Tomb, a laundry service truck pulls up to the curb. Ben Barrett climbs out and goes down a flight of steps to a basement side door and returns with a large bag of dirty laundry.

He regularly picks up Skull and Bones's dirty laundry.

Ever anything weird?

"Just tablecloths, napkins," he says.

No hooded robes? No devil costumes?

"Nope. Just linens and tablecloths."

The Skull and Bones "Tomb" on the Yale campus : An elite, covert club whose activities continue long past the final strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" on graduation day.Gaddis Smith, Yale history professor emeritus, who is writing a book on modern Yale, says Skull and Bones, once criticized as a male WASP stronghold, has tapped Jews since the 1930s and blacks and gays since the '60s.Yale President Richard Levin suggests Skull and Bones is just a microcosm of Yale's culture of leadership: "The truth is, it looks more prominent from the outside than from the inside."Bonesmen in the White House: From left, William Howard Taft, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. If John Kerry, far right, is elected, it will mean three of the last four presidents have been Bonesmen.