America - Andrew Stephen reveals a spooky secret society

What do Boy George and John Kerry have in common? What keeps Bill Clinton close to the richest Repub

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 . . . No Turnaround". Sentries scan the outside areas with binoculars looking for those who might want to penetrate such a gathering, while infra-red sensors protect the perimeters.

What really takes non-members such as me aback is the infantilism of Bohemian Grove. When alone with each other, the men apparently dress up in ridiculous costumes. Their motto is "Weaving spiders come not here" and one of their first rituals at each annual gathering is the "cremation of care", whereby an effigy of an owl, symbolising their careworn lives in the outside world, is ceremoniously lit and consumed by fire. Peeing on trees is supposed to represent the club members' liberation from the outside world - and, most of all, from women.

Members like to feel they are "roughing it" in the woodland subdivided into a further 125 "camps", which have names such as Sons of Toil, Dog House and Toyland. This year, George H W Bush was in a camp named Hill Billies, along with dear old Rummy. Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell and George P Shultz were in Mandalay. The men actually enjoy a luxurious lifestyle, with chefs and waiters catering to their every whim. There are lectures on subjects such as global warming, and on war and terrorism. During this summer's gathering, a member put up on the noticeboard an allegation that John Kerry had falsified an injury in Vietnam so that he could collect one of his three Purple Hearts.

Tricky Dick Nixon joined in 1953 and two of his advisers, John Ehrlichman and "Bob" Haldeman, became members, too. But Nixon was caught on the Watergate tapes telling them what he really thought: "The Bohemian Grove, which I attend from time to time - it is the most faggy goddamned thing you could ever imagine . . ."

Ehrlichman later wrote: "Once you've spent three days with someone in an informal situation, you have a relationship - a relationship that opens doors and makes it easier to pick up the phone."

Which, I am sure, is precisely why Bohemian Grove exists. Men of power meet, and power thus proliferates. George H W Bush was horrified when his son could not be bothered at first to take up his invitation to join Skull and Bones, and promptly flew to Yale to make sure his Boy George joined up. John Kerry needed no such paternal prodding. Like the elder Bush, he knew what was good for him - the lifelong membership of a club from which 99.999 per cent of the American electorate is excluded.