Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn
Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn
Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn

June 15, 2001

Meet The Secret Rulers of the World
The truth about the Bohemian Grove

Where's the fashionable rendezvous for the World's Secret Government? In the good old days when the Illuminati had a firm grip on things, it was wherever the Bilderbergers decided to pitch their tents. Then Nelson and David Rockefeller horned their way in, and the spotlight moved to the Trilateral Commission. Was there one secret government or two? Some said all the big decisions were taken in England, at Ditchley, not so far from the Appeasers' former haunts at Cliveden and only an hour by Learjet from Davos, which is where jumped up finance ministers and self-inflating tycoons merely pretend they rule the world.

Secret World rulers spend a good deal of time in the air, whisking from Davos to APEC meetings somewhere in Asia, to Ditchley, to Sun Valley, Idaho, tho' mercifully no longer to the Clinton-favored Renaissance Weekend in Hilton Head, South Carolina. But comes next July 14 and every self-respecting member of the Secret World Government will be in a gloomy grove of redwoods alongside the Russian river in northern California, preparing to Banish Care for the 122nd time, prelude to three weeks drinking gin fizzes and hashing out the future of the world.

If the avenging posses mustered by the Bohemian Grove Action Network manage this year to burst through the security gates at the Bohemian Grove, they will (to extrapolate from numerous eyewitness accounts of past sessions) find proofs most convincing to them that here indeed is the ruling crowd in executive session: hundreds of near-dead white men sitting by a lake listening to Henry Kissinger.

The avenging posses may find some puzzling elements within the Grove. Why, for example, are at least 80 percent of the Bohemians in a state of intoxication so advanced that many of them had fallen insensible among the ferns, gin fizz glasses gripped firmly 'til the last? Why so many games of dominoes? Why the evidence that a significant portion of the Secret Government appear to be involved in some theatrical production, involving the use of women's clothes and lavish application of make-up?

Many an empire has of course been run by drunken men wearing make-up. But a long, hard look at the Bohemian Club, its members and appurtenances, suggests that behind the pretense of Secret Government lies the reality of a summer camp for a bunch of San Francisco businessmen, real estate plungers and lawyers who long ago had the cunning to recruit some outside megawattage (e.g., Herbert Hoover, a Rockefeller, Richard Nixon) to turn their mundane frolicking into the simulacrum of Secret Government and make the yokels gape.

The simulacrum isn't half bad. For Republicans the club is an antechamber to the White House. Teddy Roosevelt was a member. So, as noted, was Herbert Hoover. In his memoirs Hoover wrote that within one hour of Calvin Coolidge's announcement in 1927 that he would not run again, "a hundred men – editors, publishers, public officials and others from all over the country who were at the Grove, came to my camp demanding that I announce my candidacy." Hoover was at the Grove again the following summer, as he had been with some considerable regularity since 1911, when news came that Republicans had chosen him for their candidate.

A speech to the industrial and financial titans clustered for one of the Grove's famous lakeside talks could make or break a candidacy. After a poor reception, Nelson Rockefeller abandoned his bid for the Republican nomination in 1964. Richard Nixon, like Hoover a member of the Cave Man's camp inside the Grove, got a rapturous reception in 1967 and pressed forward to the nomination and the White House. It was at the Bohemian Grove that America's nuclear weapons program was first devised by physicists such as Grove members Ernest O. Lawrence and Edward Teller – meeting with other members who were then in government, all confident of the security of the redwood clubhouse built by Bernard Maybeck (my favorite of all American architects) in 1904.

European leaders travel discreetly to the Grove to address the American elite. German chancellor Helmut Schmidt (not to be confused with Club members Chauncey E. Schmidt or Jon Eugene Schmidt) strolled its paths with club member Henry Kissinger, as did French socialist leader Michael Rocard. Where else could such men hope to chat privately with the head of IBM, a couple of Rockefellers, bankers galore, a Justice of the US Supreme Court and Charlton Heston? Even the prickly Lee Kuan Yew hastened to visit the club, only to have the mortification of being mistaken for a waiter.

The Bohemian Club began as a San Francisco institution in 1872, founded by journalists and kindred lowly scriveners as an excuse for late-night boozing. Its membership was dignified by Jack London, Mark Twain, Bret Harte and other literary roustabouts who had fetched up in the city after the Gold Rush.

The hacks soon concluded that Bohemianism, in the sense of real poverty, was oppressive. "It was decided," clubman Ed Bosque wrote, "we should invite an element to join the Club which the majority of its members held in contempt, namely men who had money as well as brains, but who were not, strictly speaking, Bohemians." So they pulled in a few wealthy men of commerce to pay for the champagne and the rot soon set in. Within a very few years the lowly scriveners were on their way out, except for a few of the more presentable among them to lend a pretense of Boho-dom – and Mammon had seized power.

There were laments. "The salt has been washed out of the Club by commercialism," one writer grumbled. On his visit to the city, Oscar Wilde gazed around at the fleshy faces and handsomely attired members and remarked, "I have never seen so many well-dressed, well-fed, businesslike looking bohemians in all my life."

The final blow to the hacks came soon thereafter. Near the end of the last century the cult of the redwood grove as Nature's cathedral was in full swing and the Boho-businessmen yearned to give their outings a tincture of spiritual uplift. The long-range planning committee of the club decided to buy a grove some sixty miles north of the city near the town of Monte Rio. When the wheeling and dealing was over, the club owned 2,700 acres of redwoods, a grove of the mightiest of thousand-year-old Sequoia sempervirens:

"We are grown men now," a piece of club literature announced in the early 1920s, "but each year in the hard procession of our days there comes, thank God, to us Bohemians, a recess time – it is upon us. Come out, Bohemians. Come out and play!" Soon the ancient redwoods, hated by the Pomo Indians of the area as clammy and sepulchral, rang to the laughter of the disporting men of commerce.

When all is said and done, the way the beleaguered American male asserts his personhood, defies convention, hails the American dream, is to piss against a tree. Indeed, when confronted with a sex-discrimination suit a few years ago, the Bohemians indignantly asserted that theirs had to be a Men Only institution precisely because any woman entering the club's precincts would see nothing but men occupied in this crude pastime.

Like all such institutions the club has its rituals, its ceremonies, its hallowed rules. In June there are three long weekends of Springjinks, mostly attended by Californians. At the opening of each summer season proper, on July 14 this year, there is the traditional masque, representing the banishment of Care. Amid somber music, horses carrying caped riders gallop through the trees. Then, eerily picked out by torchlight, robed tycoons move slowly into a clearing with a bier supporting the effigy of Care. Amid stentorian chants, a blare of music and leaping flames, Care is finally cremated. In its place the flame of eternal friendship is ignited and three weeks of Boho-dom are underway.

This amalgam of pop Druidry, Klan kitsch and Fraserian mumbo-jumbo stems from the nineteenth-century passion for "ancient ritual." Two thousand miles away, at the other end of the continent, the same impulse produced Mardi Gras in New Orleans, with its Mystick Krewe, its Elves of Oberon and the tribute paid by Rex to Comus. Many of the Boho rituals and its first play, The Triumph of Bohemia, were worked up by a real estate speculator called George Sterling who took to poesy and Boho-dom late in life and banished Care permanently in 1926 by taking strychnine in the Club's city premises.

A college kid I'll call Tom – the arm of the Secret Government is, after all, far-reaching – worked at the Bohemian Grove each summer for three years in the middle 1990s. At that time (and I doubt things have changed) the basic wage for the very ample force required to assist in the banishing of Care was not handsome – $5 to $6 an hour. But Tom worked for an independent contractor supplying food and help and got $125 a day plus tips (officially banned at the Grove) and ended up with $3,000 for his three-week stint.

Tom's day began at 5:30 a.m., preparing for breakfast. The Bohemian Club is set up along frat house lines. Instead of Deltas and Pi Etas there are camps, some 120 in all, stretching along River Road and Morse Stephens canyon. Their names follow the imaginative arc of American industrialists and financiers over the past hundred years, from Druids to Hillbillies (George Bush, Walter Cronkite, William F. Buckley), Isle of Aves (John E. Du Pont), Meyerling, Owl's Nest (Eddie Albert, Ronald Reagan), Silverado Squatters, Totem Inn (which has actually boasted a writer, Allen Drury), Woof (former Secretary of State James A. Baker III), Wayside Log (which has boasted another writer, Herman Wouk), Ye Merrie Yowls, Zaca.

The camp Tom lived and worked at was thick with real estate tycoons and had a reputation for good food and comfortable appointments. Tom fixed the early morning gin fizzes and kindred cobweb banishers. He got the papers – San Francisco Chronicle, Wall Street Journal, New York Times. He cleaned up the mess left by the Bohos' nocturnal revels. He served up the fruits, juices, eggs and bacon and listened to captains of commerce start their day's chat about business affairs. The club has a famous motto, "weaving spiders not come here," meaning No shop talk, but Tom laughs. "They talk business here all the time. The younger members brown-nose shamelessly, making contacts." By midmorning it's another day in Bohemia, with Tom's hands never idle as he runs up Old Fashioneds and Manhattans. The members prefer to mix their own martinis.

Though he was no career man at the Grove Tom had already taken on a caustic loyalty to his camp. He sneered at nearby Abbey, a lowly place equipped merely with tents and believed to have a tradition of unmentionable practices. He sneered too, though more deferentially, at lordly Mandalay camp, inaccessible save by written invitation by a member, luxuriously appointed and stocked with the Membership Committee's most determined stab at the pretense of Secret Government. Here are to be found members of the Bechtel clan, owners of the largest engineering contractorship in the world, veterans of Republican Washington of the era of Gerorge Bush Sr. (former Treasury Secretary Nick Brady, former Secretary of State George Shultz), souvenirs of industrial might (Leonard K. Firestone. Edgar F. Kaiser), 1970s retro (Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger) and foreign bric-a-brac (Andrew Knight of The Economist).

The waiting lists for membership are so long it takes years for the novitiate to be admitted. Lobbying is pathetically fierce. Tom Watson, the builder of IBM, once took a long weekend off from his retirement job as US ambassador to Moscow to fly to San Francisco to dine with a Bohemian Grove board member and discreetly lobby for membership. A friend of mine, big in Reagan's time, has been on the doorstep for 15 years. He says he likes it that way. He's spared the hefty signup fee of around $10,000 and annual membership dues and only has to pony up when he's invited, which is every two or three years. Particularly in the more sumptuous camps even this takes plenty of money, sharing bills for retinues of uniformed servants, vintage cellars, master chefs and kindred accouterments of spiritual refreshment. But what, in the end, does the member get for his pains?

There are lakeside talks. Here, of an evening, Grovers can hear a banker or a Treasury official wend his way through the intricacies of Third World debt rescheduling, or listen to a European leader who will offer himself up for inspection. There are increasingly popular science talks at the Bohemian Grove's museum. During the day there are enviro-strolls with some biologist from Stanford or Berkeley lecturing his retinue on successional stages in redwood regeneration. There's skeet-shooting on the private range. There's endless dominoes, the Grove's board-game par excellence. There's Not Being At Home with the wife. But best of all, there are the talent revue and the play.

Visit some corporate suite in San Francisco in June or early July and if you see the CEO brooding thoughtfully before his plate-glass window overlooking the Bay Bridge, the chances are he is not thinking about some impending takeover or merciless down-sizing. He is probably worrying about the cut of his tutu for the drag act for which he has been rehearsing keenly for many months.

These plays are planned five years in advance, with no expense spared. Tycoons vie eagerly for the privilege of shifting a stage prop or securing the best computerized lighting system that money can provide. Although the talent shows put on by Merv Griffin and Art Linkletter were reckoned at least in past years to be good, the plays are pretty awful, heavily freighted with double-entendres about swollen members and the like. A poster for one Grove play, Pompeii, featured a mighty erection under a toga, modeled no doubt on the redoubtable organ in the Pompeiian fresco photographed by many a touring tycoon.

Along with the big play there is the comedy revue – Low Jinks – for which members again rehearse with passionate anticipation. World affairs stood still a few seasons ago as Henry Kissinger prepared for his big moment, which was to enter, dressed as a dumpy man wearing a Kissinger mask which he duly pulled off, to reveal the ever-familiar features, while announcing in his glottal accent, "I am here because I have always been convinced that The Low Jinks is the ultimate aphrodisiac." Puissance – this is after all a mature crowd scampering about amid the Sequoia sempervirens – is a big theme, and the drag acts are heavily overstated.

Boho-member Wouk once got off a sententious paragraph about the Grove being the site of that purest of loves, the friendship that men can nourish between each other in noble surroundings. Some years ago a gay writer called Ron Bluestein described his stint waitering at the Grove in a very funny pamphlet, "A Waitress in Bohemia," in which he evoked the below-the-stairs homosexual culture fostered by a workforce mostly recruited from San Francisco. Some anthropologists of Boho culture even believe that the Grove is now encircled with gay residential suburbs that have inevitably sprung up to accommodate these migrants.

Informed sources discount these stories somewhat. Of course there are gay waiters and gay bohemians too, discreetly cruising River Road, but it seems that it was back in the 1970s things got somewhat out of hand. The Club took certain measures and things are now under control.

Along with its most definitely closet contingent, the club also has about 2,000 heterosexuals cooped up for the summer retreat, with no women officially on the premises except for a daily minibus of female cleaners – the consequence of a lawsuit brought by feminists a few years ago – which can go no farther into the Grove than the Camp Fire circle, 400 yards from the Main Gate. Randy members break bounds and head for such straight cruising spots as the Northwood Lodge and Country Club where vigorously bejeweled women in their thirties are to be found

A few years ago KGO radio, out of San Francisco, had an interesting talk show in which callers with firsthand Grove experience told their tales. A man from Monte Rio said he was only one of several townspeople renting cabins every year to prostitutes traveling from as far as Las Vegas to renew the Bohos' spiritual fibers. He said it was a big shot in the arm for Monte Rio's ailing economy. This same caller moved from shots in the arm to shots in another location. He said he stocked his cabins with plenty of booze as well as syringes of a potency drug recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration which furnishes four to six-hour erections. Sempervirens indeed. The Monte Rio caller added that at least this quotient of Secret Government included good tippers, doling out splendid gratuities to their companions.

In the 1990s the Grove's reputation as the site of Secret Government was in eclipse. The Mandalay camp roster told the story, with its grizzled veterans of the Reagan-Bush years. The contours of the Republican Party had changed, in a manner not entirely suited to the Club. The young Christian zealots of the Newt revolution were scarcely Low Jinksters, and Newt – he did give a lakeside talk in 1995 – was a little too tacky in style for the gin fizz set. Dole wasn't even a member and with Bill and Hillary in office, journalists dashed off each year to the Carolina coast to write about the Renaissance Weekend at Hilton Head where the idiom was of the 1990s – self-awareness, being in touch with your inner self, networking – rather than the 1890s – making merrie, getting drunk and using the Old Boy Net.

But here we are in the Bush II era, and the Bush Clan is pure Secret Government, all the way from the old Rockefeller connection, to Skull and Bones and the Knights of Malta. Dick Cheney's a Grover.

So spare yourself the expense of traveling from Quebec to the next session of the WTO. Voyage to Sonoma County and muster against Secret World Government which, let's face it, isn't exactly secret. For the Rally and Line of Shame, be at the Monte Rio parking lot across from the Rio theater at 2pm, July 14.

For further details, call the Bohemian Grove Action Network, whose Mary Moore has been chivvying the Grovers for twenty years, at 707-874-2248 or check out www.sonomacountyfreepress.org.

Copyright 2001 Alexander Cockburn

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Text-only printable version of this article

Alexander Cockburn, one of America's best-known radical journalists, was born in Scotland and grew up in Ireland. An Oxford graduate, he was an editor at the Times Literary Supplement, and the New Statesman, before becoming a permanent resident of the United States in 1973. Cockburn wrote on the press and politics for the Village Voice, and, all through the 1980s, he was a regular columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He co-edits, with Jeffrey St. Clair, the lively Counterpunch newsletter, and is the author of several books, including Corruptions of Empire and, most recently, Al Gore: A User's Manual. His exclusive column appears fortnightly on Antiwar.com.

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