Bohemians celebrate annual rite
MONTE RIO - In the sylvan shadows here, power brokers come out to play.
Outside of this kingdom of redwoods, they lead lives as some of the most powerful
politicians, CEOs and lawyers in the country. But beginning in the ides of July,
these men set aside their devoirs and enter the gates of Bohemian Grove, a secretive
Northern California summer camp where mint juleps and games of Texas Hold 'Em
are just as common as late-night chitchat with former U.S. presidents and spats
over stem cell policy.
''It's a very convivial atmosphere for fellowship,'' says one member, who asked
not to be identified because Bohemians are discouraged from speaking with the
news media. ''It's a place where you drop your title and talk to people in a
Secluded in the old-growth redwoods about 75 miles north of San Francisco,
''the Grove,'' as it is called by generations of Bohemians, is the obsessively
sub-rosa summer home of the Bohemian Club, an elite San Francisco-based men's
group that boasts George H.W. Bush, Charles Schwab and Walter Cronkite among
Sunday marks the end of the club's annual encampment at its 2,700-acre estate
along the Russian River. It is here, in the forests of this minute Sonoma County
resort town, where more than 2,000 members of the corporate and political crème
de la crème come to unwind on their summer playground.
The Grove today is an oasis of old-world values, a resting place where members
-- primarily white, elderly and Republican -- come to enjoy big-band music and
inhabit camps with names like ''Hill Billies'' and ''Cave Man.''
While rock music has finally made it into the Grove, members say racial and
ethnic minorities remain scarce. And some outside of the Grove warn that the
ban on females may eventually lessen the group's dominion.
But even as the world around them changes, Bohemians this year enjoy much the
same camp that their grandfathers did, complete with amateur plays and arcane
Such cultish traditions have become fodder for scores of activists and conspiracy
But Bohemians cling to this way of life. Without vast reserves of testosterone
and a veil of secrecy, they say, the euphoric sanctuary that is Bohemian Grove
could not exist.
''Weaving spiders, come not here,'' decrees the motto of the Bohemians, a Shakespearean
line meant to encourage members to check their deal-making impulses at the gate.
For the most part, Bohemians say the ban on business inside the Grove is upheld.
''We might talk about policy, but you don't make policy decisions,'' says Charles
Townes, a 91-year-old Nobel Prize-winning physicist and member of the Bohemian
Club for more than 30 years.
Perhaps the most important discussions come at the Grove's ''Lakeside Talks''
series. It was in that forum that Richard Nixon introduced his detente policy
to deal with the Soviet Union and where big-name politicians often float policy
ideas, according to San Francisco native John van der Zee, author of the 1974
Grove book ''The Greatest Men's Party on Earth.''
''It's a great political materials testing-ground,'' van der Zee says. ''That's
where you can get immediate feedback from a cross-section of American business,
civic and corporate leaders on ideas.''
This year, Bohemians are hearing presentations with titles such as ''These
Europeans: Do They Understand Us? Or Anything?'' and former U.S. Secretary of
State Colin Powell is scheduled to address the group today.
The private nature of the talks is a perennial gripe of activists.
Mary Moore, a 71-year-old retired business owner with the stamina of a 1960s
peacenik, has dedicated the past 25 years to the Bohemian Grove Action Network.
Moore says protesters have come out in greater numbers in the years since George
W. Bush took office.
''This is a network of the really elite banking, financial and governmental
leaders, and they're listening to these talks on these subjects without any
public scrutiny,'' Moore says. ''This is not the way we learned politics should
be in civics course.''
As the Bohemian Club celebrates its 134th anniversary, some wonder whether
it risks fading into irrelevance.
Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist, says the exclusion of women,
who today occupy an increasing number of top leadership positions, might ultimately
hurt the group's clout.
''It's often a matter of survival to change,'' Skocpol says. ''These days,
it's probably a problem for the club to exclude women -- they're simply not
going to have some of the people who are major players.''
But Townes, the Bohemian physicist, says most members have decided that barring
women is ''the right thing to do.''
''We camp out for two weeks together in the woods. To have women there would
be a little complicated,'' he says.
The group is also trying to boost the number of minorities and Democrats who
make the yearly trip down Bohemian Highway, but the club's membership process
has slowed its ability to diversify. Incoming members must endure a 17-year
waiting list before they can groove at the Grove.
As a result, members say, minorities are washed out in a sea of white men,
and they estimate that Democrats make up only about 25 percent of Grove participants.
However, one Bohemian says, ''There's no hint of discrimination.''
When van der Zee wrote his book on the Grove decades ago, he thought the Bohemians
were in their final throes. Today, he is amazed the club continues to thrive,
and he attributes it to the renewed respect for hierarchy and isolation in the
current political and social climate.
''I think there will always be that element in this society,'' he says.
And by all indications, members hope that dictum rings true well into the 21st
As private jets and Town Cars begin their yearly voyages back to lands of privilege,
silence once again reverberates in this verdant village. The sounds of Beethoven
symphonies and backwoods theater echo into oblivion, but as one member puts
it, ''the bonds of we Bohemians are everlasting.''
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