Bohemian Grove, summer camp for powerful

Current president was introduced to members by his dad in 1995

On July 29, 1995, former President George H.W. Bush stood beside a small lake ringed by towering redwoods and spoke to hundreds of wealthy and powerful men at the Bohemian Grove in Monte Rio.

Giving the final Lakeside Talk of the two-week summer encampment, Bush, a longtime Bohemian Club member, introduced his son George to the all-male crowd of American business, professional, social and political heavyweights.

"He used the occasion to say that his son George W. Bush would make a great president some day," according to G. Wil-liam Domhoff's chronicle of the Grove, subtitled "The Power Elite at Summer Camp."

Conspiracy theorists would connect the dots between that event on a languid summer afternoon in Sonoma County to the younger Bush's ascension to the White House in 2000.

They would likely have a field day with former President Richard Nixon's assertion, in his own memoirs, that his Lakeside Talk to the Bohemians in 1967 "marked the first milestone on my road to the presidency," which he won the following year.

Nixon, in a less-charitable mood, groused on his secret tapes that the Bohemian Club "is the most faggy goddamned thing you could ever imagine."

But whether the presidential anecdotes prove that the Bohemians, while strolling -- and boozing -- among 1,500-year-old redwoods along the Russian River are also plotting the future of the free world is subject to debate.

The 2008 encampment, which ends Sunday, found the San Francisco-based club embroiled in a local controversy, as well, over a proposed logging plan for the 2,700-acre wooded retreat.

Domhoff, a UC Santa Cruz sociologist who studies power and politics in America, dismisses the notion that capitalist schemes and military endeavors are plotted during the encampments, which date back to the 1890s.

"They're not out there talking about big things," Domhoff said, describing the Grove as "an Elks Club for the rich; a fraternity party in the woods."

These men have plenty of other venues for dealmaking, such as corporate boardrooms, Capitol Hill back rooms and country clubs, he said.

True, said Peter Phillips, a Sonoma State University sociologist who did his dissertation on Bohemian Grove 14 years ago. Powercrats may not need the summer encampment to make hay, but they take advantage of it.

"There's extensive discussion of public policy every day," said Phillips, who was invited to the Bohemians' Spring Jinks weekend in June 1994. "I heard a lot of business talk."

Most Bohemians are "ordinary rich guys," but about one in five is a corporate CEO, top government official or other plenipotentiary, the vast majority of them Republicans, Phillips said. The club also welcomes a spate of musicians, actors and other artists as associate members to keep the plutocrats entertained.

The Grove's harshest critics, who allege devil worship and even child sacrifice transpires under the trees, are "nonsensical," Domhoff said.

And the often-told tale that the atomic bomb was born at the Grove is off the mark, he said. The Manhattan Project was under way when bomb planners met there in an off-season month, with no other Bohemians present, Domhoff and Phillips said.

On the three weekends of the summer encampment, the peak attendance period, about 2,000 Bohemians -- many arriving by corporate jet at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport -- head for their woodsy and highly secretive retreat.

They inhabit about 120 camps, most along a road winding through the Grove's valley, and others scattered on spur roads in the hills. Each camp has a clubhouse, campfire area, a cluster of cabins and tents for sleeping and a bar, typically featuring a specialty drink made with the finest alcohol.

Members are cordial, Phillips said.

"You walk in anywhere and they want you to drink," he said.

Security is tight, although not foolproof. In any conversation with a Bohemian, an outsider would be quickly undone by questions about what camp and which members he or she was with, Phillips said.

Alex Shoumatoff, a writer for Vanity Fair, was apprehended after sneaking into the Grove on July 12 and reportedly asking the wrong sort of questions.

In years past, the list of Lakeside Talk speakers circulated fairly freely but is now closely guarded, Grove observers say.

For the summer encampment, the Bohemian Club hires about 600 people, typically including more than 400 high school and college-age youths, a club official said two years ago. Wages begin at $10.50 to $12.25 an hour, and with overtime employees can make $1,500, he said.

In 1981, the club was ordered by a state employment commission to hire women, but their movement while at work within the Grove is highly restricted.

What transpires around Grove campfires, among an intriguing cast of characters, remains very private. In 1970, for example, Walter Hickel, then secretary of the interior involved in negotiations over the Santa Barbara oil spill, was the guest of Bohemian Fred Hartley, president of Union Oil, the company responsible for the spill, Domhoff said.

It's the secrecy that motivated Mary Moore of Camp Meeker, co-founder of the Bohemian Grove Action Network, to organize protests at the Grove gate from 1980 to 2006.

"It's not the only place where stuff gets discussed behind closed doors, but it's the one in our back yard," she said.

Moore, 73, said she gave up organizing the protests in favor of working on other issues and enjoying her grandchildren.

"We've made our point," she said.

Foremost among the network's concerns were the Lakeside Talks, delivered by captains of industry, science, government and law enforcement, former presidents, a Supreme Court justice and even a Saudi prince.

The talks are "public policy ideas floated without public scrutiny," Moore said.

In a July 2006 talk, Lynn Orr of Stanford University forecast a renewal of nuclear power to generate electricity without carbon emissions, an idea that has recently gained attention, Moore said.

"I like full transparency in government and among the policy elite," Phillips said. Bohemian Grove is stunningly beautiful, but "it is not very transparent."

For Nixon, his off-the-record speech by the lake provided a rebound from his 1960 loss to John Kennedy.

"It was an emotional assignment for me," Nixon wrote in his memoirs, "and also an unparalleled opportunity to reach some of the most important and influential men, not just from California but from across the country." (7.25.2008, Guy Kovner) You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or

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