Movers, shakers from politics, business go Bohemian: Annual Sonoma fete draws Bushes, Kissinger, Powell, Gingrich
By Suzanne Bohan
The Sacramento Bee
(Published Aug. 2, 1999)
MONTE RIO -- The Bohemian Club's Annual Summer Encampment came to a close here Sunday, ending a two-week retreat for the rich and powerful that President Herbert Hoover once called "the greatest men's party on Earth."
The club's famed annual gathering has been held for more than 100 years at the 2,700-acre Bohemian Grove in Monte Rio, about 70 miles north of San Francisco in Sonoma County. This year's event drew in notables such as former President George Bush, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, retired Gen. Colin Powell, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Dow Chemical Chairman Frank Popoff, as well as actor Danny Glover.
The men gather to celebrate what they call "the spirit of Bohemia," said Peter Phillips, a Sonoma State University sociology professor who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Bohemian Club.
"This is a place men can go and hang out with people who are similar to them," he said.
The annual gathering near the Russian River, which was first held in 1879, starts with the "Cremation of Care" ritual, in which the club's mascot is burned in effigy, symbolizing a freedom from care. Members also perform several plays, and gourmet food and expensive wine are plentiful.
While the club was formed in 1872 by a group of San Francisco journalists, the male-only club now bars journalists from membership to protect the group's privacy. Membership is coveted, and people routinely wait 10 or 15 years before gaining admittance. There are currently about 2,700 members.
The club has drawn criticism for years because of its emphasis on privacy. What particularly concerns Phillips and others are the "Lakeside Talks" held during the summer retreat. This year, Powell was expected to deliver a talk titled "America's Promise Leading Armies and Leading Kids," and Popoff, of Dow Chemical, was to give a speech called "Environmental Journey."
"These are often public policy speeches," said Mary Moore, with Bohemian Grove Action Network, a protest group. "And the American public is not privy to it."
No one from the club returned several calls from The Bee.
Bohemian Grove Action Network has periodically held demonstrations at the grove, although none were held this year.
The point of the protests, Moore said, has been "to let the American public know that what they've learned in civics isn't the full story on how decision-making . . . is made in this country." The Bohemian Club, she said, "is one of the most elite organizations on the planet."
When the group sponsors public policy talks that are held without public scrutiny, "the average American feels left out of the process," she said.
Phillips echoes Moore's objections to the off-the-record nature of the Lakeside Talks.
"These are extremely powerful people and private discussions on policy issues that affect us certainly go against democratic principles," he said. "There's no reason that those speeches they're giving couldn't be transcribed and made public. They have a responsibility to be open about it."