When America's elite take time to 'gather by the river'

If an extraterrestrial visitor should land in this tiny northern California town and say, ''Take me to your leader,'' the response would probably be: ''Just head down to the Bohemian Grove and take your pick.''

On July 16 a hefty quorum of the movers and shakers in United States government, business, and other major fields began to gather for the Bohemian Club's annual two-week encampment, where care is supposedly banished. But, critics say, care lingers - and decisions that affect all Americans are discussed, if not actually made.

Several hundred of those critics have in recent years added what amounts to a new ritual to those with which club members and guests - generally described as ''white, male, and rich'' - open their summer camp. As the Bohemians arrive in buses and limousines, they are greeted by motley, but mostly well-behaved, protesters shouting slogans and holding up signs such as ''Hail to Thee, O Keepers of the Divine Bomb.''

Some 57 antiwar, environmental, feminist, ethnic minority, and other groups are represented among demonstrators who picket the entrance to the Bohemian Grove daily. Organizers hope to have about 1,000 on hand to greet Bohemian Club member George Shultz, the new US secretary of state, and guest Helmut Schmidt, chancellor of West Germany, when they arrive July 23.

Just why has an event some observers call a middle-aged version of a Boy Scout jamboree become a magnet for foreign dignitaries and a source of concern among some people in the US? In ''The Bohemian Grove and Other Retreats: A Study in Ruling-Class Cohesiveness,'' G. William Domhoff, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, examines the phenomenon. Although published in 1974, the book describes an organization and tradition little-changed since then.

His thesis is that there is a powerful and cohesive elite social class in the US and that several organizations, including the Bohemian Club, hold that elite together and help its members communicate. Professor Domhoff makes no judgment on this group or on the Bohemian Grove encampment. In fact, he says that while there is no doubt ''deals are made'' at the grove, it really is an enlarged version of an ancient American male tradition - going off in the woods with a bunch of the boys and having a carefree time.

The Bohemian Club of San Francisco was founded in 1872 by a group of newspapermen and artists who - like others in such cities as Chicago and New York - were trying to emulate the ''Bohemianism'' of the Parisian artist colony. The influential and wealthy were not welcome - at least not at first; financial need soon opened the doors to them, however, and today they dominate.

The club's headquarters in downtown San Francisco is similar to exclusive men's clubs in cities such as London, New York, Boston, and Washington, where men of privilege make for themselves a haven apart. The Bohemian Grove - some 75 miles north of San Francisco on 2,700 wooded acres overlooking the scenic Russian River - has grown over the years from the 160 acres club members began using for a rustic summer retreat in 1878.

As the club's membership - centered on San Francisco and California - expanded in numbers and geographic distribution, so did the grove. There are now more than 2,000 Bohemians and, counting guests, probably almost 3,000 bunk down in the various ''camps'' throughout the grove.

Because musical and other elaborate entertainments - especially the opening summer encampment ceremony known as the ''Cremation of Care'' - are paramount features of Bohemian Club activities, the organization carefully seeks suitable actors, musicians, and other artists as members. (It is not clear whether Ronald Reagan, who became a member after being elected governor of California, was valued more for his art or his power.)

But while the Ray Bolgers and Dan Rowans bring talent and glitter to the Bohemian camps, it's the likes of George Ball and Roger Blough, with their clout in the political and corporate establishments, that make the summer retreat an event of more than trivial import.

Diversion, whether elaborate outdoor shows or quiet strolls among the redwoods, is the rule. But the grove encampment does set time aside for discussing serious matters. At 12:30 p.m. each day there is an informal talk by someone knowledgeable in a particular field. Among those who have been featured over the years: Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and (then) presidential foreign policy adviser Henry A. Kissinger.

Domhoff points out that the Bohemian Grove encampment is only one of several formal and informal avenues through which this powerful elite is brought together. It is part of the often unseen machinery that turns the affairs of nations. That's what most of the people outside the Bohemian Grove gates don't like. One put it this way: ''They're making decisions here that affect us, and we have a right to know what they're talking about.''

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