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.