"The Most Powerful Fraternity in America"
Note: The following is an expose that appeared in Esquire Magazine in 1992. Insofar as
one can determine, the facts presented are accurate and consistent with both
contemporary accounts and with current knowledge.
It controls life at the University of Alabama, but nobody can see it. Its influence
extends to the statehouse, but nobody can touch it. It stinks of corruption, but
nobody can smell it. It is, simply, the Machine.
In the dining room of the Delta Tau Delta house, Chad Green stops and stares
hard at the picture of the bearded soldier. Chad is tall and dark with an
occasional fierce glare in his eyes, and right now he looks vexed. Abruptly he
turns toward the opposite wall. There are another three portraits of soldiers
there, six in all.
"No, I think that's A. P. Hill," he says with sudden conviction, pointing to the far
wall. "This one I don't know. But of course that's Jeff Davis. And that is definitely
Stonewall Jackson. And that one's got to be A. P. Hill."
Chad pauses again. He's stumped on the names of the other three Confederate
generals. It seems to bother him. But giving me a wink, he approaches Jeff Davis
and lifts the portrait from the wall. On the back he can still find the number that
he penciled there as a freshman fraternity pledge three years before, matching
the number he put on the picture hook. He did it so he could put the portraits
back in the right places after a party.
"You'd get in trouble if you put them back wrong," he says.
My tour of the Delt house at the University of Alabama is a rich schooling in
Southern tradition. Chad shows me the picture of Miss Ruby, the housemother
who taught several generations of Delts etiquette. I see the hunting prints and
the teak parquet floors of the living room — "It looks like home," says Chad. And
there's the pocked, cinder-block wall on the basement landing, where boys throw
champagne bottles as hard as they can on the night they're initiated.
"It's the best night of their life," Chad says, vigorously miming the way he threw
Only when we're talking politics does Chad lose his cool. We've come outside,
onto the semicircular porch of the brick Georgian mansion Chad has said is
valued at $2.5 million. It's a beautiful late fall day on fraternity row in
Tuscaloosa, Alabama. In the light breeze a pine bough grazes the round portico
of the house. Two houses away, at Sigma Chi, pledges are bagging pine needles
from the front yard of their brick mansion. In the other direction, at Sigma Alpha
Epsilon, pledges are readying a red carpet for the Stockholders' Ball. They're
putting up twenty gaslight torches.
Chad's just mentioned all the Delts who've gone into politics when I ask him
about the Machine.
He gets that cross expression. "I'd rather not comment on that," he says. "I just
I press him and he looks away. Ruddy color rises in his cheeks.
"There are a lot of secrets to people outside but there are not a lot of secrets
inside," he says.
The organization Chad won't talk about is a secret society that for eighty years
has controlled student politics at the University of Alabama: the Machine. Its real
name is Theta Nu Epsilon, whose Greek letters spell TNE, and it acts as the
political arm of twenty-seven leading fraternities and sororities at the school.
Machine representatives meet secretly once a week. There are thirty or so
members — Chad is said to be one — but most Greeks on campus don't know
who their rep is.
On election day in February, the Machine buses its voters to the polls and
penalizes people who don't vote. Almost all the time, it wins. On election night it
spends a chunk of its $27,000 secret budget on a blowout party at the Jaycee
fairgrounds for the fraternities and sororities. The Machine reps can be seen
there, ducking in and out of a tent with a private bar. Some of them wear a lapel
pin with the Theta Nu Epsilon logo, a skull and crossed keys.
The Machine is said to share roots with Skull & Bones of Yale, but it has more of
an impact on its campus than its northern cousin. Greeks make up only 20
percent of the nineteen-thousand-member student body, but they manage to
control almost all student government offices and along with that a student
activity fee budget of more than $300,000. Honorary organizations like Mortar
Board also seem to be under Machine sway.
But what's most striking about the Machine is the extent of its influence. U. S.
Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama is said to be a former Machine president (his
office denies that he was a member of TNE), and many of the leading politicians
in the state have been products of this organization. The Machine's power lies
not only in the people it turns out but in the lessons it offers on how power is
won and wielded. Indeed, it has helped remake state politics in its own shadowy
The Machine today faces a crisis involving race. Though they lease university
land, the Greek organizations are segregated. The blacks I saw inside the white
Greek houses over ten days at Alabama were blowing on horns in the band at a
fraternity party or carrying boxes of frozen vegetables to the kitchen. It's an
embarrassing situation in a state that is more than 25 percent black. The
university is trying to force integration, but it has met enormous resistance from
Chad and others who justify their segregation by invoking the great traditions of
Greek life at Alabama.
If you follow the national discourse, the only issues in higher education today are
political correctness and multiculturalism. But in Tuscaloosa those arguments
seem like the noodlings of a bunch of parochial intellectuals. Here far more is at
stake than the power to change reading lists. To a lesser extent, the same holds
true at dozens of other leading state schools and institutions that play an
important role in the political lives of their states. The elites that govern local
society often take form and groom members on campus.
Nowhere is this more starkly the case than with the Alabama Machine. "There
was never any kind of phone call. I was never personally told; there just came to
be an understanding that they were going to endorse me," says Trey Boston, the
outgoing Student Government Association president, of the way the secret
organization brought him along. "But if you look at the list of men and now a
woman who have been endorsed by the Machine and elected SGA president at
the University of Alabama, you see U. S. senators, you see congressmen, you see
doctors, you see lawyers, you see businessmen. You see people that, when I
consider that my name is going to be thrown on the bottom of that list, it's like,
'What am I doing here?'" No wonder he spent $8,000 on his campaign.
It's not hard to spot the Machine representatives at a meeting of the student
senate. Forty of the fifty senators are Machine. They're good-looking kids, and a
lot of them have on the same sort of clothes — Duck Head pants and party Tshirts:
Deke Undertakers' Ball; Kappa Kappa Gamma's Eleventh Annual Black
Widow Blast. When I asked one sorority alumna whether you paid a social price
for dressing differently, she explained my error : "No, because nobody would
want to dress differently. We wanted that form of identity and connection."
Up for consideration today is a bill to fund the Fantasy Games Club, an offbeat
independent group. The club's leader makes the mistake of passing out its
tasteless Dungeons & Dragons-style literature. It includes anti-Greek jokes: "Do
not molest the sorority girls. They have sharp nails." The senators respond in an
orgy of disgust.
"Smut. I wouldn't show this to a good woman."
"I'm offended, too. It seems like you've offended everyone in the room."
"I'm scared of what fantasy games y'all are playing."
The reaction goes on and on. It seems mean. There isn't much thought for
whether anyone else on campus might enjoy the club. It's obvious that these
senators are used to getting their way, and just as obvious that their air of
entitlement intimidates other students on campus. And anyway, when all is said
and done, this public debate is meaningless: The Machine senators reportedly
meet secretly the night before each open session to discuss important issues.
Over the years the secret meetings have taken on a sinister air. Rumors have the
Machine meeting at the old gravel pit or in the woods near the old Confederate
One of the only senators to speak up for the club is a skinny guy in goggling
glasses with a receding chin. He stands out among all the T-shirts in his red tie
and dark blue suit. Chuck Hess is the leading opponent of the