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"The Most Powerful Fraternity in America"
Philip Weiss
Esquire
April,1992


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 his bottle.

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 won't comment."

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 image.

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 train tunnel.

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