The New York Times bestselling history of the private relationships among the last thirteen presidents—the partnerships, private deals, rescue missions, and rivalries of those select men who served as commander in chief.
The Presidents Club, established at Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration by Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover, is a complicated place: its members are bound forever by the experience of the Oval Office and yet are eternal rivals for history’s favor. Among their secrets: How Jack Kennedy tried to blame Ike for the Bay of Pigs. How Ike quietly helped Reagan win his first race in 1966. How Richard Nixon conspired with Lyndon Johnson to get elected and then betrayed him. How Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter turned a deep enmity into an alliance. The unspoken pact between a father and son named Bush. And the roots of the rivalry between Clinton and Barack Obama.
Time magazine editors and presidential historians Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy offer a new and revealing lens on the American presidency, exploring the club as a hidden instrument of power that has changed the course of history.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||6.22(w) x 9.08(h) x 1.18(d)|
About the Author
Nancy Gibbs is the deputy managing editor of Time magazine and coauthor with Michael Duffy of the New York Times bestseller The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House.
Michael Duffy is Time’s executive editor and Washington bureau chief and directs coverage of presidents, politics, and national affairs for the magazine.
Read an Excerpt
The Presidents Club
So you’ve come to talk about my predecessors.” Bill Clinton greets us in his Harlem office, looking thin, sounding thin, his voice a scrape of welcome at the end of a long day.
It is late, it is dark, pouring rain outside, so beyond the wall of windows the city is a splash of watery lights and street noise. But inside, past the two armed agents, behind the electronic locks, the sanctuary is warm wood and deep carpet, a collector’s vault. A painting of Churchill watches from the west wall; a stuffed Kermit the Frog rests on a shelf, while a hunk of an old voting machine, with names attached and levers to pull, sits behind his desk. “This is my presidential library, from Washington through Bush,” he says, pointing to bookcases full of memoirs and biographies, and in the course of the séance that follows he summons the ghosts not just of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt but Franklin Pierce and Rutherford B. Hayes.
He dwells on one president he misses—Richard Nixon—and another that he loves: George H. W. Bush. “A month to the day before he died,” he says of Nixon, “he wrote me a letter about Russia. And it was so lucid, so well written. . . . I reread it every year. That one and George Bush’s wonderful letter to me, you know where you leave your letter to your successor.”
That was the letter that said, “You will be our President when you read this note. . . . I am rooting hard for you.”
Along the windowsill are dozens of pictures; he looks at the signed photo of Lyndon Johnson, a prize given to him forty years ago when he worked on a campaign in Texas. “Over time,” he predicts of LBJ, “history will tend to be kinder to him.”
In the meantime, it falls to the presidents to be kind to one another. “There’s just a general sympathy,” he says, among the men who have sat in the Oval Office. “President Obama and I didn’t talk much about politics when we played golf the other day.” There are plenty of other people around a president to talk politics; sometimes you need someone who just makes you laugh. Or tells you not to let the bastards get you down. Clinton was exhausted that day, he recalls, but “when my president summons me, then I come and I would play golf in a driving snowstorm.”
My president, he calls him, which suggests how far the two men have come since their proxy war in 2008. Such are the journeys this book attempts to trace: the intense, intimate, often hostile but more often generous relationships among the once and future presidents. It makes little difference how much they may have fought on the way to the White House; once they’ve been in the job, they are bound together by experience, by duty, by ambition, and by scar tissue. They are members of the Presidents Club, scattered across the country but connected by phone and email and sometimes in person, such as when five of them met at the White House after the 2008 election to, as President Carter told us, “educate president-elect Obama in a nice way without preaching to him.”
Throughout its history, the club has never numbered more than six. At the moment, there are branches not just in Washington and New York, but in Atlanta, Dallas, and Kennebunkport, Maine, in a saltbox cottage on the grounds of the Bush family compound. You climb the creaky staircase lined with framed photos so treasured they aren’t even in the Bush presidential museum. It is here that the elder Bush brought Clinton, the man who had defeated him, to play golf, spend the night, hurdle the waves at breakneck speed. From the moment the two men bonded in 2005, they didn’t talk much about politics either, or world affairs or strategy and tactics. It has always been more about fellowship. “You are right,” President Bush explains in an email. “We don’t talk about it. You don’t have to. No matter the politics, you know and understand the weight of the decisions the other guy had to make, and you respect that.”
The Presidents Club has its protocols, including deference to the man in the chair and, for the most part, silence about how the members of the world’s most exclusive fraternity get along and the services they provide one another. Harry Truman privately offered to serve as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president if Ike decided to run in 1948; Nixon’s secret letters to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1981 were a virtual blueprint for setting up his White House; Carter promised not to talk to reporters about a mission he undertook for Obama in 2010. “When your ambition is slaked, it becomes more important to see something good happen for your country than to just keep winning arguments,” Clinton says. “At some point, you’re just glad when the sun comes up in the morning, you get up and you want something good to happen. I don’t think it’s because we all become saintly.”
• • •
The Presidents Club, like so much else, was founded by George Washington, thanks to the second-best decision he ever made. The first was agreeing to take the office in the first place; but then he chose to leave it, retiring in 1797 after two terms. Which meant that rather than becoming America’s President for Life, he instead became its first former president.
Everything Washington did set a precedent: to accept a salary though he didn’t need one, so that future presidents would not all need to be rich; to go by Mr. President rather than Your Excellency, so that future presidents might remain grounded; but most of all to relinquish his power peacefully, even prematurely given his immense stature, at that time a striking act of submission to untested democratic principles.
With that decision Washington established the Presidents Club—initially a club of two, once John Adams took office. Faced with the threat of war with France, Adams named the revered Washington commander of the Army, where he served until he died the next year. Adams was the first to discover that, whatever jealousies lingered in private, a former president could be highly useful.
He would not be the last.
In the two centuries that followed, the club’s ranks rose and fell. It grew to six under Abraham Lincoln, though that was partly because none of his living predecessors had managed to win a second term. The club would not be that large again until Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, when Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush all stood ready to assist. Some presidents—Adams, Jefferson, both Roosevelts—had only one president in reserve. Like Washington, Richard Nixon, upon his reelection in 1972, had none: Harry Truman died just after Christmas, Lyndon Johnson a month later. At that dangerous moment in American history, the club disappeared entirely.
So why does this matter?
First, because relationships matter, and the private relationships between public men matter in particular ways. For the former presidents, the club can be a vital, sometimes surprising benefit of post-presidential life. They have relinquished power, but not influence; and so their influence becomes a piece of the sitting president’s power. They can do more together than apart, and they all know it; so they join forces as needed, to consult, complain, console, pressure, protect, redeem.
As voters we watch the presidents onstage, judge their performance, cheer their successes, cast them out of office for their failures. This is the duty of democracy. But judgment is not the same as understanding, and while what a president does matters most, why he does it is the privilege of history. To the extent that we learn about these men by watching the way they engage with their peers—the loyalty, the rivalry, the pity, and the partnerships—the club opens a new window into the Oval Office.
Second, it matters because the presidency matters, and the club serves to protect the office. Once they’ve all sat in the chair, they become jealous of its powers, convinced that however clumsy the other branches of government can be, the president must be able to serve the people and defend the nation when all else fails. They can support whomever they like during campaigns; but once a new president is elected, the others often act as a kind of security detail. Thus did Johnson once present Eisenhower with a pair of gold cuff links bearing the Presidential Seal. “You are the only one along with Harry Truman who can legitimately wear these,” Johnson observed, “but if you look closely, it doesn’t say Democrat or Republican on them.”
These relationships don’t just reveal the nature of the presidency; they reflect the forces that have shaped our politics over the last half century. In the docile 1950s, Eisenhower cemented Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy: a Republican in office for eight years who did not rip up the New Deal effectively endorsed it. By 1968, the country was so divided that Lyndon Johnson fought as fiercely with his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, as with the Republican challenger, Richard Nixon. In ways that tell more important tales, the long, complex, and conflicted relations between Reagan and Nixon or, later, between Reagan and Ford, defined the ideological struggles inside the Republican Party for two generations and counting. In the same way, the complicated relationship between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama mirrors the Democrats’ generational fight about how best to yank a center-right electorate leftward—or whether it can be done at all.
Finally, it matters because the club has become an instrument of presidential power. It is not in the Constitution, not in any book or bylaw, but neither is it a metaphor nor a figure of speech. It is an alliance the former presidents are conscious of building, and the sitting presidents of using, both to promote themselves and to advance their agendas. There is no fraternity like it anywhere, and not just because of the barriers to entry or the privileges of membership. For all of the club’s self-serving habits and instincts, when it is functioning at its best, it can serve the president, help solve his problems, and the nation’s, even save lives.
On January 20, 1953, at the inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower, Truman greeted Herbert Hoover on the platform. “I think we ought to organize a former presidents club,” Hoover suggested.
“Fine,” Truman replied. “You be the President of the club. And I will be the Secretary.”
Up to that moment, the club was more an idea than an institution. Some sitting presidents consulted with their predecessors, but beyond sharing war stories, there were limits to what a former president could do—unless he applied for a new job, like congressman (John Quincy Adams) or Supreme Court justice (William Howard Taft). Calvin Coolidge, shortly before he died in 1933, remarked that “People seem to think the presidential machinery should keep on running, even after the power has been turned off.”
But in our postwar age of global celebrity, presidents live longer, and larger, than ever, and even when the power goes off, their influence remains. Truman was a mortal political enemy of Hoover’s, but he also knew that only Hoover had the experience and stature to overhaul the executive branch to meet the challenges of the nuclear age. As a result of their partnership, the Hoover Commission, which Congress created, Truman sanctioned, and Hoover chaired, produced the greatest transformation of the presidency in history: a concentration of power that ultimately yielded the CIA, the National Security Council, the Council of Economic Advisors, the General Services Administration, a unified Defense Department, and much more.
Every president who followed would have reason to thank them. Eisenhower, through an act of Congress in 1957, granted the club formal privileges: members received an allowance, office space, mailing rights, a pension. John F. Kennedy, the youngest president in a century, understood the club’s political uses, and he looked for any opportunity to summon his three predecessors back to the White House for the photo op; Johnson discovered its personal uses, seeking both counsel and comfort as he staggered into office in the wake of a tragedy.
“I need you more than ever now,” Johnson told his old sparring partner Eisenhower on the night of Kennedy’s murder, and Ike drove to Washington, came to the Oval Office, and wrote out on a legal pad what he thought Johnson should say to an emergency joint session of Congress. Johnson extended all the former presidents Secret Service protection, helicopters, even a projectionist so that if they were being treated at Walter Reed Medical Center, they could watch movies from the White House library. When Truman called to congratulate him on his landslide victory in 1964, Johnson responded like a brother. “And I just want you to know,” he told Truman, “that as long as I’m in that office, you are in it, and there’s not a privilege of it, or a power of it, or a purpose of it that you can’t share. And your bedroom is up there waiting for you, and your plane is standing by your side.” A year later, Ike’s private advice on how to handle the Vietnam War had become so crucial that Johnson told him “you’re the best chief of staff I’ve got.”
Nixon, the man who eternally longed to belong, actually created a private clubhouse, a brownstone across the street from the White House, purchased discreetly by the government in 1969 for the use of former presidents. It is still in operation. He and his wife, Pat, organized the first club reunion, researching all the living members of the first families and inviting them to the White House: Calvin Coolidge’s son, Grover Cleveland’s grandchildren, various Roosevelts, and dozens of Adamses. Nixon had a particular reason throughout his first term to stroke Johnson; their relationship over the years involved camaraderie, conspiracy, and blackmail. This book will argue that the collapse of the Nixon presidency owed a great deal to his need to protect some secrets only the two club members shared.
Nixon in exile had the longest road to redemption of any of them; and so with Reagan’s election in 1980 he made sure the incoming president understood how valuable a former president could be: “President Eisenhower said to me when I visited him at Walter Reed Hospital after the election of 1968, ‘I am yours to command,’ ” Nixon told Reagan. “I now say the same to you.” George H. W. Bush launched a kind of club newsletter, letters stamped SECRET sent to some of his predecessors, and offered each a secure phone line to the Oval Office. After Clinton took over with five former presidents standing by, he came to see how, in the case of Carter and Nixon, he could use them as an arm of his foreign policy, and in the case of Ford, part of his impeachment legal defense team. Clinton understood that “being a former president is an asset,” his advisor John Podesta observed. “But it’s the current president’s asset to deploy.”
This story is told chronologically, but that line sometimes needs to bend, because the club has its own life cycle; each president discovers its value in his own time, uses it in his own way. And it is necessary, too, to travel back to understand how the relationships unfolded. The feud that raged in the 1950s between Eisenhower and Truman only makes sense when you understand how closely they had worked together while Ike was still in uniform. Reagan’s encounters with Nixon began not when Reagan was elected in 1980, but in 1947 when a freshman Republican congressman sat down with a then Democratic movie star to talk about communists in Hollywood; their correspondence stretches across half a century. And of course the tale of the Bushes began forty-three years before either reached the Oval Office. Presidents naturally take a fierce interest in who might one day be joining their fraternity—especially because they have little control over it. They act as talent scouts and bouncers, they test the pledges to see who might have the makings of a brother. The club is a peerage; but future presidents play a part in its evolution, and so those stories sometimes need to be told as well.
“There is no experience you can get,” John F. Kennedy admitted after two years in office, “that can possibly prepare you adequately for the Presidency.” Nor is there any advice, any handbook, since every president enters office determined to turn the page. Kennedy couldn’t wait to toss out Ike’s military management style for a more supple, activist alternative. “They behaved as though history had begun with them,” said advisor Clark Clifford of Kennedy’s men. Ford practiced radical normalcy—his wife even discussed her mastectomy—to send the clearest possible signal that the dark age of Nixon was over. Clinton wanted to prove he was not the second coming of Jimmy Carter; George W. Bush was all about not being Clinton; Barack Obama was about not being either one. Each had to learn how much they had to learn, before the club could be of much use—but eventually, they all find themselves reaching out for help. “That connection begins the first time you receive the daily intelligence briefing,” argues the first President Bush. “We all understand the magnitude of the job when we decide to run for President. At least we think we do. But it’s not possible to fully appreciate the responsibility that comes with being President until you get that first briefing.”
One senior advisor to three presidents recalls watching the revelation unfold, as talented, confident men realize what they’ve gotten themselves into. “When you get in, you discover nothing is what you expect, or believed, or have been told, or have campaigned on,” he says. “It’s much more complicated. Your first reaction is: I’ve been set up. Second is: I have to think differently. Third is: Maybe they had it right. And it isn’t long before they ask, who am I gonna talk to about this?”
The problems a president faces, Eisenhower said, are “soul-racking. . . . The nakedness of the battlefield, when the soldier is all alone in the smoke and the clamor and the terror of war, is comparable to the loneliness—at times—of the presidency, when one man must conscientiously, deliberately, prayerfully scrutinize every argument, every proposal, every prediction, every alternative, every probable outcome of his action, and then—all alone—make his decision.”
All alone—because just when a new president needs allies, his circle of trust shrinks. No one, with the possible exception of his family, treats him the same, and no one, with the exception of his predecessors, knows what this is like. “The sycophants will stand in the rain a week to see you and will treat you like a king,” House Speaker Sam Rayburn warned Truman when he took office. “They’ll come sliding in and tell you you’re the greatest man alive—but you know and I know you ain’t.” Everything a president says, even to his inner circle, is analyzed, interpreted, acted upon; even questions are read as decisions. So he trains himself: no idle comments, no thinking out loud, and grows increasingly guarded; he worries that people only tell him what they think he wants to hear. “The Presidency,” Kennedy observed, “is not a very good place to make new friends.” He and his brother Bobby used to imagine a book they’d write one day—The Poison of the Presidency.
But that poison is not something they can talk about; how can you complain about a burden you fought to bear? Thomas Jefferson called the presidency “a splendid misery.” They face only hard choices and high stakes: the easy decisions never make it to the president’s desk. When Eisenhower was ridiculed for playing so much golf, Truman, no friend of Ike’s at the time, defended him: “I am sure that the problems of the President follow him around the golf course . . . and anywhere else he may go.” But they bond in the locker room, since they all got into the game, “dared greatly,” did not remain on the sidelines. If there is a club manifesto, it is Teddy Roosevelt’s gauntlet, thrown down to all the armchair generals and righteous pundits: “It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled,” he argued. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again . . . who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
That also accounts for a regular club refrain, when they refuse to criticize their successors on the grounds that presidents act on information—and bear responsibilities—that outsiders can’t fathom. “No one,” Kennedy told historian David Herbert Donald early in 1962, “has a right to grade a President—not even poor James Buchanan—who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk, and learned why he made decisions.” Truman and Eisenhower went for a drink together after Kennedy’s funeral; they talked about how no one ever really understands why presidents make the decisions they do:
“We know what we did,” Truman said.
“We surely do,” Eisenhower agreed.
So against all expectation, they all talk to each other: Kennedy had called Eisenhower on the morning he was set to announce the U.S. quarantine of Cuba, which posed a reasonable chance of triggering a nuclear exchange. Only one other man alive really knew what that felt like. “No matter what you find that you have to do,” Eisenhower told him, “I will certainly . . . do my best to support it.” Two years later, once Johnson took over, he would ask Eisenhower to concoct a cover story for why he needed to be in Washington, so he could come by the White House and give Johnson some much-needed guidance, even spend the weekend. Clinton would call Nixon and describe his schedule—when he got up, when he exercised, how long he worked, in order to hear if that was normal for a president. After Nixon died, Clinton said it felt like the loss of his mother: “Just today I had a problem and I said to the person working with me, ‘I wish I could pick up the phone and call Richard Nixon and ask him what he thinks we ought to do about this.’ ”
• • •
When they can’t talk to each other, they study each other. Every president may enter office promising a new day, a new deal, a new frontier. But they all inherit the successes and the failures of the men who came before. “The things that Jerry Ford decided when he was in office affected me daily,” Carter said. “Even the things that Harry Truman decided 30 years before I went into office affected me daily.” Nixon could tell you every detail about many of his predecessors—who took sleeping pills, who had hemorrhoids. Obama quizzed Reagan’s team about how he managed to stay focused on the horizon and not get pulled down into the weeds—and whether he got discouraged and how he kept the public from seeing it. These are men who have worked at the same desks, slept in the same beds, shaved in the same mirrors, raised their children in the same backyard. When they return to the White House to visit, they check out how the new tenant redecorated. But they all know that in fact the man does not remake the presidency. It’s the other way around.
A few weeks after his reelection in 2004, George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office beside a Christmas tree flocked with eagles, with an air of equanimity you might expect from a president who had just won reelection despite an unpopular war, an economy on tiptoes, and a public conflicted about many issues but most of all about him. He was asked whether he thought more or less highly of his predecessors, now that he’d been in the job awhile.
“Of my predecessors? Very interesting,” he replied, and then, without hesitation, “More highly of them all.”
Why? Because “I’ve got a much better appreciation of what they’ve been through.”
That included even Clinton, with whom he went on to form the next club alliance. “There is no conversation so sweet as that of former political enemies,” Truman observed. It was the scars of war and scandal, says an official who worked for both Clinton and Bush, that enabled such natural adversaries to become friends. Both men “went through impossible circumstances and they both came out with a lot of scar tissue and so they both have to be asking themselves, how do I find peace in my life? I’ve been through a meat grinder; maybe a friendship with a person who has been through something like this could bring me to a different place as a human being; it detaches me from the old and gets me to a new place. It’s just a way of finding peace. But I can’t find peace with a lot of people because so few are my equal.”
Or as Jimmy Carter puts it, “We always have sorrows.”
The club has an operational wing, whose use depends on the needs of the president and the skills of predecessors. Truman sent Hoover to twenty-two countries in fifty-seven days in 1946 trying to prevent a postwar humanitarian crisis. Reagan conspired with Nixon when he traveled to the Soviet Union to weigh Mikhail Gorbachev’s true intentions. Bush 41 tapped Ford and Carter to monitor the elections in Panama in 1989. Obama dispatched Clinton to North Korea to win the release of two jailed American journalists.
On such missions the stakes can be high, as are the risks. “They have a power because of their position that’s unique,” observes President Bush 41’s advisor Brent Scowcroft of the former presidents. “But it’s dangerous to use them because, not unreasonably, they think that they know much more than we do.” Some members proved both immensely useful and infuriatingly mutinous, as Carter did when he undertook a mission to North Korea in 1994 at Clinton’s behest. His brief was clear: deliver a message and bring back intelligence about Kim Il Sung’s nuclear intentions. Instead he brokered a deal to forestall a crisis—which he announced on CNN. White House officials, gathered around a television in the West Wing, did not try to contain their fury; one cabinet member called Carter “a treasonous prick.”
Carter was not unusual in wanting to experience one more time the rush of power, and believing he was uniquely positioned to help. Many leave office with agendas more complex than those they brought in, which play out in the books they write, the foundations they lead, but also the advice they offer. That’s the crucible in which the club does both its best work and its worst. A sitting president lends them a halo, a script, an airplane; they can serve the country, or serve themselves. “No one who has been in the Presidency with the capacity and power to affect the course of events can ever be satisfied with not being there,” Nixon said years after he stepped down, and so they may insert themselves into events whether the sitting president invites them or not. Nixon promised Ford he’d stay out of sight in 1976—and then went prancing around China in the middle of the New Hampshire primary that year. Carter and Ford presented George Bush with a proposal to raise taxes just a few weeks after he’d been elected on a promise not to. Bush did not appreciate Carter secretly lobbying the U.N. Security Council against the Gulf War. Sometimes a former president is best neither seen nor heard.
This is the club’s constant tension: among its crucial services is the repair of ragged reputations. When former presidents, like Nixon or Carter, do this at the sitting president’s expense, all hell breaks loose. But members more often conspire than collide. They extol each other at library dedications. They exalt each other in eulogies. They line up together with fat bristle brushes to whitewash the stains on their records. Go to WhiteHouse.gov and read the presidential biographies; they are feather soft and heartily heroic, valentines straight from the Oval Office. Under Bill Clinton, “the U.S. enjoyed more peace and economic well being than at any time in its history.” He got into trouble over his “indiscretions with a young White House intern,” but “apologized to the nation for his actions and continued to have unprecedented popular approval ratings for his job as president.” George W. Bush “cut taxes for every federal income taxpayer . . . modernized Medicare . . . empowered America’s armies of compassion . . . built global coalitions to remove violent regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq that threatened America; liberating more than 50 million people from tyranny.”
You can view the work of rehabilitation as purely self-interested: they all compete for history’s favor. But they may also defend each other, not out of sympathy or affection, but because the club functions as the protective arm of the presidency itself. That role sharpens their advice, mostly ensures their silence, and offers the promise of a gentling redemption they will need someday, too. It is a shadow Secret Service, patrolling the power and privilege of an office that its members think America needs now more than ever. Sometimes burnishing a legacy serves to bolster the institution, so that presidents like Truman who were reviled in office are revered in retrospect, and everyone wins. Club members do not want to see the president look bad, no matter who it is.
But the club’s most secret handshakes are less about membership than stewardship. In 1960, after one of the closest elections in history, both Hoover and Eisenhower quietly told Nixon not to contest the results, even as rumors spread of Chicago precincts where machines registered 121 votes from 43 voters. It was not because they wanted to see Kennedy in the White House; it was to protect the presidency from a crisis of legitimacy. “I think we are in enough trouble in the world today,” Hoover told Nixon. “Some indications of national unity are not only desirable but essential.” When Kennedy and then Johnson came under fire for foreign policy decisions, Eisenhower stared down his fellow Republicans: at a time of crisis, he said, “there is only one thing a good American can do, and that is support the president.” Ford pardoned Nixon not to save the man but to restore the office and let the country move on; he lost the next election, but forever defended the choice. It fell to the Kennedys twenty-seven years later to give Ford a Profile in Courage Award, the family of one president symbolically pardoning another for deciding to pardon a third. “We want you to succeed,” George W. Bush told Obama after the 2008 election. “All of us who have served in this office understand that the office transcends the individual.”
When the political culture is splintered and siloed, the president alone serves all the people. The sight of the presidents meeting in the Oval Office after a tough election, or hitting the road together to do hurricane relief, the sight of them standing side by side, old enemies reconciled, can offer a rare moment of truce when politics is turned off and the common good wins out over personal pride or public ambition. When Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush began working together raising relief money for disaster victims, they knew their buddy movie ran completely against the bitter grain of the times; that was partly why they delighted in doing it. “Americans like politics,” Clinton said. “They like us to air our differences, because they know we have got to have an honest debate to come to a good answer. But then they also think that debate ought to have limits to it.” For too long, politicians did not just disagree with opponents: they despised and demonized them, he observed, and the country suffered for it. “It keeps us from solving a lot of problems and doing a lot of things that we could have done otherwise. So I think people see George and me and they say, ‘That is the way our country ought to work.’ ”
So just how crucial is the club in the early twenty-first century? In every age, three factors determine its performance: the needs and choices of the sitting president, the needs and talents of the former presidents, and a climate that welcomes or deplores their partnership. It was no accident that the club’s founders had all three factors in their favor. Hoover and Truman showed just how much good they could do, through an alliance that was as productive as it was unexpected. Much about the country, and the world, was broken in 1945: neither the Congress, the parties, the press, nor the public was going to throw up much resistance to two men so resolutely committed to fixing it.
That episode, while formative, was also unusual. Under Eisenhower, the club lost much of its clout; in that case, the president simply didn’t feel the need. Later presidents would feel the need but lack the resource; there was not much help Nixon could offer Gerald Ford, other than to remain as quiet as possible. But the club has proven over time that it is a force in itself, able to change the course of history by bringing out the best and the worst in its members.
Back in the beginning, when the club was born, the very idea that it would exert its own power was so outlandish that even the two presidents who started it were wrong about how it would all turn out.
Table of Contents
Truman and Hoover: The Return of the Exile 15
1 "I'm Not Big Enough for This Job" 17
2 "Our Exclusive Trade Union" 38
Eisenhower and Truman: Careful Courtship, Bitter Breakup 55
3 "The News Hounds Are Trying to Drive a Wedge Between Us" 57
4 "The Man Is a Congenital Liar" 77
Kennedy and His Club: The Hazing 101
5 "He Had No Idea of the Complexity of the Job" 103
6 "The Worse I Do, the More Popular I Get" 126
7 "How About Coming in for a Drink?" 154
Johnson and Eisenhower: Blood Brothers 159
8 "The Country Is Far More Important Than Any of Us" 161
9 "I Need Your Counsel, and I Love You" 171
Nixon and Reagan: The California Boys 191
10 "You'll Have My Promise-I'll Speak No Evil" 193
Johnson and Nixon: Two Scorpions in a Bottle 221
11 "This Is Treason" 223
12 "I Want to Go; God Take Me" 251
Nixon and Johnson: Brotherhood and Blackmail 259
13 "I Want the Break-In" 261
Nixon and Ford: Mercy at AU Costs 291
14 "I Had to Get the Monkey off My Back" 293
Ford and Reagan: The Family Feud 313
15 "It Burned the Hell out of Me" 315
Nixon, Ford, and Carter: Three Men and a Funeral 337
16 "Why Don't We Make It Just Dick, Jimmy and Jerry?" 339
Reagan and Nixon: The Exile Returns 353
17 "I Am Yours to Command" 355
Bush and Nixon: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished 373
18 "I'm Convinced … He Feels I'm Soft" 375
Bush and Carter: The Missionary Goes Rogue 395
19 "I Am a Better Ex-President Than I Was a President" 397
Six Presidents: The Golden Age of the Club 409
20 "The Guy Knows How the Game Is Played" 411
21 "I'm Sending Carter. You Think It Will Be OK, Don't You?" 432
22 "Bill, I Think You Have to Admit That You Lied" 450
Bush and Clinton: The Rascal and the Rebel 457
23 "He's Never Forgiven Me for Beating His Father" 459
Bush and Bush: Father and Son 473
24 "I Love You More Than Tongue Can Tell" 475
25 "Tell 41 and 42 That 43 Is Hungry" 490
Obama and His Club: The Learning Curve 505
26 "We Want You to Succeed" 507
What People are Saying About This
“This is essential reading for anyone interested in American politics.” —Robert Dallek, bestselling author of An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963
“Forget Rome’s Curia, Yale’s Skull and Bones and the Bilderbergs—the world’s most exclusive club never numbers more than six. . . . Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs have penetrated thick walls of secrecy and decorum to give us the most intimate, revealing, and poignant account of the constitutional fifth wheel that is the ex-presidency. Readers are in for some major surprises, not to mention a history they won’t be able to put down.” —Richard Norton Smith, author of Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation
“The Presidents Club is magnetically readable, bursting with new information and behind-the-scenes details. It is also an important contribution to history, illuminating the event-making private relationships among our ex-Presidents and why we should do a far better job of drawing on their skills and experience.” —Michael Beschloss, bestselling author of The Conquerers
“Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy have given us a great gift: a deeply reported, highly original, and wonderfully written exploration of a much-overlooked part of American history. The tiny world of U.S. presidents is our Olympus, and Gibbs and Duffy have chronicled the intimacies and rivalries of the gods.” —Jon Meacham, bestselling author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House
“Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs have taken us inside one of the most powerful and unusual families in American life—the brotherhood of former presidents of the United States. Political junkies, historians, psychologists and main street citizens will find the tales of friendship, envy, conspiracy, competition and common cause irresistible.” —Tom Brokaw, bestselling author of The Greatest Generation
“This is a brilliant idea for a book, wonderfully written! At Eisenhower’s inauguration, Hoover and Truman half-jokingly decided to form a ‘President’s Club.’ With surprising reporting and insights, this book reveals the relationships and rivalries among the few men who know what it’s like to be president. It gives a new angle on history by exploring the essence of the presidency.” —Walter Isaacson, bestselling author of Steve Jobs and Benjamin Franklin
“Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs offer more than a fresh and fascinating first look at the world’s most exclusive men’s club. It’s a book of real substance about clashing egos and strange bedfellows at the top.” —Jonathan Alter, bestselling author of The Promise
“The Presidents Club is a lucid and well-written glimpse into the modern presidency and its self-sustaining shadow organization. It's worth reading and rereading for its behind-the-scenes insights.” —USA Today
“This is a great scoop . . . Amazing.” —Chris Matthews, NBC
“A fabulous book . . . I absolutely love it.” —Greta Van Susteren, FOX News
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Presidents Club includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Backroom deals, secret alliances, bitter rivalries—these are just a few of the facets of what is perhaps the most important fraternity in American History. Bound by experience and the singular weight of holding supreme office, this club of former and current presidents has, in one way or another, acted as a secret and impactful instrument on the course of American—and world—history. Time editors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy put these complicated relationships, from Truman and Hoover’s truce at Eisenhower’s inauguration to Clinton and Obama’s touchy modern relationship, under the ultimate lens, revealing the ways in which presidents in office must rely, sometimes against their will, on those few men who have sat in the same seat.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. List and discuss the most unlikely relationships in the Presidents Club. Who reached farthest across the aisle? Why are former and current presidents so likely to work together, even when their policies and personalities differ so drastically? Consider Truman utilizing Hoover in Europe all the way through Clinton and Bush 43’s current joint humanitarian efforts.
2. Do presidents seem to have more influence when in office, or after? Name a president whose policy and experience lasted far beyond their term(s). Are there any who seemed especially ill-suited to lead at the time of their presidency, but invaluable upon leaving the position?
3. Was Johnson at fault for not helping protect Nixon’s presidency? Are there truly limits to how far a club member should go to protect one of its few brothers?
4. Compare and contrast Eisenhower’s strictly regimented, committee-oriented style of leadership to Kennedy’s looser, on-the-fly tendencies. What seems the best way for a president to administer his power? For that matter, where exactly does the power of a president reside—in his ability to unilaterally think on his feet, or the various specialists and experienced people at his disposal?
5. Eisenhower said (of Kennedy), “I am all in favor of the United States supporting the man who has to carry the responsibility of our foreign affairs.” There is a strain of thinking in early club members that the public should unconditionally support the hard decisions a president must make, lest the rest of the world view us as weak and un-unified. Do you agree with this? Is dissent and assembly against a president’s policies something citizens should avoid?
6. It is often said that a president’s success can be measured by the disasters he avoids. The authors even write, “We know what happened when each president presided; they are often just as proud of what didn’t happen.” How has the Presidents Club helped men in office to avert calamity? Consider especially JFK’s utilization of Eisenhower during the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis, and Clinton’s call upon Nixon for advice on Russia and Bosnia.
7. Many club members (Truman the haberdasher, Eisenhower the soldier, Reagan the actor) did not choose politics as a first profession, and came to the game relatively late in their careers. Yet, these three are some of the most esteemed, sought-after minds in the history of the club’s ranks. What do you make of non-politician politicians? Is there something to be said for their prior experience making them more efficient presidents and counselors?
8. Discuss LBJ’s nearly manic use of the Club’s knowledge for speech writing, policy making, and deal-brokering. Is there a point at which a president must shake free of the club and establish himself as separate from his predecessors?
9. Was Jimmy Carter “worth the trouble?” What do you make, in lights of today’s Arab state, of his furtive appeal to Arab and world leaders behind Bush’s (and the UN’s ) back? Did he go against Club code? Were his actions treasonous? Was his shunning by Bush 41 warranted?
10. Though Clinton had the most former club members at his disposal (5 in total), individual relations with his predecessors all took on a unique, half-antagonistic quality. Discuss his collaborations (and attendant contentions) with Nixon (Russia), Jimmy Carter (Korea and Haiti), and Ford (Clinton’s impeachment trial.) Were the club members helping the president, or protecting the presidency?
11. Do you think Bush 43 would have had a more successful presidency if there were not an “unspoken pact” between father and son regarding presidential advice? Would Bush 41, with an impressive record of foreign policy achievements and national deficit reduction, have been able to avoid some of today’s major American problems by doling out executive wisdom to his son?
12. Gibbs and Duffy write, “Presidents typically land in office thinking they know better than their predecessors. Having just spent an entire campaign convincing voters this is the case, they naturally come to believe it themselves. But then something like a chain reaction occurs: they win the office, then the office strikes back, challenging a president, chastening him, confronting him with all he doesn’t know.” How does this apply to Obama’s presidency? Though he campaigned on the notion of an end of Clintonian democracy, has his presidency now transformed to a facsimile of the 42nd President’s policies and sensibilities?
13. What were the most notable instances of duplicity between members of the club, both before and after their appointments? In what ways were they able to bury the hatchet after becoming former presidents? Consider Ike and JFK, Nixon and Johnson, Nixon and Reagan, Ford and Carter, and the rivalry between Clinton and Obama.
14. In the conclusion, the authors write, “If the Presidents Club had a seal, around the ring would be three words: cooperation, competition, and consolation.” Identify a particularly salient instance of each of these ideas during the Club’s colorful history.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Create your personal dream-team Presidents Club of four former presidents, dating back to FDR. Whose policies would you combine? Whose personalities would work best together? Which presidents, living or dead, could bring the greatest stability to a tumultuous world?
2. Read the memoir of any former president from the Presidents Club. How do their accounts compare to the information in this book? What do they reveal? What do they seem to omit? Is there a president that’s particularly forthright about their reliance on former holders of the office?
3. Create a visual timeline of the last 70 years of world conflict. Which events had the greatest involvement of former presidents? Which brought together unlikely allies? Which member of the club presided over the most calamity?
4. Visit Time magazine’s The Presidents Club site: (http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/0,28757,2111338,00.html) to see photos, read ancillary articles, and learn more about the passing of the torch between newly-elected and incumbent presidents.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Fantastic book! beautifully written and researched. Brimming with fresh details, it gives an inside look at how very lonely the presidency can be -- and how, time and again, the men who sit in that chair forge alliances with their predecessors (friend and foe alike) that are good for both the country and their own sanity. a must read for anyone interested in the presidency.
Very well written. A look into a secret society that until now we haven't been able to share. I found the book to be an enjoyable read.
The book itself is well written and full of behind-the-scenes goodies...definitely worth reading. However, the way it appears on the nook screen is infuriating. Rather than use small numbers (1), (2) after key sentences to indicate references to footnotes, those particular parts of the sentences appear in blue, indicating active links. The first time I turned the page and accidentally tapped one of those live links, I was transported to the end of the book where the footnotes were. This is probably the publisher's doing, but I can tell you I find it extremely infuriating and frustrating...seeing all that blue text among the regular black text is disruptive. It's almost like the flow of words is interrupted. The book gets a five-star rating while the screen appearance gets a minus-five-star rating.
I loved it. The section describing the friendship and love between Clinton and the elder Bush warmed my heart.
Wonderful book. I love all of the inside stories of the personal side of what presidents and ex-presidents go through, and how they support each other regardless of party through the toughest times. I always had a lot of respect for the institution of the presidency, but this book gave me renewed respect for the individuals who have held the office since Truman. What touched me was the both the willingness -- and the need -- of all of the former presidents to continue to be relevant in their "retirements", and the need of the current White House occupant to often seek their counsel once the weight of the office falls upon his shoulders. I zipped through this book on a vacation day and was left wanting more! But it also begged the question: why has the President's' Club fallen silent when many in Congress were willing to hold our credit rating hostage for partisan purposes?
I don't normally write reviews on books that I have read, but I believe this book contains interesting facts that anyone who reads about the Presidents should read. This book is well written such that it keeps the reader wanting to turn the pages from front to back never putting it down. I read this book over a long weekend and didn't want it to end. I never realized the importance of the Presidents Club to the current and past Presidents. I can only imagine the loneliness at the top. The decisions that are made by one man. The loss of so much power at the end of their terms. This is a must read!
The Presidents Club is a book about the different partnerships former presidents had with current presidents. After their presidency, the ex-presidents job isnt done it. A former president guides the future and current leader of the United States, even if they are political foes they get past their differences and collaborate on one goal: to better the American people and their country.
This book starts out with a fascinating premise - that all living former Presidents of the United States have a shared interest in supporting each other despite their party or philosophical beliefs - because they know that they are the only ones who can understand the pressures, problems, and complexity of the job. It provides a unique insight into American history by discussing the unseen factors that influenced many of the events we think we understand. The interaction between various pairings of presidents is amazing. It also examines the role that former presidents play behind the scenes in supporting policy as well as humanitarian efforts - things for which they (at least in the past) received little if any credit. The bottom line of this book is that the success of the United States is the most important measure of what politicians do and say, a message that today's politicians on both sides of the aisle would do well to remember. This is a must read for anyone who is interested in the American system of government.
I was intrigued to know some behind the scenes information about the highest office holders in thre US although I am not one to choose a history book to read for pleasure. I have to say that I found it hard to put down! I felt like we were given a birdseye view into the "hotbox" called The White House and the men who dared to take on what I would have to say has to be the most difficult job. I think everyone probably knows of the back room deals that go on in politics, but by reading about the deals made me feel like was in on the "secrets".
I took my time reading this book! I enjoyed it so much!
This is an excellent book. I found a lot of interesting tidbits of information about all the former presidents. I also found reinforcement of my negative opinions of Nixon and Carter.
Enjoyable read, a great book for presidential history buffs.
A lot of information you'll never hear anywhere else. Great stories with overarching themes. It will give you more respect for the Presidency and make the Chiefs seem more human.