Only 43 men have known what it is like to be President of the United States. So when a person becomes President there are only a few living souls who really understand what the job entails, and that is where the Presidents Club comes in.
After finishing The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs (now the Editor of Time magazine) and Michael Duffy, I am amazed that anyone would want to be President and grateful this Club exists. The Presidents Club, a term actually coined by Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover in 1953 when Dwight D. Eisenhower became President, is the group of living Presidents. Today the Club has five members – Carter, Clinton, the two Bushes, and Obama.
This 2012 book includes great anecdotes and describes in detail the tense and close relationships among all the Presidents since the Truman-Hoover relationship. Here are my favorite pieces shared in the book.
Truman-Hoover. Truman really invented the concept of the Presidents Club. When he became President after Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945 he knew very little about being President because Roosevelt had kept him in the dark. We know he had to deal with fighting a war on two fronts, and then after the war he had to deal with trying to (1) rebuild Europe so the Soviet Union would not take over and (2) re-structure the U.S. government during a post-war economy. Truman reached out to former President Hoover, a Republican, who had tremendous organizational skills. Hoover was honored to be consulted and proved to be Truman’s closest advisor and friend.
Kennedy-Eisenhower. As we learn in the book, every President who takes office does not believe they will need any advice from a former President. They are confident and believe they have what it takes to be the leader of the free world. Then, when they face a crisis, often international, they reach out to the Presidents Club for advice. And this is precisely what happened to John Kennedy. After Kennedy mishandled the Bay of Pigs incident shortly after he took office, he reached out to Eisenhower, who became a very close advisor and mentor for the remainder of Kennedy’s life. Eisenhower’s wisdom about dealing with Soviets was especially helpful to Kennedy as he worked through the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Nixon Likely Committed Treason. During the fall election of 1968 between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, President Lyndon Johnson was trying desperately to finish his term with a Vietnam peace agreement negotiated in Paris. He was keeping both candidates informed of the progress and believed completely that Richard Nixon was supporting his efforts and negotiations.
What he did not know then was that Nixon had developed a secret “back channel” communication link with Vietnamese officials. Nixon did not want a peace settlement before Election Day because he thought, probably correctly, that if peace happened before the election, Humphrey would win. Nixon was secretly promising a better deal for the Vietnamese if he became President and so the peace process stalled. What the authors tell us is that peace was very likely had Nixon not manipulated the situation behind the scenes. They write that when the war finally ended in 1975 the terms at the end were virtually the same that Johnson had on the table in the fall of 1968.
And, while Nixon later served the Presidents through Clinton very well as a gifted foreign policy advisor, Johnson and many scholars contend that what Nixon did in 1968 was treason.
Carter is Not Much of a Club Favorite. I think learning how Jimmy Carter behaved toward other Presidents after leaving office was the biggest surprise to me – and one can see why he is still not very popular among them. Besides numerous examples of being just plain mean, Carter often used his foreign missions on behalf of Presidents as moments for self-promotion. And this behavior breaks one of the rules of the Presidents Club, which is to serve the “office of the president”, not yourself.
Two examples where Carter was serving President Bill Clinton will help explain. The authors describe in detail the trip Carter made to North Korea in 1994 to try to reduce a chance of war threatened by North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. There was tension between Carter and Clinton on what the goals of the mission should be. Carter was successful and rather than have the White House announce the outcome, which is customary, he announced it on CNN just minutes after telling a Clinton official at the White House.
A few months later, this time working on a team with Colin Powell and Senator Sam Nunn, Carter helped negotiate a settlement of tensions in Haiti. Back in Washington it was agreed these three and Clinton would hold a joint news-conference at the White House. However, Carter went on CNN ahead of time and made the announcement. The authors suggest Carter’s behavior had more to do with trying to improve his historically weak presidential ranking and not caring about being a good Club member.
Clinton and the Bushes. Clinton, who really had no father guiding him as he grew-up, entered the office at a young 47. He wisely knew he needed mentorship and was unashamed to reach out to all members of The Club. The relationship that has really endured is the one he has with George Herbert Walker Bush, who comes through this book looking very good. The relationship is so close today that the Bush family considers Clinton part of their family.
In 2011 at a huge event honoring George H.W. Bush at the Kennedy Center, Clinton gave a very moving speech about the senior Bush. Backstage afterwards with everyone standing around, the Bush family got together for a family photograph. Suddenly Neil Bush said, “Bill! Bill! Brother of another mother! Get in here!”
As Clinton nudged his way into the back row for the picture he said, “The family’s black sheep. Every family’s got one.”
The Presidents Club – a wonderful American creation and I am grateful we have one.