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The Elitest Elite

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity. Simon & Schuster. 656 Pages. $32.50

"I think we ought to organize a former presidents club.” So quipped Herbert Hoover to Harry Truman on the grandstand at Dwight Eisenhower’s inaugural ceremony on January 20, 1953. “Fine,” smiled Truman. “You be the president of the club. And I will be the secretary.”

And with that, “The Presidents Club” was officially christened.

For some reason, it has taken much longer for anyone to tell its story. A book on this club — surely the world’s most exclusive — seems a no-brainer. But isn’t that what makes a brilliant concept? Somehow, all the other writers and journalists and historians missed this alluring subject until Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy came along.

They have taken up the task of chronicling the club and all its intrigues, rivalries, and  unique camaraderie. They have done so with a lengthy, detailed, well-written, well-researched, nicely narrated, and ultimately fascinating page-turner.

More than that, with The Presidents Club Gibbs and Duffy have also produced what is sometimes referred to in the book industry as an “evergreen” — that is, a book relevant and revisable for recurring new editions with each and every president. And they have done so in a way accessible to the lay reader, the historian, and the scholar alike — none of whom can ignore this extremely interesting book.

The presidents club traverses presidential relationships beginning with Truman and Hoover, followed by Eisenhower and Truman, Kennedy and “his club,” Johnson and Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan, Johnson and Nixon, Nixon and Ford, Ford and Reagan, Ford and Nixon and Carter, Bush and Clinton, Bush and Bush, and Obama and “his club.” Amid these is a chapter on “The Golden Age of the Club,” a period when there were no less than six living members: Bill Clinton (the standing chief executive), Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush.

Gibbs and Duffy appropriately start the book with a post-presidential interview with Bill Clinton in his Harlem office, where the thinning, weary-looking ex-president ruminated on his experiences with the club. Clinton “dwells on one president he misses — Richard Nixon — and another that he loves: George H.W. Bush.” Clinton warmly tells the authors about a letter on Russia that Nixon wrote to him about a month before he died. “And it was so lucid, so well written,” says Clinton, that “I reread it every year.” Clinton, who during the Nixon presidency was anything but a Nixon supporter, said that when Nixon died, 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.’”

Clinton was also touched by the “wonderful” letter the senior Bush left him. “You will be our President when you read this note,” wrote the man that Clinton unseated. “I am rooting hard for you.”

It is this kind of unflinching grace, a patriotic, dutiful attitude of country-first/office-first, which is the chief rule in the club code. It is the common bond among club members as they happily assist the current reigning member. It is a code that (they all agree) must transcend party politics. As Gibbs and Duffy note, “The Presidents Club has its protocols, including deference to the man in the chair . . . The club serves to protect the office.” It also means that former presidents should not openly criticize the current occupant — a code that most have followed (even when difficult), except for the rare exception, such as a Jimmy Carter (more on that later).

The club members are permitted to support whomever they like during presidential campaigns — indeed, this is expected — but once a new president is elected, the others act “as a kind of security detail.” They are dedicated to the security of the office and the successor who occupies it. It is the office that must be upheld. In a nice line, Gibbs and Duffy state that “the club’s secret handshakes are less about membership than stewardship.”

But more than that, there is camaraderie that the presidents feel and share. They have all held a job that is unspeakable, indescribable, and that truly only another president can understand. It must be something like what war veterans feel: Your uncle who can talk about Normandy or Vietnam only with a brother who had been there. And yet, it is more than that, an even heightened level of awareness and gravity, given that you, as president, decide on things like precisely those wars and battles. Indeed, Eisenhower, the old general-turned-president, who commanded the invasion of Normandy a decade before becoming president, referred to the enormity of these presidential decisions as “soul-racking.” Said Ike:

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.

Each and every occupant of the Oval Office faces that loneliness. It usually comes right away, when the new president receives that first ominous briefing about what a nuclear war would look like, and meets that guy in the military uniform (always nearby) who is carrying the briefcase with the codes to launch a nuclear war — a moment that stunned the young John Kennedy. There is an immediate sense, says one senior presidential adviser quoted by Gibbs and Duffy, of what did I get myself into? “I’ve been set up.”

This sudden awareness of the enormity of the job is accompanied by a sudden awareness that the only people who can relate, and who are available for counsel and wisdom, are the previous occupants. “No one,” write Gibbs and Duffy, “with the exception of [the current president’s] predecessors, knows what this is like.” In some cases, the immediate predecessor is from the other political party, and was not respected by the new president, but now suddenly is. When Bill Clinton was asked if he thought more or less highly of certain predecessors, he replied without hesitation that he now thinks “more highly of them all.”

All the presidential relationships covered by Gibbs and Duffy are worth the read, with twists and tales in each plot and subplot. The details range from interesting policy advice provided by former presidents to (sometimes) petty squabbling and unhealed scars from past rivalries and insults.

Among my favorite relationships in The Presidents Club are the group of Eisenhower, Kennedy, lbj, and Nixon. Prior to the presidency, jfk had seen Ike as “the old man” (worse, the authors quote jfk once calling Ike “that old ass-e”). That disrespect changed almost immediately, as Kennedy received those briefings on a nuclear war and, more so, dealt with the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis — two episodes the authors detail and narrate exquisitely. With that, Ike soon became jfk’s best friend. jfk needed him in many ways.

That was even more so for jfk’s successor, lbj, another Democrat who found himself leaning on the Republican Eisenhower. The insecure lbj, who wanted nothing to do with foreign policy, let alone Vietnam, was confounded over what to do in Southeast Asia. As only lbj could put it, “I left the woman I really loved — the Great Society — in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world.” What to do with that bitch? lbj went to the only former president who had been Supreme Allied Commander of nato and had defeated Hitler. He would depend on Ike in an unprecedented way for a sitting president.

Especially absorbing are Richard Nixon’s relationships with sitting presidents, especially with jfk. The two had always been close friends and political comrades, dating back to their days in Congress. It is one of those incredible quirks of presidential history that they ended up squaring off in one of the tightest and most dubious presidential contests in history, where Kennedy’s supporters engaged in widespread fraud, and where a remarkably gracious Nixon did not contest the final results and demand a recount. An arrogant jfk had begun the presidency by claiming, “I don’t know anybody who can do it any better than I can.” A few months later, with the Bay of Pigs fiasco, he was singing a different tune. He met with his old friend Nixon, leaning on his shoulder. “It really is true that foreign affairs is the only important issue for a president to handle, isn’t it?” said a depressed Kennedy to Nixon. “I mean, who gives a sh-t if the minimum wage is $1.15 or $1.25, in comparison to something like this?”

Also compelling in The Presidents Club are the sections on Truman and Hoover. Harry Truman was always a very partisan Democrat, but he cast aside that partisanship in reaching out to Herbert Hoover, the Depression-discredited Republican. Hoover had been stung by fdr constantly trashing him, his record, his policies, even his character. fdr did not treat Hoover the way we hope and expect our presidents to treat each other today. Their relationship was toxic. “Roosevelt couldn’t stand him,” said Truman of Hoover, “and he hated Roosevelt.”

Truman corrected that slight, and then some. He saw Hoover as immensely talented, a resource to be tapped for literally the sake of humanity in the perilous post-war period. “I knew what I had to do,” said Truman of that challenging world, “and I knew just the man I wanted to help me.”

And so, Truman employed Hoover’s talents to an unprecedented degree. He enlisted Hoover in an intense effort to feed a Europe threatened by starvation and Soviet communism. When we think of that effort today, we think of the likes of George Marshall. Though Hoover’s significant post-World War II role has been neglected by history, Truman made it happen. To say that Hoover appreciated this is an understatement. He needed it, and Truman helped despite carping and moaning by fellow Democrats who had turned Herbert Hoover into a giant grim reaper, a poster boy for the Great Depression.

Ironically, Truman’s relationship with the next Republican president, Eisenhower, did not go as well. At first, it was splendid — pure respect. But it turned sour, largely because of some serious misunderstandings and some heightened sensitivities. At the center of the friction was Senator Joe McCarthy, who was anything but a friend of the Truman administration. Truman felt that Ike not only didn’t rebuke the senator but embraced him purely for political reasons to win the presidency. The Truman-Ike split reached a climax during the 1952 campaign, degenerating into what the New York Times called a “bitter Eisenhower-Truman affair.” The two went at it in the newspapers. Truman charged that any man who would seek the support of the likes of McCarthy was unfit to be entrusted with the presidency and the nation’s nuclear arsenal. He served up a vintage Truman appraisal: “I skinned old Ike from the top of his bald head to his backside.”

Ike was not amused. Offering his appraisal of Truman, Ike growled to an aide: “The man is a congenital liar.”

And yet, in perhaps the most moving moment in The Presidents Club, Truman and Ike, after a lengthy period of separation, spontaneously came together again. It occurred at a terrible moment: the funeral of the sitting member of the club, John F. Kennedy. Suddenly, as the two ex-presidents watched the hearse, and Jackie Kennedy, and the fatherless Kennedy children, they realized how petty their past bickering now seemed. They had a quiet lunch together at Blair House. It was a touching reunion in which bygones forever became bygones.

Likewise of special interest in The Presidents Club are the sections on Jimmy Carter, where the authors are rightly highly critical. “James Earl Carter was always a problem for the Presidents Club,” write Gibbs and Duffy. “His campaign of good works overseas and political redemption at home did not make him an easy man to work with. Stubborn, fiercely independent, and on occasion unusually sensitive, Carter had the habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. He could be relied upon to engage in awkward self-promotion when cool modesty was in order.”

Gibbs and Duffy describe Carter as a “self-righteous, impatient perfectionist,” and say that Carter gave the rest of the club members an unusual gift: something for all the others to complain about. “When nothing else seemed to unite its members, the club often bonded over what an annoying cuss Carter could be.” Every club has its black sheep, note the authors, and when Nixon died, Carter assumed that role seamlessly. The other club members learned they did not want to find themselves in Carter’s way — that is, as he jetted around the world meeting with dictators in his redemptive mission to salvage his failed presidency.

This is not to say that the authors lack any appreciation of Carter. After all, he has been an especially active ex-president. Just ask Carter: “I feel that my role as a former president is probably superior to that of other presidents.”

Carter was excellent in Panama in 1989, monitoring the fraudulent elections orchestrated by Manuel Noriega and his goons. Carter bravely informed the world, amid a dangerous situation, that the “dictator” was stealing the election from his own people. Gibbs and Duffy rightly called it a “gutsy performance.” Carter stood strong even as Gerald Ford (also sent by the Bush administration to monitor the elections) left the heat of battle to go golfing.

Nonetheless, even with the good he has done, Carter, perhaps more than any member of the Presidents Club, has frequently breached the code of honor. Gibbs and Duffy note that Carter has proven both “immensely useful and infuriatingly mutinous.” As to the latter, they cite Carter’s mission to North Korea in 1994. He had gone at Bill Clinton’s request, but with very specific and limited orders — namely, to deliver a message and bring back intelligence regarding Kim’s nuclear program. Instead, Carter, after delivering a litany of incredibly naïve assessments of the North Korean regime, came back and announced to the American media that he had brokered a historic deal with the Stalinist despot. As White House officials gathered around the tv and watched the Georgian disclose his “breakthrough,” they struggled to contain their rage, with one official shouting that Carter was a “treasonous prick.”

That is just one sample of Carter’s doings, often contrary to the intentions of the sitting president. Plenty of added examples came during the presidency of George W. Bush, particularly regarding the war in Iraq. In fact, there are so many of these that one of my few criticisms of Gibbs and Duffy is that they didn’t get them all.

Gibbs and Duffy wrap up with the current case of President Barack Obama. That chapter is a work-in-progress that already commands a revised edition. The salient characters of interest are ex-presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. The more that Obama blames Bush for every woe and self-inflicted wound, the more grist he provides to Gibbs and Duffy for an extended and engrossing revised chapter. I’m sure they have been collecting a file.

Obama’s Bush-bashing is all the more grating when one considers the graciousness that Bush has shown to Obama from the outset, even as recently as June 2012, when Bush was pure grace during a ceremony at the White House. Bush would have been fully justified if he pulled Obama aside and said, “Hey, buddy, could you stop blaming your fiscal disaster on me?” But as Gibbs and Duffy document, Bush told Obama from the very start, shortly after the 2008 election: “We want you to succeed.”

Why? Well, it’s the country and the office. As Bush told Obama, “All of us who have served in this office understand that the office transcends the individual.”

That’s classic club.

Beyond Obama and George W. Bush, the ongoing complex relationship between Obama and Bill Clinton is intriguing. Duffy and Gibbs note the tensions and jealousies — and they have just scratched the surface. As I write, there is much more to this saga. As a fellow Democrat, Clinton is dutifully campaigning for the current club member’s reelection; he has not refrained, however, from early on in the campaigning occasionally saying nice things about Obama’s Republican challenger. Clinton has honestly noted that Mitt Romney’s business experience is impressive; in fact, “sterling.” Clinton has seemed to show himself as still a bit at odds with Obama, with whom he has had a complicated and sometimes bitter, uneasy relationship — as most recently shown by Ed Klein’s book, The Amateur, released too late for Duffy and Gibbs to work into their tome. They will need to.

The Presidents Club is a fascinating window into our understanding of a most unusual and intriguing institution and group of individuals. It is an excellent work. The authors should be commended for a brilliant idea exceptionally researched and executed.