The Presidents Club INTRODUCTION
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.”
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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.
The Modern Club
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 st...
Revue de presse
“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
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