‘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,” Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy write of the unique predicament of U.S. presidents. Duffy, executive editor for Timemagazine, is co-author with Gibbs of the new book The President’s Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity. Duffy talks about the book and the Club with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: “Cooperation, competition, and consolation” would be engraved around a President’s Club seal if there were such a thing, The President’s Club tells us. Do you have a favorite example of each?
MICHAEL DUFFY: The most extraordinary cooperation was probably between the Club’s modern founders, Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover: First they teamed up to prevent mass starvation in Europe; then they joined forces to reinvent the presidency itself through the Hoover Commission. It’s hard for any other pair to match the impact of that. They are all competitors, in the sense that history judges them, will rank them; but certainly Richard Nixon was the one who fell the furthest and climbed back most relentlessly, even at the expense of the other brothers. As for consolation, that’s a constant theme, although nothing can compare with the relationship between the two Presidents Bush. Politics is complicated, but it can’t compare with family, and there were times during the hard stretches of the Bush (43) presidency when he was the balm, calling his father and telling him not to worry about the criticism, to turn off the TV, that he was fine. “I became the comforter,” the younger President Bush recalled. “I’d say, ‘Hey, Dad, I’m doing great. I know it’s tough out there, but don’t worry about me.’ And so our roles got reversed.”
LOPEZ: The Club’s protocols, your book tells us, are support and silence and solidarity. What is your favorite history-can’t-miss example?
DUFFY: About a month before the 1960 election, President Eisenhower told one visitor to the Oval Office: “Listen, dammit, I’m going to do everything possible to keep that Jack Kennedy from sitting in this chair.” He watched the new administration dismantle much of the national-security decision-making machinery Ike had carefully constructed. And yet when the two men met at Camp David the weekend after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, Eisenhower reserved his sharp opinions for Kennedy himself. “Eisenhower Urges Nation to Back Kennedy on Cuba” ran the front-page headline in the New York Times, next to the picture of them walking the paths, heads down, Ike’s hands and hat clasped behind his back. “I am all in favor of the United States supporting the man who has to carry the responsibility for our foreign affairs,” Eisenhower told reporters. And a week later, when the Republican congressional leadership made a pilgrimage to Gettysburg to meet with Eisenhower, hoping to hear a ringing denunciation of his successor, Eisenhower instead warned them sternly against “witch-hunting.”
“Don’t go back and rake over the ashes,” Eisenhower insisted, “but see what we can do better in the future.”