Politics & Policy

The Presidency, Unplugged

Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, co-authors of The President’s Club
Exploring an exclusive, historic club.

‘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 Time magazine, 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?

 #ad#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.”

#page#LOPEZ: Why are all presidents drawn to Lincoln?

DUFFY: A great question. Probably because he was the one who started lowest, rose highest, faced the great test, and triumphed. Lincoln is the archetype of presidential greatness. Eisenhower identified so strongly that he bought a farm in Gettysburg, painted a portrait of Lincoln, and gave prints of it to the White House staff for Christmas. As Kennedy flew home from his grueling summit with Khrushchev in June of 1961, his secretary found a slip of paper that fell to the floor, in his handwriting. It was a quote from Lincoln: “I know there is a God — and I see a storm coming. If He has a place for me, I believe I am ready.” Among Nixon’s most prized possessions was the framed picture of Lincoln his grandmother gave him on his 13th birthday. Clinton read David Herbert Donald’s epic Lincoln biography. “I don’t know if he could get elected today with his mental health history,” Clinton said. “But what I learned was that when Lincoln became president and the country was coming apart at the seams and he was trying so hard to hold it together, he almost became so absorbed in the work and the mission and the suffering of others that it lifted the burden off of him.” George W. Bush, who faced unusual challenges, read more than a dozen Lincoln bios while in office. “I’ve got his painting right there,” he said one day in the Oval Office. “I have sat here and thought about what it would be like to be the President when brother was fighting brother and cousin killing cousin. He clearly saw what needed to happen about keeping this country united.”

#ad#LOPEZ: How did Truman come to appreciate Hoover?

DUFFY: Among the impossible challenges facing Truman when he suddenly found himself president in the spring of 1945 was the fact that as many as a hundred million civilians in Europe were at risk of starvation in the aftermath of the war. Hoover had helped Woodrow Wilson manage humanitarian relief after World War I; so, against the wishes of the Roosevelt loyalists, Truman reached out to Hoover to help coordinate food relief. In 1946 alone, Hoover traveled 55,000 miles around the world, to 22 countries, met with 7 kings, 36 prime ministers, and the pope. “Yours was a real service for humanity,” Truman told him when the mission was successfully completed. And so the two men became friends. It didn’t matter that Truman thought Hoover was “to the right of Louis the Fourteenth.” He was honest and honorable, and they never talked about politics anyway. “We talked,” Truman said, “about what it was like being president.”

LOPEZ: Why did Nixon and Clinton hit it off but not Clinton and Carter?

DUFFY: Over and over in the Club, opposites attract. Presidents from the same party have trouble uniting afterward as easily as men from different parties do. Clinton and Carter — both southerners, both Baptists, both Democrats who interrupted a generation-long Republican grip on the presidency — tangled first in the 1970s about who best represented a new brand of southern Democrats, and then they just tangled. And yet Carter taught Clinton (and some others) how to be an ex-president. And Clinton credits him for that.

LOPEZ: Has Carter been the most difficult ex-president (to other presidents)?

DUFFY: Nixon was no picnic. But Carter is a special handful. It doesn’t help when you actually brag that you are a better ex-president than your brothers in the fraternity. Carter is the black sheep of the club; he gives the others something to unite around. But he has also been the busiest former president in a generation, maybe ever. In September, he will become the longest living ex-president in history — nearly 32 years so far — and he has not spent many of those days idle. From untangling political disputes, easing dictators from power, fighting curable diseases in Africa and Asia — he is constantly in motion. But that also makes him a complicated partner for all the presidents who come after him.

LOPEZ: What was most interesting to learn about Reagan?

DUFFY: So much about Reagan’s role in the Club is interesting: that he began writing Richard Nixon letters in the late 1950s; that he is offering Nixon unsolicited advice about a vice president in 1960; that by 1966 he is running for president secretly; and his correspondence with Nixon in 1967 and 1968 is a fascinating dance of the veils by both men. The Reagan-Nixon relationship — between two different kinds of conservatives, between two Californians (one transplanted, one native), and between two men who defined the GOP for the second half of the 20th century — was complex, never easy, but rarely unpleasant. And it would last for nearly 50 years.

LOPEZ: Any predictions on what kind of ex-president Barack Obama would be?

DUFFY: Can’t begin to predict that one.

LOPEZ: When did Clinton become a Bush brother? When did he and W bond? 

DUFFY: Clinton admired W’s skills as a politician before Bush became president. He told us he warned Al Gore about GWB when the rest of the Democratic party was still ignoring him. By mid 2000, Clinton was watching Bush closely; he could see that people liked him and were responding to his “compassionate conservative” message (which Clinton found empty but brilliant). The two men became friends during the 2005 trip to Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II; they would eventually become occasional telephone pals, on Sundays, in Bush’s final year in office. And of course W put Clinton in the harness with his father quite effectively, and W appreciated how Clinton treated the elder Bush. Once W retired, he and Clinton teamed up to bring relief to Haiti after the earthquake there. And, many people forget, they are effectively business partners. A couple of times a year, the two men give speeches together. That is a Club first.

LOPEZ: What’s the most significant power of the Club?

DUFFY: To join forces to get things done where our politics fail us, and to step in when the presidency itself needs protection, irrespective of who, or what party, is in office. And to offer each man, every one of whom leaves Washington with welts and scars, a measure of forgiveness. No one else can understand what it means to have done the job — except those in the world’s smallest fraternity.

LOPEZ: Who has been the most legacy-obsessed Club member?

DUFFY: There are many rivals for that crown.

LOPEZ: Did you learn anything about any of them that surprised you?

DUFFY: Too much to mention. For starters: that the night JFK was buried, Ike and Truman buried the hatchet after a decade of not speaking; that there is a clubhouse that only the former presidents can use; that Nixon and Clinton became late-night phone pals. (Clinton told us he still rereads one of Nixon’s letters every year because it was so smart and hardheaded.) We were also delighted to discover that Reagan taught Clinton how to salute during one private meeting in 1992.

LOPEZ: What’s been the most instructional Club reality? That’s maybe changed history? Or could be a lesson to anyone in public life?

DUFFY: Hoover and Truman saved millions of lives by teaming up in the 1940s. Ike steadied LBJ throughout Vietnam, though it is not clear Ike’s advice really made things better. LBJ and Nixon threatened each other with blackmail. Nixon acted as a kind of one-man scouting party for Reagan with Gorbachev, carefully minding his orders but acting creatively when he was overseas. Ford and Carter tried to save Clinton from impeachment and a Senate trial. Clinton and Bush 41 raised millions for the Gulf Coast and other natural disasters.

But for the rest of us? The age-old truth holds: We can accomplish far more together than we can working separately.

  Kathryn Jean Lopez is an editor-at-large at National Review Online.

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