Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity
Mem. Ed. $20.99
Pub. Ed. $32.50
You pay $1.00
“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 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 on 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.”
Copyright © 2012 by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy
Review by Sanford Levinson
Consider Richard Nixon’s statement on August 7, 1974: Senior Republicans (including Barry Goldwater) had just informed him that his support in Congress had evaporated; he would have to leave office. As his visitors prepared to leave, the authors write, “Nixon seemed to realize that he would soon be joining a club of one. ‘Now that old Harry Truman is gone, I won’t have anybody to pal around with.’” To put it mildly, Nixon and Truman had scarcely been “pals,” but Nixon seemed to recognize the special bond that links those who lived in the White House and the succor that even political enemies might be able to provide in trying times. This “exclusive fraternity” is the subject of this almost compulsively readable book.
The authors, both long-time reporters of presidential politics, may sometimes overestimate the importance of their “club”—which owes its name to a quip by Harry Truman, but no matter. The book focuses on often riveting personalities and their inevitably complex relationships, both human and political. The most genuine “pals,” ironically enough, appear to be (post-presidential) Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush. Republicans Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan had little regard for each other, though Gibbs and Duffy go over the proposal that they run as potential “co-presidents” in 1980. Neither of Jimmy Carter’s Democratic successors appears to regard him as a “pal.”
The book begins by describing the genuinely close relationship that Truman forged with Herbert Hoover, but it is hard to believe that it had any great effect on American politics. Not so, of course, Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon his close friend Richard Nixon. Why did he do it? As Ford privately said at the time, “Get him out of here. I can’t do this job” until his ultimate fate stops dominating public attention (and Ford’s news conferences).
Perhaps the most interesting chapters concern Dwight Eisenhower. Truman initially idolized Ike; he basically offered to step aside if Ike would run for the presidency. His decision to run instead as a Republican in 1952 —and to collaborate with some of the most right-wing elements of the Party during his campaign—ruptured their relationship during the course of Eisenhower’s presidency. But Eisenhower played a key role in the administrations of his two Democratic successors. For Kennedy, whom Ike plausibly dismissed as callow and inexperienced, he provided essential cover particularly after the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs. Far more ominously, Eisenhower was a key enabler of the Vietnam War. As President, he had been notably temperate about the use of military power in Vietnam. As an ex-president, however, he became a thorough hawk. A notably insecure Lyndon Johnson was perhaps understandably influenced by the architect of D-Day. Might history have been different had Eisenhower counseled prudence and encouraged Johnson to stand up to the military and his hawkish civilian advisers?
The book gives new insights into the truly unique world that presidents (and ex-presidents) inhabit. Sometimes the stories are “only” of human interest. But, as with Eisenhower and Johnson especially, much more is revealed as well.
Hardcover Book : 672 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Inc. ( April 17, 2012 )
Item #: 13-527736
Product Dimensions: 6.25 x 9.25 x 1.64inches
Product Weight: 32.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
Few men in American history have such diverse ideas about how to run this country as 12 of the last 13 men (HH #31 - BHO #44) to occupy the Oval Office. Yet what they they have in common is the far more important than those differences. They love their country and they all did the best they could at the time. They all have born a burden that only 42 individuals can even begin to comprehend.
Even though I've been reading presidential bios for more than 20 years, this book is filled with stories I had never heard (and corrected the official version of several stories I had.)
Perhaps George W. Bush summarized the club motto most succinctly when he hosted his father, Bill Clinton and President-elect Obama declaring "We want you to succeed."
The book was well-written, easy to read, and filled with numerous intersting facts, anecdotes, and stories regarding the interactions of the modern presidents. I recommended this book.
Reviewer: David R
This book sheds valuable insight from multiple perspectives from the viewpoints of the commanders in chief. The surprising thing is that the former presidents bond so tightly with themselves and with the one currently in power. Every decision can be criticized later, but only a former holder of the job can really understand that every decision is made with information available only at the time. There is only on the job training and if you find yourself in over your depth you can only go for help to those who have been there before. And they are waiting there to help.
One of the biggest surprises was that those who were kicked around the most like Nixon and Clinton were still extremely loathe to leave the office, so addicting was the power and rewards of having such opportunity to effect change.
Reviewer: randall g
Can't give it a review as I have not read it as yet.
Reviewer: Teresa J
At 600+ pages, this book is not a quick read, but no matter what your politics, you will come away with changed views of America's most recent presidents and the crises they confronted. The alliances these politically diverse men develop with each other are unexpected and compelling.