Sunday, March 03, 2013

The Presidents Club, by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity, by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

The President's Club must be the most elite organization on the planet: to be a member you must have served as the President of the United States. Established at Eisenhower's inauguration by Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover its membership ebbs and flows over time; when Clinton took office the first Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, and Nixon were all in the club, but towards the end of Nixon's presidency the club was on hiatus when LBJ died. Gibbs and Duffy do an amazing job of examining the importance the President's Club plays in being everything from a simple sounding board to political ambassadors.

One of the most fascinating aspects about the club is that once people leave office, in a lot of ways politics seem to lessen in importance. Hoover and Truman became close friends and allies despite being on opposite sides of the political aisle, as did both Bushes with Clinton. Conversely but proving the same point, although Obama is not yet a member he and Clinton have a chilly relationship if not an outright rivalry. Regardless, though, only a handful of people truly understand the pressure of being the Leader of the Free World and being able to lean on that understanding often trumps political ideology. "[P]residents do not just compare themselves to one another; they weigh their leadership against what might have been. A president knows, each day, that if he makes the wrong call on fiscal policy a million more people could lose their jobs, or the wrong judgement about an enemy means thousands lose their lives." I can't imagine a job where even my wife would have difficulty appreciating what I do each day at work.

The authors do a wonderful job humanizing the people in the office. "Nixon preferred the nearby Lincoln Sitting Room as a smoker; he'd go in, build a fire in the fireplace, and then crank up the air conditioner. Reagan installed a weight room in the White House living quarters and worked out every day. Nixon had the trails at Camp David paved over so that his golf carts could scoot along faster; Reagan had them torn up and taken out so he could use them as horseback-riding trails." It is easy for me to see the presidency as a cipher, as a robotic entity far removed from everyday life. Anecdotes such as the passage above or about George W. Bush hitting golf balls at cars as a kid helps remind me that there are actual people sitting in the Oval Office, not just the caricatures we read about in history books and newspapers.

We all know how Nixon's administration ended in disgrace. Interestingly, he wasn't the first President to record what happened in the Oval Office—Kennedy and Johnson did the same. But their tape systems were manually controlled rather than voice activated, leading to the inability to select what was saved and the collapse of a presidency. The existence of the President's Club, though, eventually allowed Nixon back in the game. Reagan quietly sent Nixon to Moscow on a "private, fact finding" mission and to meet with Gorbachev. The positive results from this meeting allowed Nixon to begin taking steps towards a public rehabilitation. Eventually he largely overcame the specter of Watergate and died a respected elder statesman. All because of the Club.

Former presidents want to remain relevant and assist their predecessors while simultaneously competing for time and favorable mention in the history books. Truman once said, "time must pass before anyone, even an ex-president, can evaluate the performance of a man in the White House." This willingness to let go of judgement is one of the reasons the organization works, and frankly is a good lesson for all of us. Bush 43 is widely disliked and without even completing his term Obama seems to be in the same boat. Of course, because these people served so recently it is difficult to separate the political rhetoric from factual evaluation. So while history's jury may still be out on Carter as a president, it is clear that at the least he was a very difficult ex-president; without approval from Clinton he once cut a deal with North Korea about their nuclear program and then announced it on CNN without clearing it with the Oval Office or the State Department. Other club members at times behaved in similar manners, but Carter went rogue for multiple presidents putting him in a class by himself.

I am politically independent; I believe both the Republican and Democratic parties are morally bankrupt. This look inside the world's most exclusive fraternity is largely ideologically neutral which tipped my opinion from excellent to superb; reading about anecdotes like Reagan teaching Clinton how to salute is much more entertaining without having to deal with political spin. If you are any kind of student of history, this book should be on your nightstand.

First Sentence:
The modern Presidents Club was founded by two men who by all rights should have loathed each other.

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