The Presidents Club: A Love-Hate Affair

I recently finished Nancy Gibb and Michael Duffy’s engrossing book “The Presidents Club” that examines the sometimes warm, sometimes cold relationships between the men who have inhabited the office of President of the United States. The writers explain that it’s hard to talk about a “club” in the true sense of the word until Harry Truman was sworn in. At that time, the only predecessor alive was Herbert Hoover, the Republican president who had been widely blamed for failing to prevent the Great Depression. Truman ended up relying on Hoover in several instances and the two men became friends. Over the years, the informal club came to have more members since presidents were generally elected at a younger age and lived longer, and Truman’s successors realized how valuable their predecessors were, either as advisors or political players, because after all the U.S. presidency is an office unlike any other. The book offers many behind-the-scenes looks at how these men often started out at odds with each other but ended up as friends when it dawned on them just how challenging the office would be.

A few clips illustrate important chapters in the book:

Truman/Eisenhower – A newsreel from 1951 when General Dwight Eisenhower arrives in Washington for talks with President Truman. This was the year when Ike became the first NATO commander. The newsreel makes it clear that Eisenhower is not in Washington to talk politics, this at a time when D.C. was buzzing with rumors about the general’s political future. He would eventually become the Republican nominee and even though he and Truman started out nicely enough, the two of them would come to dislike each other. Eisenhower never reached out for Truman’s help during his eight-year presidency.

Esienhower/Kennedy – In this 1962 phone call, President John F. Kennedy discusses the Cuban missile crisis with his predecessor. The young president often reached out to Eisenhower for advice, and the Republican helped Kennedy get past the embarrassing failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion in a very public way, famously visiting him at Camp David for a chat. Eisenhower did it not because he cared about Kennedy’s legacy, but because he cared about America’s standing, a point that the authors repeatedly return to in their book. It’s fascinating to hear Kennedy ask Eisenhower if he thinks the Soviets would fire their nuclear weapons or not, a simple but chilling question on everybody’s mind at that time.

Johnson/Nixon – 1968 was an awful year. Martin Luther King and RFK were murdered, there were riots in the streets, thousands of young men were killed in Vietnam and President Lyndon Johnson decided not to seek reelection. In the phone call above, the Soviets have just invaded Czechoslovakia and Johnson is calling Richard Nixon for advice. It may be easy to forget now, but Nixon was a true statesman at the time, a former congressman, U.S. senator, vice president and GOP nominee for president against Kennedy in 1960. His foreign policy experience was vast, even though President Eisenhower didn’t always respect him. Nixon’s sympathies regarding Vietnam was in step with Johnson; neither man had any love for the peaceniks. It’s a pretty astonishing conversation where the 1968 GOP nominee for president, Nixon, promises the sitting Democratic president, Johnson, that he won’t say anything to embarrass him during the campaign, all the while both of them are badmouthing the Democratic nominee, Eugene McCarthy.

Ford/Reagan – One of the most thrilling chapters in the book details the hard-fought battle between Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford for the GOP nomination in 1976, and then the bizarre VP discussions going on between them during the convention in 1980. The clip above shows part of the stunning speech that Reagan made on the convention floor in 1976, that boosted his standing as a conservative star.

Ford/Carter – One of the most heartwarming stories of friendships between two ex-presidents is that of Ford and Jimmy Carter. The two men were barely on speaking terms after fighting for the presidency in the late 1970s, but they found each other on a flight to Cairo in 1981 where they were both attending the funeral of Anwar Sadat. They made peace and also worked together on many subsequent occasions. They provided a role model for a country that usually sees Democrats and Republicans in a never-ending battle.  In the clip above, the pair talks to Tim Russert in 2000 about the need for civility.

Bush/Clinton – That same kind of friendship between old enemies became true also for George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. After a bitter election in 1992, where Clinton defeated Bush, it took until George W. Bush (also seen in the clip above) to get the two together and work for a common purpose – first to help raise funds after the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, then to help victims after Hurricane Katrina. As President Clinton explains in the clip, he and Bush found each other to the point where Clinton is prepared to say “I love you” to Bush. When a devastating earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, President Barack Obama asked Clinton to team up again with Bush for a relief effort, but number 41 did not feel up to it because of his age and asked Clinton and Obama to ask his son to do the work instead. Which is how number 42 has ended up doing really good charity work with both father and son Bush.

Clinton/Obama – The last clip shows how the current president, Barack Obama, continues a good tradition by taking advantage of his predecessors to help solve problems. The relationship between him and Bill Clinton was never smooth, considering the fact that Obama beat Clinton’s wife Hillary for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Obama is supposed to have said at one point that he likes Clinton, but in “small doses” (which, according to the book, is how Bush 41 also feels about his 42, his “black sheep son”, at times). But in the clip above, the two presidents discuss health care reform last year, no doubt an attempt to boost the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature achievement.

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