Speed Read

Speed Read of ‘The Presidents Club,’ by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

Ben Jacobs speed reads a new book, ‘The Presidents Club,’ that traces the exclusive White House fraternity from Truman to Obama.

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The idea of an Ex-Presidents Club sounds like a punchline. The idea that former presidents eagerly consult each other, let alone have their own clubhouse seems a little absurd. In fact, it’s even been the basis of a long-running Saturday Night Live skit that featured them as superheroes. But the group actually does exist. It’s not a formal organization with Jimmy Carter taking down minutes of the meetings and George W. Bush collecting dues; but it plays an important, albeit underappreciated, role in running the country.

In The Presidents Club Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy examine how this ad hoc fraternity was formed when, after suddenly ascending to the presidency upon Franklin Roosevelt’s death, Harry Truman reached out to his only living predecessor, Herbert Hoover, and how it has influenced the nation up to the present day. Here are some of the highlights the book offers about the nearly-70-year history of this exclusive group:

The Beginning

Upon the death of Roosevelt, Truman, who had been vice president for only three months and was not close to his predecessor, was grievously unprepared for the office. Truman reached out to Hoover for both counsel and political cover. He used Hoover to run a commission on reorganizing the executive branch for greater efficiency, and also as a traveling ambassador to build goodwill abroad for U.S. aid efforts in the aftermath of the World War II and at home to get Americans comfortable with paying the inevitable cost of such efforts. Once Dwight Eisenhower was elected and there were about to be two living ex-presidents, Hoover and Truman organized “a former presidents club” on the steps of the Capitol waiting for Eisenhower’s inauguration. Truman jokingly offered to let Hoover serve as president while he would assume the role of secretary.

Hoover in Argentina

One of Hoover’s stops abroad on behalf of Truman was in Argentina, where he met with Juan Perón to urge him to increase that country’s food exports to help feed the starving in Europe. Hoover managed to smooth over the United States’ difficult relationships with the then–newly elected Perón government. While there, he also met Perón’s wife, Eva, and wryly observed of her: “She had the brains of Eleanor Roosevelt and the looks of Hedy Lamarr.”

‘I Don’t Run No Bad Invasions’

In the aftermath of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, John F. Kennedy sought advice from his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower. They bonded over fried chicken at Camp David, and went over the sequence of the events that led to the failed attack by a CIA-trained brigade of Cuban exiles. Eisenhower took his time to counsel the sitting president and to offer his thoughts on the next steps. Afterward though, Eisenhower’s son asked him what would have happened if the Bay of Pigs had taken place while he was in office. Eisenhower replied simply, “I don’t run no bad invasions.”

Johnson and Nixon

Johnson was convinced that Nixon had sabotaged his attempts to broker negotiations between North Vietnam and South Vietnam on the eve of the 1968 election. However, Johnson never publicly breathed a word of this, and formed a close relationship with Nixon after he won the election. While Johnson was upset at Nixon’s actions, it was more important for him to have a smooth transition while the United States was still fighting in Vietnam. It was a magnanimous gesture that may have prevented Nixon’s presidency from imploding before it started.

Sadat Funeral

It took an Egyptian funeral to bring Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter together. After President Anwar Sadat was assassinated, the United States was represented at his funeral by a delegation of Ford, Carter, and Nixon. Although Nixon then departed to do some mysterious diplomacy of his own in Saudi Arabia, Ford and Carter flew back to the U.S. together. Prior to the trip, they hadn’t been friendly. This was the natural product of a razor-tight general election in 1976. On the plane, they discovered they shared something very important: they both really disliked Ronald Reagan. That sealed a close and enduring friendship between the two.

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Jimmy Carter Is ‘That Guy’

There is one member of the club who had a knack for irritating the rest. Jimmy Carter united the other members, who could all agree over “what an annoying cuss Carter could be.” With Carter’s penchant for diplomatic freelancing, he had a tendency toward getting under everyone else’s skin—especially Bill Clinton, who held Carter in part responsible for losing his first bid for reelection as governor of Arkansas in 1980. Despite Carter’s Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work after his presidency, he remained a loose cannon who even ran an under-the-radar campaign to try to stop the Gulf War in 1991.

Bill Clinton Learns How to Salute

When Bill Clinton came into the White House, he didn’t know how to salute. Although presidents normally had not saluted uniformed members of the military, Ronald Reagan made it a habit and it had since become institutionalized. Reagan—who had a lot of experience saluting, serving stateside during World War II as well as playing soldiers—noticed Clinton wasn’t much good at it. So Reagan gave the new president a private lesson. The two spent time in Reagan’s office in Los Angeles after the election and Reagan taught the successor how to properly salute. Once the lesson was over, Reagan gave Clinton a jar of red, white, and blue jellybeans as a parting gift.

Clinton and Nixon

The two scandal-ridden presidents developed a surprisingly close relationship. Clinton came to rely on Nixon’s advice and, to this day, still rereads a memo that Nixon wrote to him every year. The seven-page memo on Russia and the former Soviet Bloc wowed Clinton for being “so lucid [and] so well-written.” After Nixon died, Clinton compared the death with the loss of his mother, telling Larry King, “Just today I had a problem and I said to the person working with me, ‘I wish I could pick up the phone and call Richard Nixon and ask him what he thinks we ought to do about this.’”

Bush 41 and Bill

One of George H.W. Bush’s sons served, obviously, as president. But “41” actually has had two sons in the White House. His relationship with Bill Clinton has grown so close that Clinton is now referred to in the Bush family as the “Brother From Another Mother” and has even been in family photographs. In case anyone doubts the affection between the elder Bush and Clinton, who have undertaken numerous charity engagements together, Clinton paid tribute to his immediate predecessor in a 2011 ceremony at the Kennedy Center, saying “I love you.” However, Clinton does acknowledge his awkward place as the Democrat in the Bush family noting that he’s “the family’s black sheep. Every family’s got one.”

North Korea Wants Bill

After two American journalists were arrested on the border between North Korea and China in 2009, the North Korean regime demanded that Bill Clinton come visit to negotiate their freedom. There was initial White House discomfort at this, as the relationship between President Obama and Clinton had been somewhat strained as a result of the competitive 2008 primary between Obama and Hillary Clinton. Obama, however, encouraged Clinton to go, and the former president came back with the two freed journalists. But there was one bit of drama. The White House initially didn’t want Clinton to emerge from the plane with the two newly liberated hostages; they wanted to keep him inside, hidden from the cameras—and the credit. Eventually though, the White House press office reconsidered, for fear of the even greater embarrassment that hiding away the former president might have caused.