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History is not one thing. History is everything.
Rising above Politics to Protect the Presidency
The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive FraternityHave sharks been the culprits for all these lake monster theories? Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy
Hardcover. 641 pp.
April 17, 2012. Simon & Schuster.
It would not be a stretch if someone said that I have an affinity for the Presidents of the United States. Anyone who has read any of my book reviews or even looked at the archive of my past articles here at AND Magazine probably came to that conclusion without much difficulty. Since childhood, I have been fascinated with the Presidents and the Presidency itself. I've studied it deeply, continue studying it daily, often write about it in, and have made it the focus of my Tumblr site, Dead Presidents, where I constantly produce content ranging from random facts incorporated in brief stories to feature-length essays, as well humorous parodies, coverage of current Presidential politics, and Q & A sessions with readers, fans and dissenters. As a little kid, the Presidents were a hobby to me. Now, at 32 years old, my business card says "Presidential Historian," and I'm able to devote all of my time to my passions, which is now my profession.
The reason that I am explaining this is because I frequently come across books that rehash what I already know about the Presidents or the Presidency. I have hundreds of books about the Presidents in my personal library, so it is inevitable that I will pick up a new book from time-to-time and feel like there is nothing else that I can learn. If I have read 25 books about Abraham Lincoln or Lyndon Johnson, what am I going to get from the 26th book? I've had friends half-jokingly tell me that I'm crazy and wonder why I read multiple books about the same subjects as if history might change.
Those who don't love history, and imagine that every history book must be written like a textbook, overlook an important fact: at its core, history is a form of storytelling. The appeal is that the stories being told involve real people, familiar places, and true events. There are heroes and villains, rewards and consequences, and the stories either affect us directly or become a part of the foundation which structures our world's social architecture. Even if I've read two dozen books about a single subject or a specific person, a good storyteller can convince me to meet that person or experience that subject once again. Details emerge, new information is discovered, blank places are filled in, and the story is augmented and reinforced by the best of our historians. Maybe the solid, unassailable facts of history don't change, but our interpretation of history is constantly evolving, shaped by the context of our times, our understanding of the past, and our hopes for the future.
History is not one thing. History is everything.
If we are lucky, a spotlight will shine on a familiar aspect of history and tell a story from a different perspective. With a subject as vast as the Presidents or Presidency'a group of men and an institution which has been under the microscope for nearly 225 years'many of the best contemporary books sharpen the focus and illuminate a more specific subject. These books are immensely helpful to people like me because the office of President is complex and far-reaching. By breaking down the subject in smaller, more detailed fragments, it becomes easier to fully understand the job, its importance and the people who have held that office.
The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity (Simon & Schuster, 2012) by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy does far more than break down the Presidency, focus on a specific component, or reinforce what is already known. Instead, Gibbs and Duffy'both editors at TIME magazine who collaborated on The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House, a New York Times best-seller in 2007'reveal the relatively quiet, yet immensely important relationship that incumbent Presidents have with their predecessors.
In 2004, author Bob Greene likened that relationship between American Presidents as a "fraternity". In his book, Fraternity: A Journey in Search of Five Presidents, Greene wrote about his visits with four ex-Presidents (the fifth, Ronald Reagan, was ill with Alzheimer's disease) and one of the most intriguing aspects were their comments about each other. Greene's book looks at the Presidents he interviewed (Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush) on a personal level. Gibbs and Duffy also examine the personal relationships of Presidents, but The Presidents Club goes even deeper to also define the unique role a former President can play, as well as the advantages and obstacles that an incumbent President faces because of their predecessors.
Because our Presidents are such monumental figures, there is often a rush to dehumanize them, as if the ambition required to seek the office disqualifies them from having feelings. Since tens of millions of people wanted a different President in the first place, the incumbent fights an uphill battle from the moment the votes are counted. It seems that today's sensational political atmosphere and need for instant gratification means that the American people, particularly the opposition, have even less patience for our President and no tolerance for weakness or indecision.
John Steinbeck described the struggle for a President in his 1966 book, American and Americans:
"The President must be greater than anyone else, but not better than anyone else. We subject him and his family to close and constant scrutiny and denounce them for things that we ourselves do every day. A Presidential slip of the tongue, a slight error in judgment'social, political, or ethical'can raise a storm of protest. We give the President more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, more pressure than a man can bear. We abuse him often and rarely praise him. We wear him out, use him up, eat him up. And with all this, Americans have a love for the President that goes beyond loyalty or party nationality; he is ours and we exercise the right to destroy him."
Throughout Presidential campaigns the candidates claim that they are the most qualified and best equipped American to be elected to the office. They run down their opponents and raise questions about who has the best experience and who is most ready to assume the Presidency. In The Presidents Club, time-and-time again, all Presidents quickly recognize that there is no training that qualifies you to be President of the United States. There is no experience that replicates the job. No college courses, no corporate apprenticeship, no political position prepares a person for the heavy burdens, massive responsibilities, and lightning quick pace of the Presidency. The only people who understand the gravity of the President's duties and decisions are former Presidents.
Gibbs and Duffy began The Presidents Club with two men who crossed party lines to establish a relationship, solved some problems in the world, and began to define how former Presidents can continue to serve their country and help their successors. Shortly after President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in April 1945, newly inducted President Harry Truman invited FDR's immediate predecessor, Herbert Hoover, to the White House. FDR had defeated Hoover in the 1932 election; and because Hoover and the Great Depression were practically synonymous, Roosevelt saw Hoover as radioactive. Although Roosevelt served an unprecedented 12 years in office, Hoover was persona non grata, even as the country moved towards war and aides close to FDR suggested making Hoover'immensely popular in Europe due to his famine relief work during the First World War'useful. Roosevelt steadfastly refused, saying at one point, "I'm not Jesus Christ. I'm not raising him from the dead."
FDR's death propelled Truman into the White House in the midst of World War II, as Allied troops raced towards Berlin and battles raged in the Pacific. As Vice President, Truman was kept out of the loop on just about everything and the sheer scope of the Presidency was overwhelming. While FDR ignored Herbert Hoover's existence, Harry Truman quickly recognized the value of the perspective that only Hoover could provide. For the remainder of Truman's Presidency, Hoover and Truman maintained a solid friendship and a fruitful professional partnership. Despite their political differences, Truman chose Hoover to lead a commission which helped streamline the government and, in the process, strengthen the Executive Branch. The relationship between the two Presidents'one a Democrat and the other a Republican'really set the stage for what the "Presidents Club" would become.
The Presidents Club continues with Gibbs and Duffy looking at other important partnerships between Presidents and their predecessors in the last half of the 20th century up until today. The partnerships aren't always perfect and some of the relationships are complicated, but that's to be expected between men of different political and social backgrounds who are ambitious enough to strive to hold the most powerful position in the world (sometimes at the cost of their immediate predecessor). Truman and Eisenhower had a particularly difficult relationship, but in old age and in the wake of a tragedy they mended their troubles after sharing a ride from the funeral of the assassinated President Kennedy.
Through The Presidents Club runs a common thread, no matter what party the President belongs to or how disappointed they might be in a successor's policy or personality: a deep interest in protecting the office of the Presidency and a sincere wish to see the incumbent President succeed. Once a man has been President it seems as if his perception of politics changes. Rarely do former Presidents openly criticize the incumbent President and the reason why is one in which Gibbs and Duffy find many Presidents in agreement. Nobody, including former Presidents, sees the same information that the current President sees. That means that nobody understands what goes into making his decisions and what the ramifications might be except for the incumbent President who sits in every meeting, receives every briefing, and sees all of the available intelligence or information. No matter what they might think of the current President, The Presidents Club makes it clear that former Presidents are ready to serve, answer questions, advise, and support, but not criticize or second-guess.
To me, that's the most remarkable part of The Presidents Club. The former Presidents that Gibbs and Duffy spoke to were adamant about their sincerity when it comes to letting the incumbent President do his job. Former Presidents talk about how any criticism from an ex-President to the current President is unfair and could be potentially damaging or confusing to our enemies overseas. Of course, the former Presidents consistently return to the idea that criticizing the current President's decision-making is borderline ignorant. Anyone who has served as President seems to realize at some point'perhaps in retirement as they withdraw from the scene, extract themselves from the White House bubble, and view everything from a different perspective'that, as George W. Bush said, "the office transcends the individual."
The Presidents Club is a tremendous read and would be so if it only focused on the unique professional relationships between Presidents and their predecessors. Fortunately for us, there are also scores of fascinating stories that illuminate the personal relationships that these very famous, very ambitious, very accomplished men share with each other. Gibbs and Duffy study every President since Harry Truman. The human component to these relationships is captivating because of the complex personalities and sometimes colossal egos involved.
There is the partnership between Truman and Hoover that established the unique fraternity. There is bitter feud between Truman and Eisenhower. John F. Kennedy's youth and the tension in the world at the time require one of the youngest Presidents to rely on the advice of one of the oldest. Lyndon Johnson takes office when JFK is assassinated and never hesitates to show Eisenhower and Truman how much he respects them, how badly he needs them, and how often he'll call the aging ex-Presidents. Nixon and LBJ have a complicated relationship fraught with distrust, but also with a mutual respect (and fear) for one another's political abilities. Nixon also has a great love for Eisenhower, but when Nixon's Presidency begins falling apart, he has no one to turn to. Truman, Ike, and LBJ were dead.
One month after Nixon's resigns, Gerald Ford pardons him. The book shares the long, close relationship between the two men. Ronald Reagan pops up first as a potential challenger to Nixon in 1968, then as a dangerous challenger to Ford in 1976. Gibbs and Duffy do their best to explain the tense and somewhat strange Ford/Reagan relationship, beginning with Reagan's challenge of Ford in '76 and continuing up to the point where Reagan nearly chose former President Ford as his running mate in 1980. Carter beats Ford in 1976 and loses to Reagan in 1980, beginning what will likely end up being the longest, most accomplished "retirements" of any President in American History.
President Reagan sets the stage for perhaps the most compelling scene in The Presidents Club after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat is assassinated in 1981 when Reagan asks Nixon, Ford, and Carter to represent him at the funeral. The former Presidents agree and all travel together in an awkward flight on a plane usually in service as Air Force One despite strained relationships between all three of them, particularly Ford and Carter. After the funeral, Nixon continues traveling in the Middle East while Ford and Carter use the 16-hour flight back to the United States to put their troubles behind them, find some common interests, and begin a friendship that was sealed with a promise: whoever lived longer would deliver the eulogy at the other's funeral (Carter ended up eulogizing Ford in January 2007).
Finally, with the more recent Presidents, Gibbs and Duffy show how personal the human side of the Presidency can get. Reagan's battle with Alzheimer's disease means that his successors must do without his advice as he vanishes from the scene to face his illness and his influential voice is silenced. George H.W. Bush sees the end of the Cold War and successfully launches the Persian Gulf War; but his high approval ratings drop along with the economy and he's defeated by Bill Clinton. When Clinton takes office, he has five former Presidents still alive to counsel him, and he surprisingly turns to Nixon for advice. Clinton's own scandals lead Ford and Carter to step in'not to defend Clinton's actions, but to protect the institution of the Presidency. After Clinton leaves office in 2000, he and the man he defeated in 1992, George H.W. Bush, build a remarkable friendship that is almost familial, one that Clinton sometimes looks at like the father he never had. Together, they raise millions of dollars for disaster relief and heal the wounds from 1992 with a devotion to each other. Of course, by that time, Bush's actual son was President which doubles the protective feeling the elder Bush has toward the Presidency.
Shortly before Barack Obama joined The Presidents Club in 2009 all of the living Presidents had breakfast at the White House with the President-elect, and George W. Bush made it clear that the unofficial fraternity really was a collective, telling Obama, "We want you to succeed." While Bush's Vice President, Dick Cheney, has criticized Obama at every turn and many of Bush's fellow Republicans have openly admitted their hope that Obama fails, Bush has comfortably and quietly settled into retirement, as well as adhering to the standards of The Presidents Club. "I love my country a lot more than I love politics," Bush said after Obama's inauguration, "I think it is essential that Obama be helped in the office."
There are few books that are able to detail both the historic and institutional aspects of the Presidency as well as the deeply personal elements that define the Presidents themselves. The Presidents Club is a book about history, politics, rivalry, friendship, and family. Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy have intensely researched the last 80 years of the Presidency in order to deliver one of the most absorbing books that I have read in a long time. We love riveting, touching stories about the interactions and relationships of people, and Americans are always eager to learn more about the personal lives and human sides of our leaders. The Presidents Club is a rare convergence of both. As I said earlier, the best history are stories about people. The Presidents Club is a story about how the most powerful people in the world lived and worked with one another.
The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy is available now from Simon & Schuster. You can order it from Amazon, or download it instantly for your Kindle. Nancy Gibbs is the deputy managing editor of TIME magazine, and Michael Duffy is TIME's executive editor. They previously collaborated on The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House.
Anthony Bergen, Senior Literary Editor: Anthony Bergen is a writer and Presidential historian based in Sacramento, California. His historical work has been published by numerous outlets and historical associations including pieces for the New Hampshire Historical Society's Franklin Pierce Bicentennial, ConsiderableThoughts.com and the National Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial celebration. Anthony has also been a contributing joke-writer for several touring stand-up comedians and "The KiddChris Show" on Portland's KUFO FM.