The Presidents Club details the moods and neuroses of former U.S. leaders
The Presidents Club
By Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. Simon & Schuster, 641 pp, hardcover
As authors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy make clear in The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity, being president of the United States is a tough job. Sure, there are numerous perks, but the crushing responsibility of the office creates a lonely existence, pretty much unimaginable to anyone who hasn’t had to shoulder the burden.
Luckily for the sitting chief executive, there’s “the Presidents Club”—the authors’ collective term for those living men who have occupied America’s highest office—to offer private counsel and public support, most times regardless of party affiliation.
Focusing on recent administrations, Gibbs and Duffy (both editors at Time magazine) begin with Democrat Harry Truman, who broke with tradition and enlisted the help of his Republican predecessor, Herbert Hoover. While the partnership worked both ways (Truman got a problem-solver, and Hoover’s tarnished image was rehabilitated), it went on to become a true friendship and, most importantly, a template for future presidential partnerships.
Though Truman and his Republican successor, Dwight Eisenhower, would have a frosty relationship, later Democrats John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson went back to the well with Ike on numerous occasions. And Ronald Reagan, in asking Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter to attend Anwar Sadat’s 1981 funeral in his stead, set the stage for a new era of cooperation, giving rivals Ford and Carter a chance to hash out their differences on the nine-hour flight to Cairo. Both would go on to become active and extremely productive as ex-presidents, often teaming up for charitable works and legislative initiatives.
With writing that’s crisp and lively and filled with fascinating tidbits, The Presidents Club recreates the moods—and neuroses—of recent presidential administrations to great and very personal effect. We may feel that we already know these presidents, but Gibbs and Duffy manage to illuminate both strengths and weaknesses that we don’t often see, such as Ford’s sacrifices to heal the scars of Watergate, and LBJ’s obsession with his place in history.
Of course, even in the most exclusive fraternity in the world, it’s not all back-slapping and logrolling. There’s plenty of competition, old scores to settle, and a nearly uniform desire to cut a good historical figure. But there’s little ill will, at least in public, as they close ranks to protect the office (if not the office-holder) they all hold so dear.
All bets are off, however, when it comes to Nixon. With a passive-aggressive zeal that reads like something out of the DSM-IV, Nixon attempts to cozy up to each successive president in an relentless effort to redeem his legacy. Although occasionally helpful (he was surprisingly close to Bill Clinton, who relished Nixon’s foreign policy advice during his first term), he wasn’t above going rogue—often and devastatingly—if it suited his needs.
Not surprisingly, the most tumultuous part of the book involves Nixon and his treason (the term used by LBJ) in the backroom derailment of the Vietnam peace talks during the final days of the 1968 campaign. It was an action that arguably prolonged the war, and led to the deaths of more than 20,000 more U.S. servicemen and untold Vietnamese.
Nixonian transgressions aside, The Presidents Club will seem like an early Christmas present for political junkies and history buffs, packed as it is with behind-the-scenes stories and fly-on-the-wall moments.
It’s also a rare treat for those who normally think outside the Beltway: a well-lighted tour through the quagmire of Pennsylvania Avenue, told with the energy and snap of character-driven fiction.