“The President’s Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity” is a great book covering a niche of history that we don’t see addressed in one volume. Certainly each president’s history is comprehensively addressed in their memoirs and many biographies. But, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy have produced this fascinating volume that explores the relationships an incoming president had with their predecessors. With only a few references to pre-Herbert Hoover presidents, the book deals with modern presidents from Herbert Hoover to Barack Obama.
The authors do a great job of discussing the animosity displayed by the Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) White House towards former President Hoover. Much of the depression had been blamed on Hoover even though it started a mere 8 months after he took office. After Hoover’s term of office ended in 1933, it would be another 12 years before he was afforded the chance to step foot into the White House. It was only upon the death of FDR that the new Democrat President Harry Truman reached out to the Republican Hoover for help. Post World War II Europe was in starvation mode as their industrial base had been wiped out in the firestorm from allied attacks. Feeling the weight of that post war horror on his shoulders, Truman reached out to the former President due to his experience in handling such situations. Hoover was able to provide great help in organizing the great relief effort to starving masses. These non-partisan actions would help him regain some degree of respect from a grateful nation.
The awkwardness that General Dwight D. Eisenhower experienced as a loving nation flooded him with praise and adoration is chronicled brilliantly in this book. Eisenhower was still on active duty when it became apparent that he might become the next president of the United States. However, Ike as he was termed in his election campaigning, had the dilemma of being in the opposite party of his commander in chief and yet being urged to run for President. The authors dig behind the scenes and relate the dilemma and ensuing drama in such a way that lead the reader to actually feel the emotions of the moment.
As the years of Ike’s presidency near the end, the age of Camelot bursts upon the scene as John F. Kennedy becomes the nation’s 35th president. “The Presidents Club” provides the fascinating account of exactly how much JFK actually relied upon the aging general for consultations regarding defense issues. This would continue with Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) after Kennedy’s assassination in November of 1963, especially when it came to the subject of the Vietnam conflict. LBJ would struggle greatly with the burden of the war and the writers examine in great detail the anguish of feeling trapped by the situation.
Within the dealings of Richard Nixon’s relations with LBJ, we find accounts of treasonous behavior, blackmail and certainly political positioning by both men. Either man could have brought the other down, but we read of how they both deferred to the other to a certain extent to prevent the nation from such distress. The authors also provide some levity in how they relate LBJs yearnings to still be involved after he left office and returned to his Texas ranch.
No book of this nature can avoid the sticky proposition of how Gerald Ford related to Richard Nixon especially in light of the Watergate scandal presidential pardon. The account covers the decision process to choose Ford as vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned in the midst of a scandal that had previously been hidden. The choice of Ford and the ensuing negotiations for Nixon’s subsequent pardon make for some fascinating behind the scenes reading.
Gibbs and Duffy reveal the sharp divide between Ford and Jimmy Carter although in later years the men would become friends on an international flight returning from paying respects for the nation in the aftermath of Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat’s assassination.
Much is made of the very strange conversations that were had between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan when Ford was being considered as a running mate for Reagan under negotiations that may have yielded a co-presidency. The account also covers in detail the choosing of George H. W. Bush to be Reagan’s running mate even after harsh words had been spoken by Bush referring to Reagan’s economic ideas as ‘voodoo economics’.
When Jimmy Carter left office, he had stayed quiet for the first part of the Reagan years. He had been content to return to private life giving speeches and getting involved in various charitable organizations. The book details how Jimmy Carter would eventually get back into the foreign affairs arena. This would lead to an unlikely role in monitoring elections in third world countries. The account covers the good, the bad and the ugly as occasionally Carter would overstep the boundaries the sitting President would have preferred he stay within.
The transition between Reagan and Bush was comparatively smooth since Herbert H. W. Bush had seemingly ascended to the presidency by inheriting it from his predecessor. Some time is spent discussing the Desert Shield/Desert Storm war and how this affected the Bush presidency. His approval ratings would sore only for him to be defeated a couple of years later.
However, it gets very compelling to read of the transition between an embittered President Bush and the up and coming president to be from Hope, Arkansas. Although not a lot of time is spend on third party presidential candidate Ross Perot, the authors do demonstrate how he threw the proverbial wrench in the workings of the reelection efforts of President Bush.
The prosperous 90s would cause Bill Clinton to ride high until a scandal involving a White House intern would cast a shadow across the latter years of his presidency. The Presidents Club does a good job in demonstrating the sharp contrast between the Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies. But, it also shows an interesting aspect of how the defeated of 1992 would become friends with the victor. Clinton and Bush #41 and later Clinton and Bush #43 (as they would be called to distinguish them from each other) would lead fundraising efforts in the recovery efforts after different catastrophic weather events.
The book concludes with interesting accounts of President Obama’s relationship with Clinton and the manner in which Obama would distinguish his brand of Democratic leadership from that of Clinton. The authors also relate the tenuous often adverse relationship that Obama had during his campaign with Hillary Clinton which of course affected his relationship with Clinton. They even cover the awkward way in which Hillary’s acceptance of the Secretary of State position would affect Bill Clinton’s ability to travel abroad raising money for his library and foundation.
This book is a must read for anyone fascinated by presidential history. The authors write in a very compelling manner that keeps you enthralled throughout the entire book. Not only will you read this book once, but there is a good chance you will keep it close at hand on your bookshelf and reference it often. To use a phrase from the closing paragraph of the text, this book covers the “…club’s protocols, of support and silence and solidarity.” I just hope we see the book updated with new editions every 4 or 8 years as appropriate.
Gibbs, Nancy, and Michael Duffy. The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. Print.