Recently, I had the pleasure of reading The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. I have always been fascinated with Presidential politics and history and I was surprised at the amount of interaction that has occurred over the years within this exclusive "club". The book describes how this club was initially started by Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman after an off hand comment at President Dwight Eisenhower's inauguration.
Truman had actually laid the groundwork for this club 8 years earlier when he secretly contacted Hoover and asked for advice and assistance with a European food relief program after World War II. Hoover, who had left the Presidency with a terrible reputation and was frequently blamed for the Great Depression, welcomed the offer. The end result was a highly successful relief effort that helped feed and strengthen Europe. This successful effort also helped Hoover repair his image and regain some respect at home. This outcome did not go unnoticed by other future Presidents after they left office who looked for similar opportunities to repair their image and continue to make positive contributions to the nation and world. The book details a number of other instances where former Presidents provided objective, non-partisan advice. Eisenhower provided guidance to Kennedy on defense related issues and especially during the Cuban missile crisis. Nixon frequently offered foreign policy advice and correctly predicted the rise of radical Muslim extremists.
As one who first started following Presidential politics as a teenager in the 1970's, I thought the book gave great insight behind the headlines and sound bites that we have all grown accustomed to through the media. The book does an outstanding job of allowing the reader to get to know the personalities of the most powerful men in the world during the past 60 years. The stories include aggressive efforts from both Nixon and Carter to rehabilitate their public images after difficult departures from office. I found it interesting that Carter, who has tirelessly advocated for human rights, elimination of poverty and the pursuit of peace, comes across as the least trusted member of the club and the one most likely to contradict a current administration. The sad story of Nixon includes secret visits to the White House through the back entrance under cover of night so as not to tarnish current leaders. One would have never predicted that George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, former bitter rivals, would develop a close father/son relationship that continues to this day through various fund raising efforts for disaster relief.
The book provides details on negotiations that almost resulted in a co-presidency between Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan teaching Bill Clinton how to salute and one of the funniest political comments I've read in a while: Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter disliked each other for five years until they realized they both disliked Ronald Reagan even more...and then they became friends. Only in politics.
In addition to providing a great summary of our nation's recent history, the book includes stories of unlikely friendships, efforts to rehabilitate images, occasional missteps that distract from the intended agenda and actions both good and bad that ultimately humanize these men and allow the reader to see them as individuals, not simply Presidents.
The book shows how this exclusive fraternity allows members the opportunity to confide in each other, seek advice, complain, learn from each others mistakes and successes and above all, join forces to maintain the dignity of the office. After all, who else would have any idea just how difficult the job is unless they had walked in those shoes.
Throughout the history of this club, there seems to be a spirit of cooperation that rises above any political differences of opinions with a constant goal of a greater good for the nation. During their service to their country, they learned to like and respect their political opponents and value the wisdom of considering an alternative point of view. What a great lesson this could be to our current elected officials - reach out beyond the sound bites and constant partisan arguments that have more to do with trying to hold on to power than serve the nation effectively.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and recommend it highly.