In 1953, at the inauguration of a third United States president, two former Oval Office residents, Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover, exchanged pleasantries. Hoover said, “I think we ought to organise a former presidents club.” Truman responded, “Fine. You be the president of the club. And I will be the secretary.”
Thus was born the world’s most exclusive club. It has never had more than six members and has shrunk down to a sole representative at times. Richard Nixon even had the US government create a clubhouse across the street from the White House.
For anyone who enjoys reading about the whims and ways of men in power, this is a must-read. Over the decades, US presidents have developed a collegial culture among themselves. The ex-presidents often bombard the present incumbent with opeds, political tips and offer themselves as special envoys.
More often, they just discuss what it is like to be the world’s most powerful leader. As one aide said of those who became president, “When you get in, you discover nothing is what you expect, or believed, or have been told, or have campaigned on…And it isn’t long before they ask, who am I gonna talk to about this?” Answer: a former president.
The club really began when Truman fished out Hoover to help him forge bipartisan support for the Marshall Plan to save a starving Europe. Truman had a tetchier relationship with Dwight D Eisenhower. They joined forces to fight of the isolationists in both their parties but Truman never forgave Eisenhower for pulling his punches over Joe McCarthy. John F Kennedy took office imbued with the arrogance of youth. After his first few policy setbacks, he began seeking the counsel of Eisenhower, Truman and even the man he defeated, Richard Nixon.
One of the real accomplishments of the presidents club was for the ex-es to phone Nixon and urge him, for the sake of the nation, not to challenge his questionable defeat by Kennedy.
The unspoken rules of the club also led Nixon, when his own presidency was crumbling, to refrain from using the dirty secrets he knew about his predecessors’ action when it came to bugging to save himself. By then, preserving the office of the president had become too important.
Richard Nixon is probably the most interesting character in the book. Nixon, who combined probably the finest foreign policy mind of any US leader with a desperate desire for redemption, became almost a shadow foreign minister for Ronald Reagan, George W Bush and Bill Clinton.
The latter, whose wife was ironically part of the Watergate prosecution team, would say that even after Nixon died he would reread the elder statesman’s report to him on Russia every year — just for its analytical rigour.
Not all presidential advice was so highbrow. When Reagan met the just-elected Clinton, he ticked him off for giving sloppy salutes. The two of them spent nearly an hour with the older man showing the younger how to snap one the right way. Afterwards, Clinton would call in ex-servicemen in the White House and practice some more. The odd man out was probably Jimmy Carter. A born-again Christian who saw everything as a moral crusade, he strayed off the ranch more than any of the others. Administrations had apoplexy when Carter carried out solo diplomatic ventures, maintaining a “habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.”
What is most remarkable, even heart-warming, about the presidents club is the remarkable degree to which US leaders are prepared to put aside petty partisan differences — and often severe personality differences — and rally for the national interest. “The club’s most secret handshakes are less about membership than stewardship.” As George W Bush told his successor, Barack Obama, “We want you to succeed. All of us who have served in this office understand that the office transcends the individual.”