Attention history buffs and political junkies: TIME Magizine’s Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy have released a new book, The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity, and as Joe Scarborough proclaims, “This is…the historical version of crack.” The enthusiastic praise is warranted. I have devoured presidential biographies since elementary school, and The Presidents Club is one of the most insightful works I have ever read about the executive branch. The genius of the book is its illumination not only of the individuals who have lived in the White House and their fascinating relationships with each other, but also of the office of the presidency itself. Further still, it analyzes an understudied aspect of the presidency and its power – the ex-presidency. By doing so, the book operates as a work of both history and political science, and Gibbs and Duffy’s engaging writing style make it unique.
Gibbs and Duffy ambitiously set out to cover all presidential relationships from the start of the unofficial, yet very real, presidents’ club when then-President Harry Truman turned to Herbert Hoover for assistance in delivering food aid to Europe following World War II. This collaboration marked the beginning of a great friendship that developed between Truman and Hoover and the beginning of a new kind of relationship between presidents and their predecessors. Gibbs and Duffy’s incredible research brought this first relationship to life. They wrote of Hoover’s reluctance to visit the White House to see Truman, fearing the Democrat was engaging in a political stunt; they recounted how Truman had enjoyed commiserating about his job with someone who understood what it was like to be in his shoes. The authors maintained this level of detail for all the intra-club relationships, necessarily conveying the usually complicated interactions between the big personalities that occupied the Oval Office. (Look out for Richard Nixon’s “frenemy” style relationships in particular!)
Through these relationships, The President’s Club highlights two key elements of the presidency. First, there is a certain respect and companionship shared between all its occupants. Members of different political parties support each other and candidly provide advice. Following his electoral victory in 1992, Bill Clinton paid a courtesy visit to Ronald Reagan when in Los Angeles. Gibbs and Duffy relate how Reagan told Clinton he needed to learn how to salute. (He had noticed Clinton’s poor salute on the campaign trail.) Reagan then taught Clinton a proper salute – a gesture Clinton very much appreciated. This kind of support among presidents continues after inauguration. Criticism of fellow “club” members is minimal as they all know the pressures and difficult decisions facing presidents. We see this today with George W. Bush’s silence on almost all the policies of Barack Obama.
Second, the ex-presidency is a powerful symbolic office to hold. Gibbs and Duffy document how each of the modern presidents have used their ex-presidency and how presidents in office often use the power or experience of the ex-presidents to their advantage. George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton both used Jimmy Carter as an envoy to troublesome countries around the globe, including Nicaragua, North Korea, and Haiti. Carter’s stature as an ex-president and positive disposition towards the peaceful resolution of conflict allowed him to negotiate from an enhanced position. Carter was successfully able to diffuse conflict and simultaneously rehabilitate his reputation, tarnished by his unpopular presidency. (Both Bush and Clinton found him to be a loose cannon, but their dire situations required the assistance of Carter, the ex-president.)
These varied examples are just some that Gibbs and Duffy provide in detailing the ex-presidency, but they all show how a president never truly leaves power. They are always able to exercise some influence, sometimes to a startling degree. Look at Bill Clinton today– both his foundation and his political activism prove his continued out-sized role in American public affairs. The President’s Club is not only a fascinating story for its characters, but also an important work in understanding how our political system works.