Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Presidents Club

The train ride from Washington, DC, back to New York seems as good a place an any to reflect upon The Presidents Club :Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity, by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy (Simon & Schuster, 2012), an engaging history of the personal and political relationships among members of one of the world’s most exclusive fraternities – incumbent sand former Presidents of the United States in the post-World War II era. It is a common enough notion that only those who have actually experienced something so unique as being President of the United States can completely relate to the experiences of other Presidents. Presumably this creates a certain bond among them that transcends personal and political differences and rivalries. True or not, this seems to be the belief of those who are actually in the club. The result is that they have increasingly acted accordingly in recent decades – and thus have made the belief something of a political reality.

For someone like myself who likes history (and who remembers much of the history told in the book), Gibbs and Duffy tell a truly captivating tale – beginning with President Truman’s historic outreach to former President Hoover that actually created the modern club. The fact that this was s new thing when Truman reached out to Hoover in 1945 highlights the fact that none of this was historically inevitable. Indeed, Hover himself had been an ex-President already for 12 years (during which time he had been totally shunned by his successor) when Truman decided to put Hoover’s humanitarian and organizational experience to use. Truman and Hoover eventually became fast friends, but the post-election bitterness between Truman and Eisenhower, which lasted until their famous reconciliation at JFK’s funeral, again illustrates how not inevitable what we now take for granted was not that long ago.

The Presidency has always been a somewhat lonely office, and certainly it modern burdens have set our contemporary presidents apart even more from the ordinary run of politicians – presumably drawing them all closer together. Gibbs and Duffy don’t seem to highlight this point, but I think the increasing monarchicalization of the presidency has also contributed to the growing clubbiness among presidents. As the presidency has increased in importance, the trappings of office have also grown – and, perhaps more to the point, the persistence of some of those trappings after one leaves office has been a distinctive characteristic of the modern post-presidency. I can remember when ex-presidents didn’t have pensions or secret service protection. No longer invested with quasi-sovereign powers, they still enjoy a quasi-royal status – both at home and abroad  - all of which adds to the desirability of utilizing their experience, contacts, and standing in political and diplomatic contexts.

What generally gets the most attention about the relationships between presidents is how such bonding crosses – and to some extent transcends – partisan divisions. The Hoover-Truman connection has been succeeded by the amazing partnerships  - and authentic friendships - formed between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and, more recently, between Clinton and George W. Bush.  Obviously, this all stands in conspicuous contrast to the bitter and brutal (and pointless) polarization that characterizes our current politics. Perhaps that contrast is what makes the story of these relationships so appealing – and almost inspiring.

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