Review by Sanford Levinson
The Presidents Club
Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity
Pub. Ed. $32.50
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011 / April 17, 2012
Dimensions: 6.2 x 9.2 x 1.6 inches
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Inc.
Consider Richard Nixon’s statement on August 7, 1974: Senior Republicans (including Barry Goldwater) had just informed him that his support in Congress had evaporated; he would have to leave office. As his visitors prepared to leave, the authors write, “Nixon seemed to realize that he would soon be joining a club of one. ‘Now that old Harry Truman is gone, I won’t have anybody to pal around with.’” To put it mildly, Nixon and Truman had scarcely been “pals,” but Nixon seemed to recognize the special bond that links those who lived in the White House and the succor that even political enemies might be able to provide in trying times. This “exclusive fraternity” is the subject of this almost compulsively readable book.
The authors, both long-time reporters of presidential politics, may sometimes overestimate the importance of their “club”—which owes its name to a quip by Harry Truman, but no matter. The book focuses on often riveting personalities and their inevitably complex relationships, both human and political. The most genuine “pals,” ironically enough, appear to be (post-presidential) Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush. Republicans Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan had little regard for each other, though Gibbs and Duffy go over the proposal that they run as potential “co-presidents” in 1980. Neither of Jimmy Carter’s Democratic successors appears to regard him as a “pal.”
The book begins by describing the genuinely close relationship that Truman forged with Herbert Hoover, but it is hard to believe that it had any great effect on American politics. Not so, of course, Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon his close friend Richard Nixon. Why did he do it? As Ford privately said at the time, “Get him out of here. I can’t do this job” until his ultimate fate stops dominating public attention (and Ford’s news conferences).
Perhaps the most interesting chapters concern Dwight Eisenhower. Truman initially idolized Ike; he basically offered to step aside if Ike would run for the presidency. His decision to run instead as a Republican in 1952 —and to collaborate with some of the most right-wing elements of the Party during his campaign—ruptured their relationship during the course of Eisenhower’s presidency. But Eisenhower played a key role in the administrations of his two Democratic successors. For Kennedy, whom Ike plausibly dismissed as callow and inexperienced, he provided essential cover particularly after the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs. Far more ominously, Eisenhower was a key enabler of the Vietnam War. As President, he had been notably temperate about the use of military power in Vietnam. As an ex-president, however, he became a thorough hawk. A notably insecure Lyndon Johnson was perhaps understandably influenced by the architect of D-Day. Might history have been different had Eisenhower counseled prudence and encouraged Johnson to stand up to the military and his hawkish civilian advisers?
The book gives new insights into the truly unique world that presidents (and ex-presidents) inhabit. Sometimes the stories are “only” of human interest. But, as with Eisenhower and Johnson especially, much more is revealed as well.