02 April 2013


A few weeks ago I published a post praising a book called The Generals ~ American Military Command from World War II to Today.  It is living history (in the sense that I was alive and aware of names in the news during most of the period covered), and illuminates the lives and relationships among U.S. generals not only during a given war, but between wars ~ their strengths and weaknesses, their friendships and rivalries, and the evolution of military culture from "perform or lose your job" to "conform and we'll cover for you".

I've discovered another, equally illuminating book which covers most of the same time period, but is set in the political rather than the military realm.  It is The Presidents Club ~ Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity, by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy.  The book examines the presidencies of, and relationships between, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.  The interweaving of alliance and competition between sitting president and any former (living) presidents has been deeply underestimated in modern political analysis, mostly because the world has been unaware of the existence of the club.  Its members operate behind the scenes, in service to the country and to the office of the presidency.

From the book jacket ~

"The Presidents Club, established at Dwight Eisenhower's inauguration by Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover, is a complicated place ~ its members are bound forever by the experience of the Oval Office and yet are eternal rivals for history's favor.  Among their secrets ~ How Jack Kennedy tried to blame Ike for the Bay of Pigs.  How Ike quietly helped Reagan win his first race in 1966.  How Richard Nixon conspired with Lyndon Johnson to get elected and then betrayed him.  How Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter turned a deep enmity into an alliance.  The letter from Nixon that Bill Clinton rereads every year.  The unspoken pact between a father and son named Bush.  And the roots of the rivalry between Clinton and Barack Obama.

"Journalists and presidential historians Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy offer a new tool to understand the presidency by exploring the club as a hidden instrument of power that has changed the course of history."

I've paid attention to the world since I was old enough to read, and have distinct memories of all American presidents from Eisenhower to the present day.  My curiosity, starting in my teens, led me to dig beneath the surface veneer of broadcast news, but the contents of this book came as a complete surprise.  The authors make the point repeatedly that, by and large, former presidents stand ready to assist a sitting president regardless of party affiliation, because who but a former president can fully appreciate the crushing pressures and the enormous responsibilities of the job?  Every new president comes in thinking he (and someday she) understands what's involved, only to be overwhelmed by layers of information and decision-making which even his own staff can grasp only partially.  Miscalculations and egregious mistakes often occur during a president's first term as a result.  It is well that our system provides for two terms in office, to allow experience and judgment to develop.

Both of these books should be required reading in any American history class, at the nation's military academies, and for all those newly elected or appointed to Congress, to the Supreme Court, and of course to the presidency.

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