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Presidents Gather at Historic White House Meeting

January 7, 2009 at 6:30 PM EST
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Every living U.S. president -- George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter -- came together at the White House on Wednesday to meet with President-elect Barack Obama. Historians mull the advice the former presidents may have offered Mr. Obama.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Today’s luncheon at the White House with President Bush and former Presidents Bush, Carter, and Clinton was a chance for President-elect Obama to spend some time with the only other men who understand the job he’s about to take over.

To give us some perspective on these rarest of relationships, we turn to our presidential historians: author Michael Beschloss; Richard Norton Smith, scholar-in-residence at George Mason University; and Peniel Joseph, professor of history and African-American studies at Brandeis University.

Thank you all three for being here.

Richard, to you first. It was not a funeral that brought them all together. Barack Obama suggested this. How unusual is it for them all to get together?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: It is unusual. As you say, they usually are seen together at funerals and at the dedication of their presidential libraries.

It’s funny. Jimmy Carter tells the story about a cartoon in the New Yorker, with a little boy who says to his mother, “When I grow up, I want to be an ex-president.”

It’s not a bad job, in a lot of ways, but it’s a very ill-defined job, and it has been from the beginning. It’s really a constitutional fifth wheel. Alexander Hamilton said that former presidents would be like ghosts haunting their successors.

And so, for over 200 years now, it’s really been a question of finding the balance between being on call, being useful to the country, to your party, to your own historical stature, and staying out and letting the one president do the job that he’s elected to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Peniel Joseph, why do you think it’s so unusual that they’re all together like this?

PENIEL JOSEPH, Brandeis University: Well, first of all, we have five living presidents and a president-elect together. So part of it has to do with just longevity. Part of the whole notion of ex-presidents is actually even surviving the office.

So, in the 20th century, for example, starting with William McKinley, who died in office, and going through John F. Kennedy and FDR, we’ve also had a lot of presidents often who actually pass away while in office.

Presidents' meeting is unusual

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Michael, when you look at the span of relationships, such as they've existed, what have they done together? When have they come together for advice or...

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, something like today, it's really more unusual than I think we're really giving it credit for, because Richard's right. They do meet at funerals. They meet at inaugurations. You know, Bush the elder and Clinton got together for tsunami relief and Katrina.

But we've never, at least in modern times, had a situation where you just have a lunch among the five people, just to basically shoot the breeze and talk about what it is like to be president. You know, a lot of historians for years have said these ex-presidents have a lot of experience that current presidents really cannot draw on, for all sorts of different reasons.

And I think Obama is shrewd about this, because he realizes there are ways that he can really take advantage of these ex-presidents if he has these relationships, if he gets into trouble. John Kennedy, after the Bay of Pigs, looked to Eisenhower for support, if he needs advice.

Clinton and Reagan looked to Nixon for advice on the Russians and also if he needs to get something controversial passed. Bill Clinton looked to the ex-presidents to get NAFTA passed, all sorts of ways a current president can draw on ex-presidents. Obama is doing this perhaps more than ever before.

No 'rulebook' for ex-presidents

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Richard, there's really no rulebook here. I mean, it has evolved over time.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes, there is no rulebook. In many ways, the father of the modern ex-presidency is Herbert Hoover, who left office, repudiated at the polls, so had a burning desire for vindication, but he was also a relatively young man with a lot of energy, a lot of ideas.

So long before the Carter Center, there was the Hoover Institution. He was as traveled around the world as...

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: All roads always lead to Hoover.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: No, but, you know, he wrote lots of books. He reorganized the federal government twice. And, of course, after World War II, it was Harry Truman, a Democrat, who brought him in out of purgatory and who it was said extended his life 10 years, giving him a chance to do what he did best, which was feed people. It's that kind of reaching-across-the-aisle bipartisanship which is a really important part of this story.

And I think Michael is absolutely right: I think the president-elect is very shrewd. I think this is part of his whole transition attempt to try to change the tone in Washington by reaching out to people with whom he might not agree.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Peniel, is there a model that presidents can look to, some of the -- some of the things you all have just been talking about?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, I think there's two models. The negative model is probably Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, after leaving office in 1909, he left a hand-picked successor in William Howard Taft. He was very disappointed in Taft's administration and eventually actually ran a third-party candidacy in 1912 on the Progressive ticket or the Bull Moose ticket that ensured Woodrow Wilson's presidency.

I think the positive model is Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, where you have two ex-presidents who've taken on global issues, everything from housing to AIDS to poverty.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Michael, what about their real relationship they have with one another? How much is that a factor in all of this?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Oh, it's a huge factor. And, you know, it sometimes changes.

Gerald Ford ran against Jimmy Carter in 1976, very acrimonious campaign. Carter won. In 1981, these presidents, three former presidents, were sent by Ronald Reagan to the Sadat funeral on this plane to Cairo. They flew back.

Aboard that plane, Ford and Carter began to talk, awkwardly. As they talked more, they found that they actually had a lot in common and liked each other.

The result of this ultimately was that Jimmy Carter says today -- and Gerald Ford said before he died -- that they felt that the friendship that grew between them was the closest friendship of any two ex-presidents.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: They also had something else in common: They'd both run against Ronald Reagan, which was something that...

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Right. So they indulged in Reagan hatred...

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: But, you know, it's funny. In addition to Peniel's models, I think there is another model and that is -- it's less exciting, it's less colorful, it's less newsworthy, and, indeed, it's now come to be sort of condescended to -- the Ford model, the George H.W. Bush model, where you have what I call strict constructionists, who look at the Constitution and say, "You know, there's only room here for one president. I will answer the phone, and I do whatever a president wants me to do, whether it's lobby for NAFTA or the Panama Canal treaties or go to a foreign funeral, but I will not inject myself into this situation because I know better than anyone else how difficult it is to have someone on the sidelines, even with the best of intentions, doing my job."

Past presidents are accessible

JUDY WOODRUFF: But can a president, Peniel, the modern president count on his predecessors to be there when he needs them?

PENIEL JOSEPH: No, absolutely. I would add a fourth model to what Richard just said. There's really the disgraced ex-president model, which is Richard Nixon. And, in a way, what's very interesting about the George Bush presidency concluding is that in many ways he's perceived by the public as a disgraced ex-president who's not really going to have that much leverage in his ex-presidency.

But certainly the president-elect, as soon as he becomes inaugurated, can count on past presidents, because it goes above partisanship.

One thing Bush said today is that this office transcends the individual, which was really a nod to Obama's notion of a post-partisanship presidency.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I also don't want to get too saccharine about these ex-presidents and their relationships.

Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Late in 1972, Nixon wanted Johnson to get the Democrats to stop investigating Watergate. Nixon sent a message to Johnson, "Unless you do this, I will reveal that you wiretapped and bugged my plane during the '68 campaign."

Johnson sent a message back saying, "If you do that, I will reveal that you sabotaged the Vietnam peace talks in order to get elected, which was treason."

That was going on at the moment that Johnson died. So there's often an ugly undercurrent of hostility between some of these guys, too.

PENIEL JOSEPH: Absolutely.

Obama reaches across aisle

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Richard, to get back to your -- what you mentioned at the outset, and that is that there -- or a few minutes ago -- that Barack Obama, in a spirit of bipartisanship, hopes that he can turn to some of these predecessors when he needs them. Is that pie in the sky, you know, is it -- are we now in an era where we can have a working relationship among presidents like this?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, I think so, but I think -- don't underestimate the significance of symbolism. It was interesting that, when Anwar Sadat was assassinated, the Reagan White House decided, short of sending the president himself, we would send the former presidents.

That was an enormously significant gesture, to be able to pick up the phone, have that kind of relationship, and ask them to do that, or if you want their help in, for example, lobbying for -- particularly in the realm of foreign policy.

I remember once sitting in the Ford Museum, and Gerald Ford and George W. Bush, at the behest of Bill Clinton, were on the phone calling Republican senators, lobbying them for a chemical weapons ban treaty. That's significant. That's tangible. But beyond that, their influence as former presidents is severely limited.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Peniel, that's not a chit, if you will, that a president's going to call on very often, right? Or is it?

PENIEL JOSEPH: No, it's only really going to be in dramatic situations, post-natural disasters or with what's going on in the Middle East. Obama could perhaps call upon somebody like George H.W. Bush, whose foreign policy and foreign policy advisers, people like Brent Scowcroft, have much more in common with the proposed Obama doctrine than this previous administration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Michael, when I looked just now at the statement the Obama team put out this afternoon, after, they said the president-elect is anxious to stay in touch with all of them in the coming years. Is that realistic?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think it is. And he's drawing on the experience that in many ways he doesn't have. He knows that there may be moments when he really needs it. He knows especially these next 12 months, no matter what happens, are going to be a very tough and controversial year.

Barack Obama knows enough about history to know that there could be moments in which he really needs these people. Much easier to do that if he knows them and can talk to them on the telephone more easily.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Peniel Joseph, thank you. Michael Beschloss, Richard Norton Smith, thank you all.