TOPICS > Politics

The Decorum, Skullduggery and Rivalries of the Presidents Club

May 31, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Time magazine editors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy explore how current and former American presidents interact with one another in their new book, "The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity." The authors spoke with Gwen Ifill about cross-party mentoring and the infighting that can occur.
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RAY SUAREZ: Finally: Three of the five members of the presidents club gathered at the White House today, as former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura returned for the unveiling of their official portraits. 

Mr. Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, was on hand, as the current White House occupant, President Barack Obama, thanked his predecessor for his service. 

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: In this job, no decision that reaches your desk is easy. No choice you make is without costs. No matter how hard you try, you’re not going to make everybody happy. I think that’s something President Bush and I both learned pretty quickly.

(LAUGHTER)

BARACK OBAMA: And that’s why, from time to time, those of us who have had the privilege to hold this office find ourselves turning to the only people on Earth who know the feeling. We may have our differences politically, but the presidency transcends those differences. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, Former President of the United States: I am pleased that my portrait brings an interesting symmetry to the White House collection. It now starts and ends with a George W. 

(LAUGHTER)

GEORGE W. BUSH: I am honored to be hanging near a man who gave me the greatest gift possible, unconditional love — and that would be number 41. 

(APPLAUSE)

RAY SUAREZ: Two authors have looked into this special bond between current and former presidents for a new book. 

Gwen Ifill spoke with them recently. 

GWEN IFILL: The most exclusive club in the world is made up of only five men, each a current or former president of the United States. Over time, this presidents club has acquired its own secrets, customs and loyalties that transcend politics and even mortality. 

“TIME” magazine editors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy tell a story in their new book, “The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity.”

Nancy Gibbs, Michael Duffy, welcome. 

MICHAEL DUFFY, Co-Author, “The Presidents Club: Inside The World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity”: Thank you. 

NANCY GIBBS, Co-Author, “The Presidents Club: Inside The World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity”: Hi.

GWEN IFILL: Nancy, this started with Hoover and Truman. How?

NANCY GIBBS: The most unlikely imaginable pair of presidents. They have got nothing in common, except the fact that they were both really worried about what was happening in Europe after World War II. 

And so Truman secretly mails a letter to Hoover asking him to come to the White House like three weeks after Truman first takes office and RAY SUAREZ: Finally: Three of the five members of the presidents club gathered at the White House today, as former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura returned for the unveiling of their official portraits. 

Mr. Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, was on hand, as the current White House occupant, President Barack Obama, thanked his predecessor for his service. 

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: In this job, no decision that reaches your desk is easy. No choice you make is without costs. No matter how hard you try, you’re not going to make everybody happy. I think that’s something President Bush and I both learned pretty quickly. 

(LAUGHTER)

BARACK OBAMA: And that’s why, from time to time, those of us who have had the privilege to hold this office find ourselves turning to the only people on Earth who know the feeling. We may have our differences politically, but the presidency transcends those differences. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, Former President of the United States: I am pleased that my portrait brings an interesting symmetry to the White House collection. It now starts and ends with a George W. 

(LAUGHTER)

GEORGE W. BUSH: I am honored to be hanging near a man who gave me the greatest gift possible, unconditional love — and that would be number 41. 

(APPLAUSE)

RAY SUAREZ: Two authors have looked into this special bond between current and former presidents for a new book. 

Gwen Ifill spoke with them recently. 

GWEN IFILL: The most exclusive club in the world is made up of only five men, each a current or former president of the United States. Over time, this presidents club has acquired its own secrets, customs and loyalties that transcend politics and even mortality. 

“TIME” magazine editors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy tell a story in their new book, “The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity.”

Nancy Gibbs, Michael Duffy, welcome. 

MICHAEL DUFFY, Co-Author, “The Presidents Club: Inside The World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity”: Thank you. 

NANCY GIBBS, Co-Author, “The Presidents Club: Inside The World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity”: Hi.

GWEN IFILL: Nancy, this started with Hoover and Truman. How?

NANCY GIBBS: The most unlikely imaginable pair of presidents. They have got nothing in common, except the fact that they were both really worried about what was happening in Europe after World War II. 

And so Truman secretly mails a letter to Hoover asking him to come to the White House like three weeks after Truman first takes office and says, can you help me? You did this after World War I. We have a problem. I need your help with it. 

And that was the start of what turned out to be a beautiful friendship. 

GWEN IFILL: It also became kind of tradition over time that it wasn’t really about party lineage here. We had John Kennedy trying to court Eisenhower. 

MICHAEL DUFFY: Right. 

We found over and over that, actually, presidents from different parties get along better than presidents from the same party, which was not at all what we expected. We thought that, first, there would be alliances inside parties, and then they would kind of branch out. 

No, they actually seem to bond faster when they have less in common. Carter and Ford get together, Clinton and Nixon. Even the current President Obama seems to get along best with the first Bush. So, over and over, we see that not, and I think it’s because they’re not so much rivals inside their party for who’s the greatest president of the era.

GWEN IFILL: But there is some intraparty rivalry, which I found interesting, including between future Presidents Reagan and Nixon. 

MICHAEL DUFFY: Well, there’s no question that — well, both men are kind of preparing for 1968. 

They’re both from California. They’re both conservatives, though different kinds of conservatives. And they spent two years, Gwen, dancing around each other, jockeying for position, not really trusting the other to do the right thing, competing in — behind the scenes, all the while in public pretending everything is just fine. 

NANCY GIBBS: And, meanwhile, Eisenhower is secretly helping Reagan beat the guy who had served him as his loyal vice president. 

So, it’s — yes, the club has all sorts of intrigues and skullduggery and rivalries internally too. 

GWEN IFILL: Even though Eisenhower actually was helping out Johnson during the Vietnam War at the same time. 

(LAUGHTER) 

NANCY GIBBS: He was. He was. 

There were times where Johnson literally turned over meetings to Eisenhower to run, because depended on him for strategic advice and just for sort of consolation for helping him manage his doubts and uncertainty about this war that was consuming his presidency.

And it was very comforting to him to have Eisenhower come in and sit with him and talk to him, talk through the decisions he was making. 

GWEN IFILL: It seemed like everybody wanted Eisenhower’s approval. Kennedy was sending him monogrammed golf balls? 

MICHAEL DUFFY: Yes. There’s a — the man saved Western civilization by — in the 1940s.

And so by the time you get to the late ’50s, but certainly, certainly for Truman, certainly for Kennedy and definitely for Johnson, they all looked up to him. They — Johnson cooked up excuses for him to secretly come to Washington in order for him — and he sent helicopters with generals up to Gettysburg, saying, here’s the latest plan on Vietnam. What do you think? Get right back to me.

NANCY GIBBS: But, remember, Eisenhower is the rare president who leaves office with his approval rating every bit as high as he had entered. 

(CROSSTALK)

GWEN IFILL: Yes. Usually, people are more battered after they leave. 

NANCY GIBBS: Yes. He was one of a kind. 

GWEN IFILL: The least — and this is all OK because he’s still alive — but probably the least popular boy in the club would be Jimmy Carter. 

MICHAEL DUFFY: He has a disadvantage of having — he’s going to be the longest-living former president in American history, some time later this year, in September. 

He has to reinvent what it means to be a former president. And he does a whale of a job with that. He remakes himself into a globe-trotting problem-solver. He does amazing things over the next 30 years, but he sometimes runs afoul of the presidents. 

To Carter’s credit, he — all of them call on him to go overseas. Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all turned to him for secret missions. And, normally, he accomplishes most of what they send him overseas to do.

But, sometimes, he does go off the script, sometimes goes in front of cameras before he actually reports back. And most of them decide that it’s mostly worth it, but not often.

GWEN IFILL: Whereas Bill Clinton is the most popular guy in the club. At least he is the glue between these different administrations.

NANCY GIBBS: Well, how interesting is it that you end up with — with — in George Herbert Walker Bush having one actual son follow him to the White House and one surrogate son following him in.

He — Barbara Bush thinks that Bill Clinton found the father he never knew in George Herbert Walker Bush. So, that relationship between Clinton and the Bush clan especially is just remarkable. 

GWEN IFILL: But this is one of these cases where Bush — H.W. Bush actually did have a son who was president and a member of the club. Did they get along? Did they swap stories? 

MICHAEL DUFFY: You know, that relationship, at least while the second Bush was in office, seems to be one of more traditional father and son. 

I think the older man decided that Bush had plenty of advisers, but he only had one dad, and decided that was the role he could best play. And so through what was a very difficult eight years for the son, what we saw and all we could really find was really the son comforting the father, because of his anxiety about what his son was going through. 

GWEN IFILL: I was struck recently by the reluctance of President George W. Bush to get involved in the Republican primary contest this year, partly because of club rules. 

NANCY GIBBS: He has been very vigilant about adhering to sort of protocol.

And what he said when he left office is, President Obama deserves my silence. And so he pretty much went off the grid, went totally dark, and, just recently, he has started to come out more. He and Bill Clinton recently did a fund-raiser together, which was interesting. 

But what he said about Obama is, I don’t think it is good for our country to undermine our president, and I don’t intend to do so. 

And he’s pretty much stuck to that rule, unlike his vice president, who…

GWEN IFILL: Right. 

MICHAEL DUFFY: It’s not clear that the party is really willing to have him back yet.

We will see what kind of role George W. Bush is given at the convention later this summer by his own party. And I think, his own timetable, Bush’s full return to politics remains quite uncertain. 

GWEN IFILL: One of the things that struck me in reading this book is how well people got along across party lines, how much they realized that protecting the presidency was the most important thing, at a time in which we hear and spend so much time talking about people at war, who are going to the corners and not finding middle ground anymore. 

NANCY GIBBS: You know, these guys are not perfect. They didn’t behave perfectly.

But, sometimes, we felt like they were speaking a different language than what we are hearing now, because again and again and again, they talk about protecting the office talk, about America needing a strong, successful presidency, and wanting to do whatever they needed to do to help. 

And George Bush said it to Barack Obama at that amazing moment when all the living presidents were together at the White House. And he said to Obama, we want you to succeed. This office transcends the individual. 

And that really is sort of the central protocol of this group. 

GWEN IFILL: As you were reporting and researching and diving into the libraries about this book, did you come across tidbits that you thought, gee, that tells it for me?

MICHAEL DUFFY: Well, just the fact that Clinton could have a relationship with Richard Nixon and have it become a late-night phone relationship, and have both men kind of take nourishment from it, tells us that there’s something going on in this brotherhood or this fraternity that we didn’t expect. 

Clinton gets really hardheaded advice from Nixon. Nixon is at this point well into his 80s. And Nixon feels as if he’s back, finally being heard by — a way he never was heard by Reagan or Ford or Bush I. 

And so, for Nixon, there was a redemption in this, a real redemption. And to come from someone like Clinton, a Democrat, I would never have guessed. 

GWEN IFILL: How about you? 

NANCY GIBBS: Yes. I think my moment of clarity came when — Truman and Eisenhower, who had worked really closely together during Truman’s presidency, had an incredible grudge match after the 1952 election, barely spoke throughout Eisenhower’s presidency, are yet able to reconcile with one another driving home together from the burial of John F. Kennedy, where Truman invites Eisenhower in for a drink.

And they have a long talk. And they kind of find the original bond they had had, where the sort of petty grievances at that point fell away. These relationships are about something that is so much deeper than party or politics or personality. And that was what struck me again and again. 

GWEN IFILL: Definitely inside the clubhouse, “The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity.”

Nancy Gibbs, Michael Duffy, thank you both very much. 

NANCY GIBBS: Thank you. 

RAY SUAREZ: On our Web site, we have collected photos of presidents together, from Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman, to the four living former presidents with the current commander in chief.