MS. IFILL: A special Memorial Weekend program: four White House reporters and authors on four different presidents, tonight on “Washington Week.”
Commanders-in-chief, leaders of the free world, presidents of the United States, the most exclusive club in the world. How they governed, how they struggled, how they got along – or didn’t.
We take a special look at the men of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue through the eyes of the reporters who’ve covered them: Michael Duffy of Time magazine, John Harris of Politico, Peter Baker of the New York Times, and Christi Parsons of Tribune Newspapers.
ANNOUNCER: Award winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill,” produced in association with National Journal.
ANNOUNCER: Once again from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. We have a special treat for you tonight – an in-depth look at the presidency and the men who held the job. There are five living presidents right now, the oldest, Jimmy Carter. George W. Bush invited the four other members of the club to come back to the White House shortly before President-elect Obama was sworn in. The message – they were all on the same team now.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: One message that I have and I think we all share is that we want you to succeed. Whether we’re Democrat or Republican, we care deeply about this country. And to the extent we can, we look forward to sharing our experiences with you. All of us who have served in this office understand that the office itself transcends the individual. We wish you all the very best and so does the country.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is an extraordinary gathering. All the gentlemen here understand both the pressures and possibilities of this office. And for me to have the opportunity to get advice, good counsel and fellowship with these individuals is extraordinary. And I’m very grateful to all of them. But, again, thank you, Mr. President, for hosting us.
MS. IFILL: And with that, we saw the latest iteration of what authors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy call in their new book, “The Presidents Club.” We have a reporters club here tonight, folks who have covered four presidents: Obama, Bush, Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush.
First to you, Michael. How exclusive is this little club?
MR. DUFFY: Well, only five people can join it. And what’s interesting, of course, is that we elect the members. They don’t, which is a little bit different than most clubs. We think of our presidents as one at a time. We elect them one at a time. We cover them one at a time. We write books about them one at a time.
So what we thought – what Nancy and I thought we’d do is write – is pair them up because we all know in our lives that relationships matter. And we thought if we held them up in pairs and shined a light on that, we’d learn something about the men, about the presidency. And we discovered that the club is a place where there are partnerships, there are rivalries, sometimes there’s sabotage, and there’s redemption too. They all come out of that office with scars and regrets.
MS. IFILL: And secrets and a surprising amount of bipartisanship.
MR. DUFFY: Especially after they’ve left the presidency. It’s almost as if they kind of rediscover why they got into politics in the beginning. It’s become harder to be bipartisan in American in the last 15 or 20 years. And, though, if you go back to Hoover and Truman, there were moments right along the way where men of different parties were particularly good at teaming up, sometimes better than men of the same parties.
MS. IFILL: I want to talk to you all about the presidents you covered in kind of context of the things that they share, the kind of challenges they shared, starting with the challenges of war and peace. That’s something every president has to control.
And, John, you’ve covered and written books about Bill Clinton. The Vietnam shadow it seems to me really played a role in his election and then continued after he was elected. I remember covering him and having him explain what his role was and was not during the war.
MR. HARRIS: There’s no question. I don’t think Bill Clinton could have been elected in 1992 except that the Cold War was ending. So, okay, it’s safe to take a chance on an untested Democrat who was very much of the Vietnam generation. And I think it shaped his – at least the first part of his presidency.
You were talking, Gwen, about growth of individuals in the presidency. I think that’s one of the real important arcs with Bill Clinton. He was not comfortable as a foreign policy presidency, as a commander-in-chief at the beginning of this term. By the end, he relished the role. And a lot of people think he was pretty good at it.
That evolution was hard for him because it required making really hard, in some cases unpopular decisions. The most important one in his first term was sending troops to Bosnia, even though the polls told him that that was a political loser.
MS. IFILL: And, Peter, George W. Bush’s presidency changed fundamentally after 9/11. All of a sudden, Iraq and Afghanistan became defining features of his presidency.
MR. BAKER: Right. Essentially, we had three presidents in a row – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Barack Obama – who came to office without that foreign policy background. And each of them in their way has had to find a way to become a foreign policy leader. George Bush’s crucible came in one horrible day. There was no real preparation for that for anybody. It’s interesting because he’s also – in talking about Bill Clinton, he’s sort of the opposite side of the same generation, right.
One of the things that George W. Bush came to office saying was he was the other side of the generation that he kind of disdained. And Bill Clinton at the time – now they’re friends – but if Bill Clinton was part of the more libertine, the sexual revolution, the protest movement of the ’60s, George W. Bush had rebelled against that at the same school, Yale, where he found all of this sort of intellectual elitism of the East to be kind of off-putting. And that shaped his presidency both in terms of how he related to the country and the foreign policy challenges I think.
MS. IFILL: Christi, it’s interesting. Our current president, President Obama, when he was running – it was interesting looking at him just now and see how young he looks, just a short time, I guess three years ago. But even before that, when he was a young senator, he made his name by saying, you know, I’m against – I’m against the war in Iraq. But then once he became president – and speaking of crucibles, there was a crucible of trying to hunt down Osama bin Laden. There was a crucible of trying to keep the promises that were made. It turns out that he’s a far more of activist president in terms of war and in terms of drone strikes and in terms of pursuing our enemy than anybody would have thought looking at him as a senator.
MS. PARSONS: Right. And it’s so ironic, too, that he ended up presiding over two wars after having made his name as an opponent of the Iraq war. Actually, I think this is a place where we’ve seen the most growth and change in the president, or I have, in his personality.
And I think if you look at the analysis that he and his staff conducted of the Afghanistan war in the first review period, it just went on and on. It was this tortured process for weeks and weeks in which he was this dispassionate, analytical person who thought he could wrestle this thing to the ground by just studying it over and over and over and over again ad nauseam, and then ultimately sort of giving in to the pressures on him at the Pentagon.
But when you contrast that with what we’ve seen more recently – the bin Laden operation was something that actually really came down to instinct I think, and, you know, maybe Libya, too, to a large degree. And I think what I hear from folks who are around the president is that he’s much more – he relies more on his instinct now and I think that seems like a significant change.
MS. IFILL: George H.W. Bush – I want to talk about the unfinished business part of his presidency because in not getting Saddam Hussein, that kind of governed a lot of what happened afterward – Iraq One.
MR. DUFFY: Yes. When he liberates Kuwait with 40 other nations and six other countries helping him pay for it in 1991, he and his team make a very clear decision not to go past – to toss Saddam and his army out of Kuwait, but not chase him all the way to Baghdad. Not a controversial decision at the time, very small resistance inside his administration, but among the group that really was deciding, not even a close call.
MR. BAKER: Including Dick Cheney who later – (off mic.).
MR. DUFFY: Including Dick Cheney who – exactly. But, of course, Saddam doesn’t go away. And I think the interview – the important incident I think may be not something that happened during George W. Bush’s presidency, but something that happened during Bill Clinton’s, which was not long after Clinton comes into office in that first summer, Saddam mounts an assassination attempt on H.W. Bush while he’s visiting Kuwait on the two or three-year anniversary of that liberation. Clearly, that’s something that affected the son.
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about the ex-presidency because each of these presidents, the ones who are current, even the one currently in office who’s trying desperately not to be an ex-president, they all have handled it differently. Bill Clinton has become Mr. Humanitarian-in-chief.
MR. HARRIS: When Bill Clinton’s presidency ended in its closing days, and I was covering the Clinton White House at the time, one of his close aides confided to me, you know, I’m really worried – I worry that he’s going to end up like Willie Mays – remember Willie Mays, the Hall of Famer, ended his career at an Atlantic City casino because he just – he didn’t have the judgment and needed the money.
And the fear was that Bill Clinton, without all the organization, without all the staff aides would be directionless and wouldn’t use good judgment about how to use his platform. That fear by that aide I think turned out to be really misplaced. Clinton did I think kind of flail around for maybe six months after his presidency ended, but then he took on real purpose.
And he’s been a phenomenally active ex-president. He’s become a much more bipartisan figure than he ever was during his eight years in office. And I think he has – he’s achieved his ambition, which is to be kind of a figure of the world, representing the United States but a figure of the world, in a very effective way.
MS. IFILL: But he has still – you said bipartisan, but he’s still been more active in politics than say, George W. Bush has been, who’s – we saw the kind – it was this minor spectacle of him last week being asked whether he endorsed Romney and saying, yes, just as elevator doors closed. I mean, he hasn’t been involved at all in the politics of this, like his vice president has.
MR. BAKER: Well, exactly. It’s really interesting. Of course, if you still – if you visit the White House today, you can still see the scratch marks where Bill Clinton had to be dragged out. (Laughter.) He said repeatedly he would still be – he’d love to be president if he could be.
George W. Bush was done. He was ready to go home. He had had a very tumultuous eight years and every manner of thing that could happen – he gives – in December of 2008 he’s about to leave office and he’s giving the Kennedy Center Award to Morgan Freeman. And he recalls his movie “Deep Impact.” He says, that’s when a comet hits the earth and destroys civilization. He says, about the only thing that hasn’t happened in the last eight years. So he had felt a financial crisis, terrorism, war, he had had enough.
His model for a post-presidency is more his father’s. Michael writes about this in the book. He wanted to be out of the picture. He did not want to be making things complicated for his successor. He swore up and down that he was not going to complicate President Obama’s life the way he felt President Carter in particular and sometimes President Clinton had done when he was president. And so he has stayed out of politics. It’s also a function of course of the fact that today Republicans want to move beyond President Bush of course. He left office with low ratings and they’re happy to present themselves as not his successors.
MS. PARSONS: It sounds, too, as if he’s almost sanguine about – in retirement and has some sort of faith that history will judge him more favorably than the presidents have.
MR. BAKER: He seems very happy when you see him. He came to town, as you said, for that moment they caught in the elevator. He came to town because he’s promoting some of the activities of his Leadership Institute, in this case a collection of interviews with dissidents around the world. And what he’s trying – if President Clinton is a man of the world, President Bush wants to be a man of freedom, representing people in places in the Middle East and elsewhere who are fighting for democracy. And he’s presenting himself in that –
MS. IFILL: Was there awkwardness between the father and the son, both of them having been presidents, both of them –
MR. DUFFY: They came from different eras. I think they had very different ideas about foreign policy. And I think the awkwardness is that every family has things it doesn’t talk about. And I think in the Bush family, one of the things they don’t really talk about much are the foreign policies of the father and the son because they’re just so different. I think that’s – and also I think the father decided to act chiefly as the son’s father, not his adviser, not his special counsel, because he only had one dad.
I was going to say something quickly about Jimmy Carter, we haven’t mentioned, because what you said, John, about Clinton not sure what to do in that first year. Carter was the same way. He left – obviously had been tossed unexpectedly and by his standards. He went home, he was depressed for a year. It took him a while to figure out what to do next. He wrote a book and then turned himself – reinvented what it means to be a former president, a model that I think Clinton has consciously followed.
MS. IFILL: Except that isn’t Jimmy Carter kind of the – in the club, just between us, kind of the least popular member?
MR. DUFFY: He is. He’s an – (inaudible) – because the most fascinating fact about Carter is that he – on September the 7th of this year, in about three and a half months, he becomes the longest living former president in American history. So he has had for 31 years, eight months, and 18 days – that’s the record set by Herbert Hoover that he’s going to break probably, so he’s had to invent not just one second career, really two.
MS. PARSONS: Well, you notice in that picture in the Oval Office after the Obama election, Carter sort of standing off to the side, even visually not looking like a part of that.
MR. HARRIS: You know, people may change their roles as the ex-president, Gwen, but I don’t think they change their personalities. Bill Clinton, even though he’s more bipartisan now as you say, he’s still a thoroughly political creature. Jimmy Carter – he was unpopular as president in Washington because he was kind of pious and moralistic. That’s how he is as ex-president. George H.W. Bush is raised as kind of the consummate gentleman. That’s his persona as ex-president.
MS. IFILL: Does President Obama, Christie, does he – as the youngest of the crew and someone who, as we mentioned, doesn’t want to be an ex-president quite yet, does he reach out to his predecessors? Is there any connection at all?
MS. PARSONS: Yes. I think that he does reach out to them. It was interesting in that – I think it was in that moment in the Oval Office that we just looked at where Obama said something – or maybe it was shortly afterwards, he said, you know, they’re incredibly gracious. They all know the loneliness of this job. And it sort of seemed like something polite you might say after a cocktail party. But now, it seems to me more like he actually really does need those people and reaches out to them.
MS. IFILL: And then there’s the day that Bill Clinton came into the press briefing room and held forth for, as I recall, a long time after President Obama left.
MS. PARSONS: I love that moment because it’s really interesting to me. That came after the shellacking, remember, of the mid-term election. Obama had a little humility on him and Clinton came in to chat. And then afterward they went into the briefing room together. And I remember thinking, oh, man. Clinton’s going to eat his lunch in here. That’s where he excelled and did so, so well. And then, sure enough, Obama did give him the podium. This was almost like a big, fat early Christmas present.
MR. DUFFY: What interested me about that day is before Clinton comes in that afternoon, President Obama had in a series of advisors from the Reagan era. And he was asking them, what did Reagan do when he got down, when he faced adversity? How did he handle it? How much of that did he show the public? So here you have President Obama reaching back to the Reagan era looking for advice. And this is the other thing about these presidents – they all study each other. They all compare each other. They read each other’s biographies.
MR. HARRIS: Obama started out so disdainful of Clinton though and what he thought was kind of a small ball –
MS. IFILL: Until he found out how hard –
MR. HARRIS: And then he found out, yes, this guy knows something.
MR. BAKER: And Bush, by the way, I think you could argue what Christie said earlier about Obama in effect continuing a lot of George W. Bush’s counterterrorism policies and foreign policy. You know, he’s not going to say that on the campaign trail right now, but I think he’s probably got more of a sense of understanding of what Bush was going through than he might have in the campaign.
MS. IFILL: The most famous odd couple in all of this of course is Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, who are like – what did he say he calls himself, the black sheep of the Bush family, Bill Clinton does?
MR. DUFFY: Every family has one.
MS. IFILL: Is it interesting that Bill Clinton runs through all of this? He’s everybody’s strange bedfellow.
MR. DUFFY: Yes. Well, you know, Clinton’s to the point with the Bush family where he’s inviting himself to Kennebunkport for vacations each summer. And he’s not taking no for an answer. You know, they call him – you know, as you know, in the Bush family, nicknames matter and he – they call Clinton brother from another mother.
So this is – I think just as the son has watched the father learn how to be a former president, I think Bill Clinton has watched Carter, has watched Herbert Walker sort of careful, prudential way of inserting and not inserting, and tried to copy it.
MR. HARRIS: My understanding there, though, is that the really striking transformation has been with the Bush family. I don’t think Bill Clinton ever had real malice toward George H.W. Bush. I think he always kind of respected him at one level but thought he was from a different generation and his time had come. But the Bush family, it was palpable for years into Bill Clinton’s presidency how much they – and Barbara Bush as well.
MS. IFILL: Because he beat the father. I mean, wasn’t that part of it?
MR. HARRIS: And they thought he wasn’t their type. And the fact that they’ve now embraced him I think is pretty remarkable.
MR. BAKER: I’ve interviewed President Clinton once and I think he’s told me the same thing. He tells a story about how President Bush, George W. Bush clearly didn’t like him. He felt very personal the animus he says. He says Jeb didn’t neither, but Jeb was a better actor and it took these long periods – I’ve made a real project, President Clinton said, of breaking down who this guy, W, was and trying to understand him and make this connection with him. And they did in this Asian tsunami.
MR. DUFFY: And now they’re kind of business partners. I mean, don’t forget. Every couple of times a year Clinton and Bush II go out, hit the road, sit down in wing chairs on a stage, and make a lot of money just talking about what it means to be president. They both take home a nice check. So that’s my favorite latest detail about that relationship.
MR. HARRIS: Michael, do you think that’s tacky? I remember when Reagan – when Ronald Reagan made a speech in Japan, there was a big uproar about it. Now, the enormous sums that ex-presidents make, there’s not a uproar. It’s seen as part of the – one of the prerequisites of the job. What’s your take on it?
MR. DUFFY: You know, when Truman wrote his memoirs, Eisenhower – he asked Eisenhower to give him a special tax break so that he could be counted as capital gains as opposed to income, and Eisenhower refused. There’s always been this sensitivity about how we – how ex-presidents are allowed to make their way in the world. And for years they made money by donating their papers and taking tax deductions.
MS. IFILL: You know, one of the interesting things to me about what happens when we watch these presidents, we watch them grey, we watch them change, we watch them scale back the promises they kept and their ambitions. And I wonder whether that’s just what the presidency does. For instance, you think about President Obama – I’m going to close Guantanamo on day one. I’m going to have a single-payer health care plan. I’m going to change immigration. In fact, he’s increased deportations. That is – it is the office or is it who he always was?
MS. PARSONS: Yes. I don’t know. I do think that early in his career there are many signs that he had an impulse towards compromise and toward the middle and doing what was possible. So in that sense it doesn’t surprise me. But, you know, I noticed this the other day when he was speaking in Des Moines, Iowa. You know, it was kind of a fiery speech at the end of the day and he was – he was going after Mitt Romney. He was talking about private equity. It was really a feisty little speech. And there, at the very end, he said, oh, and, by the way, we’re not as divided as our politics might tell us. (Laughter.)
MR. BAKER: Or as the speech might have sounded.
MS. PARSONS: Or as the speech might have sounded, right. And it was really –
MS. IFILL: Ignore the man behind the (mirror ?).
MS. PARSONS: Right. Right. Back in 2008, I mean, that was the big thundering thing that he’s – or 2004. That’s is from the 2004 convention speech, right?
MS. IFILL: I feel like we’ve lived through lots of scale backs. I think with President George H.W. Bush, “no new taxes” was the biggest scale-back of all time, right? He had said that and then part of the reason he wasn’t reelected is because he broke that promise.
MR. DUFFY: I think it’s a defining moment for the presidents we’re still covering. The right wing of his party clobbered him and challenged him and winged him early in his reelection and he never recovered. And we are all living through – I mean, it’s not a surprise that no one has broken that promise since. I think that all these men have wrestled with the need to work their bases, particularly the latest three. But also they’re mindful of the great middle of the American public just has no use of partisanship at all. And so that thing at the end of the speech is, oh, by the way, independents, I get you too. I just am not speaking to you right now.
MS. IFILL: I think about Bill Clinton, who also got elected kind of on a reputation of being somewhat a change agent but he was the one who scaled back welfare.
MR. HARRIS: Well, that was a promise that he had made –
MS. IFILL: Of which the – (inaudible) – were surprised when he did.
MR. HARRIS: Right, but he ended up making it not on his terms. He ended up doing it because of the pressure from Republicans. I think Bill Clinton learned a lot about the presidency and went with the – you put your one damn foot in front of the other from the first day to the last and you can get a lot done, even if it doesn’t go according to the sort of grand plan that you might have had when you walked into it.
MS. IFILL: And, Peter, of course, for George W. Bush, it was the unaccomplished missions, the promises he made as kind of the cowboy president to go and get these guys that he couldn’t quite get, a war that he launched that he couldn’t quite end.
MR. BAKER: That’s right. He couldn’t quite end. Obviously he underestimated how difficult Iraq was going to be. He underestimated just what an absorption that would be of his whole presidency, took it over basically. His second term, he came in, he said, I have political capital to spend. He wanted to remake Social Security. He wanted to remake the tax code. He wanted to remake immigration, all of which got basically undermined by the continuing controversy over Iraq.
And if Bill Clinton tried to move the Democratic Party to the middle a little bit, George W. Bush, his sort of unfinished project was to kind of move his party a little bit more toward the middle, at least on some issues, this compassionate conservatism when it comes to immigration, on education, on PEPFAR, you know, AIDS relief in Africa, all of which has been thrown aside by the current Republicans as they’re moving back to the right.
MS. IFILL: One final thought, Michael. I’m just curious about the little secrets along the way. They taught each other how to salute. They taught – they left each other little notes. What struck you the most about how these presidents understood each other?
MR. DUFFY: By the time Dick Nixon and Bill Clinton – he’s everywhere – are staying up late at night to talk on the phone about what to do about China and Russia and just how to organize your day as president, then you know that there are things being passed from president to president that we will not find about until much later.
MS. IFILL: In fact, I think that Bill Clinton said he read the letter that he got from Nixon like every year he’d sit down and read it.
MR. DUFFY: He reads it every year.
MS. IFILL: Which is remarkable. And the other thing I also want to ask you about really quickly is the salute.
MR. DUFFY: Oh, yes. Well, when Clinton goes to see Reagan just after he’s elected up in LA, he asks Reagan for any advice you might have and Reagan says, well, I’ve been watching you. You don’t know how to salute and you’ve got to learn how to salute better. And they sit in his office practicing, which is a real benefit of the club.
MS. IFILL: It’s a real benefit of the club. Well, thank you to you all for a fascinating conversation. This was a very special show. We have to leave you now but the conversation continues online. We will keep talking in the “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” You can find it at pbs.org/washingtonweek. Keep track of daily developments with me every night on the PBS “NewsHour.”
And it’s the beginning of a very special weekend. Don’t forget to honor and remember those who gave their lives for our freedom. That’s the best kind of Memorial Day. We’ll see you again around the table next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.