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Presidents Gather at Historic White House Meeting

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.