ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Extra. I’m Robert Costa.
This week we return to that Washington Week bookshelf. Our guest is author Kate Andersen Brower. Her new book is Team of Five: The Presidents Club in the Age of Trump. Kate is one of the nation’s best historians. She covered the Obama White House for Bloomberg, and has written several other works on the presidency, including my favorite, First in Line, about the VPs, first women, and the residence, which many of you know was a number-one New York Times bestseller. Team of Five, this new book right here, looks great, takes the reader inside the lives of presidents after they leave the West Wing, and the unwritten rules of being a former commander in chief.
Kate, welcome to our Extra, and congrats on the book. It is smart and enjoyable, a lot of fun.
KATE ANDERSEN BROWER: Thanks so much for having me, Bob. Really appreciate it.
MR. COSTA: Let’s start with how former presidents see the job. President Obama recently said this during a virtual fundraiser for former Vice President Joe Biden.
FORMER PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) My predecessor, who I disagreed with on a whole host of issues, still had a basic regard for the rule of law and the importance of our institutions. But there was still a sense of a shared American idea that we could build on. And what we have seen over the last couple of years is a White House that has not just differed in terms of policy but has gone at the very foundations of who we are and who we should be.
MR. COSTA: At the core of this book is not just the political divide between President Trump and his predecessors, but a divide over the institution of the presidency. Kate, what did you discover as you did your research?
MS. BROWER: Well, you know, there’s always been a grudging admiration the former presidents have had for one another. And as President Obama said, they are – he and Bush differed on the Iraq War, on, you know, fiscal policy. But they were still personally friendly. And, you know, there’s this great story of Obama visiting George H.W. Bush right before he passed away, three days before he died. Obama was the last former president to see the Bush patriarch alive. And so I was surprised by that in my reporting because I had assumed it would be Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, his son. But the fact that it was actually Barack Obama I think says everything about this dynamic.
As you say, there’s always been a cordial relationship there. You can, you know, agree – disagree without being, you know, disagreeable, and having that kind of tension. And I think with President Trump he has just thrown away the rulebook of the presidents club, and completely changed the dynamic among these men.
MR. COSTA: Let’s look at how he’s done that. President Trump’s remarks about former presidents have been incendiary. Here is his recent interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, baselessly accusing President Obama of treason.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) It’s treason. Look, look, when I came out a long time ago I said, they’ve been spying on my campaign. I said, they’ve been “taping.” And that was in quotes, meaning a modern-day version of taping. It’s all the same thing, but a modern-day version. But they’ve been spying on my campaign.
MR. COSTA: Kate, does the president have a relationship of note with any former president?
MS. BROWER: No. He has no relationship with any of these former presidents. And I think that that clip that you showed just there is so telling, because President Obama was specifically upset about the wiretapping claims. I mean, that’s something that really bothered him. And as you know, Bob, Obama’s very thoughtful, and meticulous, and careful in how he responds to President Trump. And he had his staff rewrite that statement to make it even stronger and say: No, absolutely I did not wiretap his campaign office. And you see that to Obama it goes against the democratic norms that we hold dear as a democracy.
MR. COSTA: Kate, let’s get into the book a little bit, because I had such fun reading this. I learned a lot. For example, Harry Truman – Harry S. Truman was so sensitive, as you write about, being seen as taking advantage of the office he did everything possible to live a low-key life. I mean, take us back to how the post-presidency – the presidents club used to be a pretty modest club.
MS. BROWER: It’s true. I mean, they weren’t cashing in, in the way that we see them cashing in now – making, you know, $60 million book deals. And Truman was so worried about looking as though he was endorsing a specific pen company when he was signing his memoirs because he didn’t want anyone to think that he was profiting off the presidency. And Gerald Ford is really the first former president to join corporate boards, to make money. And now we’ve just seen that explode, right, where Bill Clinton made half a million dollars for one speech. And I went down to Plains, Georgia and I interviewed the Carters. And Jimmy Carter is really an outsider of this club. He’s criticized every one of his successors, but also he hasn’t cashed in in the way that they have. And you know, he’s written more than 30 books, he’s made a few million dollars, but it is nothing like these other men.
MR. COSTA: Has that led to Carter being a bit distant from some of the other surviving presidents?
MS. BROWER: Absolutely. It took me a long time to get the photo that I use for the cover of the book because in this meeting in 2009 of the former presidents, there with Bush 43 in the Oval Office, Carter is standing off to the side in every single image. And the one I finally found was he was sort of in the group. But he is often not part of the club because he criticizes them. He does not do what George H.W. Bush insisted on, which is, you know, get the heck out of Dodge. Just do not criticize the sitting president, stay in the background. When Bush was asked about Monica Lewinsky for instance, during the Clinton years, he rarely answered and gave very sort of tepid responses to the question. So the complete – (audio break) – of what we see with Donald Trump.
MR. COSTA: Kate, I’m going to throw you a little bit of a curveball here about your past book, about the vice presidents, First in Line. I wondered, do former vice presidents keep in touch with each other? You think about Vice President Cheney, Vice President Quayle. They’re all still around. But unlike the presidents, who keep their Secret Service throughout the rest of their lives, vice presidents, including Vice President Biden, lose their Secret Service protection. Does it become less of a club when you don’t live that kind of insulated life after serving in that office?
MS. BROWER: That’s a good question. You know, I know that Biden and Pence have a relationship which is really interesting. I thought that was fascinating. But to answer your question, I don’t think that there is much of a relationship that – you know, that they have with one another. I do know – I interviewed every living former vice president, and I know that they all deeply respect Walter Mondale. And so he’s somebody that they each have gone to when they have come into office and asked him, you know, what his rules were with Jimmy Carter. And they kind of emulate that. So in a way, Walter Mondale is to the vice presidential club what George H.W. Bush was to the presidents club. He is kind of the linchpin. But, no, it’s not quite the same. And they also just – as you say, they’re not on that same level. We don’t see them and we don’t think about them in the same kind of reverential way that we look at the presidency.
MR. COSTA: A final thing here, Kate. When I think about presidents who are controversial, like President Trump, to say to the least, I think back to President Nixon, who resigned in 1974. How did he handle the presidents club post-presidency, having come out of the Oval Office and the West Wing under a cloud of resignation? I just wonder if the Nixon example provides any clues for what it’s like to be such an outsider within the club you’re writing about.
MS. BROWER: Well, because he resigned, you know, the only president to leave the White House in that disgraceful way, he desperately wanted to be included. And, you know, when JFK called him – I mean, rather, when he was in touch with Clinton, for instance, he reached out to Bill Clinton. And he said, “If you don’t let me speak with him,” he said this to one of Clinton’s aides, “you know, I’m going to write a devastating op-ed about all the mistakes that this administration is making.” So he kind of threatened them. He so desperately wanted to be included.
And Clinton invited him to the White House. They met several times. There’s a great photo of them together. They spoke on the phone a lot. And when Nixon died, you know, that was a very moving moment, because I think Clinton saw a bit of himself in Nixon. He said, you know, let’s not judge the man – (audio break) – based on his entire life’s work.
MR. COSTA: That’s fascinating. So Nixon threatened to speak out. And that kind of goes against this unwritten rule you always talk about in the book, about not speaking out about the current president. Kate, when you think back to all of your reading and research on these presidents, not your opinion but just your perspective here as a historian: Is the unwritten rule problematic? Should presidents sometimes in this club be speaking out more about current affairs? Is it too clubby?
MS. BROWER: Hmm. I would absolutely like to see them speak out more. I think we see during this pandemic, and we see during the Black Lives Matter movement, there are unique experiences that these former presidents can share. And I think, you know, there has been talk in the past about them forming kind of a council of sorts of elder statemen. And, you know, the idea that their experiences matter. So I think, yes, I would like to see more people kind of take the Jimmy Carter mold, and follow that, because he’s been incredibly influential as a post-president.
MR. COSTA: A council of presidents. My friend Bob Schmuhl, the professor at Notre Dame, always talks about that as an idea. And for now, it’s an informal club, the presidents club, The Team of Five, now a team of four due to the death of George H.W. Bush. Kate, it’s a terrific read and you’ve done phenomenal work on the presidency. Hope to have you back on the show or the Extra sometime soon.
And that’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra bookshelf. And now that you’ve found this great read for July 4th you can take a read of that and other books on our bookshelf. And thanks, again, to Kate Andersen Brower for joining us. As always you can find this Extra wherever you get your podcasts or watch it on our website. And while you’re there sign up for our Washington Week newsletter. It keeps you up to date on everything Washington Week during this campaign season.
I’m Robert Costa. Thank you all for joining us. And we all hope here at Washington Week that you have a safe and happy 4th of July.