Gridlock, polarization, obstructionism — if there’s one thing Washington can agree on, it’s that Washington can’t agree on anything. The public’s sufferance in recent years of petty filibusters, destructive budget showdowns and stridently partisan news outlets has given rise to a yearning for what’s imagined to be a lost culture of reasonableness. It’s easy now to pine for an era like the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill could put aside foundational differences and get down to business.
This desire for comity has overwhelmed fidelity to history. In reality, Reagan’s presidency, too, was deeply divisive and fraught with bitterness. Ideological warfare is frequently a handmaiden to democratic debate.
Yet democracies do need statesmen. In “The Presidents Club,” a lively history of the crisscrossing personal relationships among America’s post-World War II presidents, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy suggest that it has often been former chief executives who have put aside partisan concerns to help achieve larger national goals. Sharing a unique bond based on their common (and uncommon) experience as leaders of the free world, all of our presidents have left the White House convinced that only they and their fellow occupants of that august office — with its power, privileges and burdens — can truly know what the job is like. That shared knowledge and experience have forged a special relationship among them that has helped them work together for what is deemed the common good.
Gibbs and Duffy, Time magazine veterans, weave this argument — really more of a theme — throughout an anecdote-rich story that begins with Harry Truman’s use of Herbert Hoover’s expertise to help feed Europe after World War II and runs through Bill Clinton’s rapprochement with Barack Obama after the latter’s fairy-tale 2008 campaign. The authors revel in describing behind-the-scenes and especially face-to-face encounters: when Truman and Dwight Eisenhower shared drinks at Blair House after John F. Kennedy’s funeral; when Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter flew together to Cairo for Anwar Sadat’s funeral (there are a lot of funerals in this book); when Ford and Clinton went golfing in Vail.
Realizing that membership in the Presidents Club bestows a singular perspective can help explain certain minor mysteries of our political life. How, for example, could Clinton ever forgive George H.W. Bush, who in the 1992 campaign all but charged him with being a traitor, if not a Soviet stooge, for visiting Russia as a college student and protesting the Vietnam War “from foreign soil”? Why has Obama, whose presidential quest embodied a repudiation of everything George W. Bush stood for, heard scarcely a grumble about his policies from his once-belligerent predecessor?
The answer lies in what Kennedy said to Arthur Schlesinger when asked to rank the presidents: “Only the president himself can know what his real pressures and his real alternatives are.” It’s a sentiment that virtually every president voices at one point or another in this book.