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.
The mutual understanding among the presidents, Gibbs and Duffy show, has allowed former enemies not only to make common cause but even to forge deep friendships. A cynic might dismiss the 2005 buddy-movie disaster-relief efforts of Clinton and the elder Bush after a devastating Indian Ocean tsunami as cost-free do-goodism. But it’s hard not to put credence in the pull of the Presidents Club when you read that in a Bush family photo taken last year, the two Georges — and their extended kin — were joined incongruously by none other than the Democrat who served eight years between them.
Even more delicious than the tales of strange bedfellowship are the accounts of big-shot rivalry, not always pleasantly overcome. In the 1968 election, Nixon and Henry Kissinger worked to undermine Lyndon Johnson’s negotiations to end the Vietnam War, making sure that an imminent peace accord wouldn’t help Democrat Hubert Humphrey at the polls. Learning of this subterfuge from FBI surveillance of Nixon source Anna Chennault, Johnson grew enraged and nearly blew the whistle on the back-channel double-dealing. Once elected, however, Nixon pivoted and proceeded to shamelessly stroke his predecessor’s outsize ego, even flying LBJ to the Western White House for a birthday party, complete with a mariachi band and a cake topped with yellow roses. It paid off. Sulking over his exclusion from his party’s 1972 convention, Johnson acceded to Nixon’s wishes and gave dispensation to Democrats who wished not to endorse their nominee that year, the dovish George McGovern.
Almost all the presidents came to dislike Carter. Gibbs and Duffy offer juicy accounts of how the elder Bush’s White House became “unhinged” in 1990 when Carter secretly lobbied various world leaders to vote against America’s U.N. resolution to oust Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. Tossing around the word “treason,” some Bush staffers contended that Carter had violated the Logan Act, which forbids private citizens to conduct foreign policy without authority.
Several years later, Clinton aides likewise labeled Carter treasonous when, on a mission to North Korea, he scrapped his instructions and cut his own deal with Kim Il Sung in front of CNN cameras. “The problem is that North Korea now has a former [U.S.] president as its spokesperson,” said a Clinton official. The rogue state had met the rogue president.
Such meddling in foreign policy aside — Nixon, along with Carter, was given to unhelpful freelancing — Gibbs and Duffy mostly applaud the former presidents’ efforts at statesmanship. By virtue of their unique experience, they confer an aura of wisdom and patriotism on their collective (and sometimes individual) undertakings, whether public or private. During the Clinton impeachment, Ford performed a noble errand in conveying to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott that the Senate’s trial should be short and restrained, unlike the House’s circus. In its frank admiration for these acts of civic-mindedness, “The Presidents Club” is a book for our age of ideological warfare, a plea for moderation.
Much of this book is gossipy, not a little of it frivolous, some of it familiar and at least one story erroneous. The authors write that in November 1960, Nixon heeded Eisenhower and Hoover’s advice not to challenge Kennedy’s election victory — but Nixon did contest the results, unsuccessfully, in 11 states.
More problematic, its celebration of bipartisanship can let us forget that the Washington consensus sometimes demands not affirmation but skepticism. Teaming up to help earthquake victims is perfectly unobjectionable, but on other matters the chumminess of these grandees can obscure the need for partisan challenge.
Gibbs and Duffy write that after Ford and Carter mended their fences, they became partners on behalf of the inside-the-Beltway agenda. “They wrote a Reader’s Digest article in 1983 that was critical of Israel. They joined forces to push the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and jointly opposed a plan to legalize drugs in California in 1996.” Here, the authors, in seeking to bestow praise, inadvertently reveal a festering problem in our politics: the readiness of self-regarding Washington insiders to mobilize behind a status quo whose wisdom they never deign to question.
“We politicians are just like lawyers,” Johnson said to Nixon, “who get together for a drink after fighting each other like hell in the courtroom.” Sometimes the ability to overcome partisan differences can be a virtue of the highest order. But just as often, true courage lies in standing up against views held by the establishment, even — or especially — when you’re one of its ranking members.
THE PRESIDENTS CLUB
Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity
By Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy
Simon & Schuster. 641 pp. $32.50