Mike Kueber's Blog

October 21, 2012

Sunday Book Review #87 – The Presidents Club

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 5:05 pm
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The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy is a history book that examines the role that ex-Presidents have played in American politics since the end of World War II.  I haven’t read a history book in a long time, and based on this experience, I will be reading more history in the future.  Although I lived through most of this time period, it’s amazing how much of what happened I had forgotten or never knew.

The authors point out that ex-Presidents have no formal role, power, or responsibilities, so that their influence is limited to their ability to indirectly influence the current president.  Richard Nixon has been by far the most influential ex-president.  Although the authors’ hatred for Nixon is palpable, they document his outsize relationships, especially with Reagan, but also with Bush-41 and more surprisingly with Bill Clinton.

Perhaps the most informative section of the book for me was its review of Vietnam.  It revealed how Kennedy had made only modest commitments to Vietnam before his death, but that LBJ felt he had to defend those commitments against the invading North Vietnamese or else he would be savaged not only by Kennedy lovers, but also by Nixon/Eisenhower on the right.  Talk about being between a rock and a hard place.  Because of the debacle in Vietnam, Johnson was unable to complete his Great Society agenda consisting of a war on America’s 20% poverty, elderly healthcare, and civil rights. 

The next most informative section dealt with the rise of Ronald Reagan.  Because I’m someone who has lowered his estimation of Reagan over the years, The Presidents Club reminded me why I was so attracted to him in the first place – i.e., he was a true believer in the conservative cause of anti-communism and small government.  Because he was a true believer, he got a reputation as someone who was a loner or only out for himself.  Actually, he was in politics not for his ego, but to accomplish his conservative ends.  Life is so much simpler that way.

Probably the greatest insight from The Presidents Club is that, although politics tends to separate these highly partisan men, their status as president is even stronger in uniting them.  As President Clinton noted, “It’s impossible to be in this job without feeling a special bond with the people who have gone before.”  There is an old saying that you don’t second-guess another person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.  Ex-presidents are keenly aware of this, and their awareness makes them loathe to criticize their successor.  They more than anyone else know that a president is making decisions based on facts and information that the public is not aware of.  An example of this would be Obama’s idealistic criticisms of Bush-43 policies followed by Obama actually keeping in place most of those policies.  

The Presidents Club trivia:

  • Shortly after Nixon was sworn in in 1972, the ex-presidents club was empty because Harry Truman and LBJ died within a month of each other.  By contrast, when Clinton was sworn in in 1992, there were for the first time in history five ex-presidents – Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush-41 – and four of them had been turned out.
  • Shortly after Nixon’s death, Clinton told Larry King, “Just today I had a problem and I said to the person working with me, ‘I wish I could pick up the phone and call Richard Nixon and ask him what he thinks we ought to do about this.’”
  • Late in Clinton’s second term, he was hosting the nation’s governors, including two Bushes, at the White House.  When some of Clinton’s aides criticized W. for being a bit sour toward Clinton, Clinton defended him, “Look, the guy’s just being honest.  What’s he supposed to do, like me?  I defeated his father, he loves his father.  It doesn’t bother me, this is a contact sport.”
  • Bush-43 campaigned to bring honor and integrity back to the White House and suggested that the Clinton/Lewinsky affair cast a shadow that America wanted to leave behind.  Yet, shortly after Bush-43 was declared the winner in 2000, he visited the White House and asked Clinton if he minded the mention of “the shadow” during the campaign.  Clinton reminded him that Bush-41’s only request on leaving office was to save his beloved Points of Light Initiative, which Clinton did.  Clinton asked Bush-43 to save Clinton’s beloved AmeriCorps program, which Bush-43 did.

What I most enjoyed about The Presidents Club was reading how these men became better persons after leaving office.  Winning at all costs was no longer their dominant motivation.  Their status as an ex-president allowed them to act decently and with integrity.  While they were concerned with their legacies, their decency and integrity invariably enhanced those legacies.  Mostly, they cared about America and the institution of the presidency.

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