Presidents' Day Enlightened By New Book, 'The Presidents Club'

Wanna look at Presidents’ Day in a whole new light? Hot off the presses, The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity is a sneak peek inside the secret relationships between America’s presidents and their predecessors...
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Wanna look at Presidents’ Day in a whole new light? Hot off the presses, The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity is a sneak peek inside the secret relationships between America’s presidents and their predecessors post World War II. Co-authored by TIME Magazine's Executive Editor Nancy Gibbs and Washington Bureau Chief Michael Duffy, The Presidents Club delineates the camaraderie, cunning, and at times, ferocious jockeying of power between our executives in chief, such as Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Written by Gibbs and Duffy, here’s an exclusive look of what’s inside this provocative read: In the secret society that is the brotherhood of former presidents, rarely mentioned but commonly accepted protocols rule: stay in touch, don’t discuss club business with the press, and above all, protect the presidency. Once you've sat in the big chair, the office matters more than the occupant. “Any time you need me, Mr. President,” Eisenhower told LBJ the night of Kennedy’s assassination, “I’ll be there.” “I’m yours to command,” Richard Nixon told Ronald Reagan upon his election in 1980 – just as Ike had told Nixon in 1968. “We want you to succeed,” George W. Bush told Barack Obama when he invited all three former presidents to lunch with the new guy at the White House after the 2008 election. “All of us who have served in this office understand that the office transcends the individual.” Most of the time, that is. Throughout its history, The Presidents Club has also seen its share of bitter, bloody feuds. While we researched our new book on the history of the secret relationships among presidents, five moments of duplicity and discord jumped out.

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Truman first met Ike when he presented him with the Distinguished Service medal in June of 1945; they had dinner that night. “He is a nice fellow and a good man,” Truman told his wife, Bess. (National Park Service, Abbie Rowe, Courtesy of Harry S. Truman Library) 1. Sometimes the fights are purely political; sometimes they’re very personal. Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower worked so well together building a post war security structure that Truman privately offered to step aside in 1948 if Eisenhower chose to run for President; he even offered to be his Vice President. But when Eisenhower did finally decide to run in 1952, the two men nearly came to blows. Eisenhower failed to defend his revered mentor George Marshall from the attacks of Joe McCarthy. To Truman, this was an act of moral cowardice that rendered Ike unfit for the Oval Office—and he said so, very publicly. “I knew him. I trusted him,” Truman confessed to his party faithful in the heat of the campaign. “I thought he might make a good president. But that was a mistake. In this campaign he has betrayed almost everything I thought he stood for. ” The friendship could not survive the campaign—which Ike, of course, still won in a landslide. For eight years Truman did not step foot in the Eisenhower White House. It would take a decade and an assassination to reconcile—when they met in Washington in November 1963 for the funeral of the man who took Ike’s place. Returning by car from the burial of John F. Kennedy at Arlington, Truman invited Ike up to Blair House for a drink. Intimations of mortality and the passage of time went a ways towards healing the wounds.

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By the end of the 1968 campaign, Johnson would privately accuse Nixon of committing treason; but once Nixon won, Johnson welcomed him to the White House and worked to ensure a smooth transition. (LBJ Library photo by Frank Wolfe) 2. Some club rivalries are epic clashes in the battle for history’s favor. In October of 1968, Lyndon Johnson’s spies informed the president that allies of Richard Nixon were trying to sabotage a Vietnam peace deal to help him win the election—an effort, Johnson said privately, that amounted to “treason.” Johnson stayed silent: He didn’t think the country could handle a constitutional crisis. But four years later, the crisis came nonetheless, and Nixon and Johnson found themselves in a test of mutual blackmail. Tell your Senate friends to back off the Watergate investigation, Nixon’s men warned Johnson, or we’ll reveal that you illegally wiretapped us in 1968. Go ahead, Johnson countered—and I will reveal what I learned from those taps. That deadlock was broken two days after Nixon’s second inauguration…when Johnson dropped dead of a heart attack. 3. It is the rare president who leaves office fully at peace, without his share of unhealed wounds and a hunger for redemption. The instinct to help competes with the urge to revise and extend their power: “No one who has been in the Presidency, with the capacity and power to affect the course of events, can ever be satisfied with not being there,” Nixon admitted long after he left office. Nixon was so convinced that he understood better than the first Bush Administration how to manage the collapsing Soviet empire that he staged a rebellion. No more “cozy little suppers” at the White House, he told a friend, where Bush and his aides would politely solicit Nixon’s advice and then ignore it. Even as Bush faced a tough primary challenge in 1992, Nixon was sending around a secret memo in plain brown envelopes called “How To Lose the Cold War” that criticized Bush for being too cautious in his support for Russia, confident it would leak. Nixon was laying down a marker: ignore my advice at your peril.

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Reagan gave Ford serious consideration before picking George Bush as his vice president in 1980. Reagan turned to Nixon for advice about how to help Bush win the presidency in 1988. (Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library) 4. With four club members kicking around the margins of his presidency, George H.W. Bush had a particularly hard time keeping them in line. The most appalling mutiny was staged by Jimmy Carter, whose righteous opposition to the first Gulf War in 1991 inspired him to secretly lobby UN Security Council members to oppose Bush’s plans to liberate Kuwait. Bush aides still regard Carter’s maneuvering as treacherous—yet it remained a club secret for years. When we asked Carter if he would do it all again, he said yes, absolutely: “I just expressed my opinion that the war was not necessary.” 5. The club was just as large under Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton, and he fared little better. Clinton understood that there are some delicate missions that only a former president can undertake. When tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program brought the two countries perilously close to military confrontation in 1994, Clinton sent Carter to Pyongyang to assess the intentions of the weird, wily leader Kim Il Sung. Carter was not content with gathering intelligence, however; he went ahead and brokered a deal to avoid U.S. sanctions in return for Kim allowing U.N. weapons inspectors to monitor the nuclear sites. That might have earned him the president’s eternal gratitude—were it not for the fact that the White House, Clinton included, had to learn about the terms of the deal when Carter announced it live on CNN. The problem with former presidents, some White House aides argue, is that they still think they are smarter than the people who succeed them. Yet Clinton forgave him and even deployed him again on other missions, perhaps seeing in Carter’s post-presidential portfolio a way to think about his own life after the White House. That’s partly why the modern club consistently produces unlikely alliances. Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford bonded over a shared commitment to Middle East peace and a shared dislike of Ronald Reagan. In a private meeting in 1992, the 81-year-old Reagan taught the 46-year-old Clinton how to salute: You can’t succeed as president, the former actor told the rookie, unless you do it right. And so the two men stood together, in Reagan's Century City office suite, practicing their salutes. Clinton found a cherished advisor in Nixon and a father figure in George Herbert Walker Bush. Bush’s son and Clinton would also find a way to be friends, to the point that Clinton even has a Bush family nickname: Brother of Another Mother. In retirement, opposites attract. Especially among ex-presidents, because even when they come from different parties or have conflicting temperaments, they leave office with things undone. They also know that unless you have served in the office, you cannot understand what it does to you—and that history keeps score. To learn more about 'The Presidents Club,' click here.