The inside story of the world’s most exclusive fraternity; how presidents from Hoover through Obama worked with-and sometimes against-each other when they were in and out of power.
Who Founded The Presidents Club?
The Presidents Club, like so much else, was founded by George Washington, thanks to the second-best decision he ever made. The first agreeing to take the office in the first place; but then he chose to leave it, retiring in 1797 after two terms. Which meant that rather than becoming America’s President for life, he instead became its first-former president.
Everything Washington did set a precedent: to accept a salary though he didn’t need one, so that future presidents would not all need to be rich; to go by Mr. President rather than Your Excellency, so that future presidents might remain grounded; but most of all to relinquish his power peacefully, even prematurely given his immense stature, at that time a striking act of submission to untested democratic principles.
With that decision Washington established the President’s Club-initially a club of two, once John Adams took office. Faced with the threat of war with France, Adams named the revered Washington commander of the Army, where he served until he died the next year. Adams was the first to discover that, whatever jealousies lingered in private, a former president could be highly useful.
Former Presidents: Highly Useful To The Sitting President
In the two centuries that followed, the club’s ranks rose and fell. It grew to six under Abraham Lincoln, though that was partly because none of his living predecessors had managed to win a second term.
The club would not be that large again until Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, when Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush all stood ready to assist.
Some presidents-Adams, Jefferson, both Roosevelts-had only one president in reserve. Like Washington, Richard Nixon, upon his reelection, in 1972, had none: Harry Truman died after Christmas, Lyndon Johnson a month later. At that dangerous moment in American history, the club disappeared entirely.
So Why Does This Matter?
One reason is because relationships matter, and the private relationships between public men matter in particular ways. For the former presidents, the club can be a vital, sometimes surprising benefit of post-presidential life.
They have relinquished power, but not influence; and so their influence becomes a piece of the sitting president’s power. They can do more together than apart, and they all know it; so they join forces as needed, to consult, complain, console, pressure, protect, redeem.
The Presidents Club Has Protocols
The Presidents Club has its protocols, including deference to the man in the chair and for the most part, silence about how the members of the world’s most exclusive fraternity get along an services they provide one another.
Harry Truman privately offered to serve as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president if Ike decided to run in 1948; Nixon’s secret letters to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1981 were a virtual blueprint for setting up his White House; Carter promised not to talk to reporters about mission he undertook for Obama in 2010. “When your ambition is slaked, it becomes more important to something good happen for your country than to just keep winning arguments,” Clinton says, “At some point, you’re just glad when the sun comes up in the morning, you get up and you want something good to happen. I don’t think its because we all become saintly.”
It Falls To The Presidents To Be Kind To Each Other
It falls to the president to be kind to one another. “There’s just a general sympathy,” Clinton says, among the men who have sat in the Oval Office. “President Obama and I didn’t talk much about politics when we played golf the other day.” Clinton adds, and goes on to say: “There are plenty of other people around a president to talk politics; sometimes you need someone who just makes you laugh. Or tells you not to let the bastards get you down.” Clinton was exhausted that day, he recalls, but “when my president summons me, then I come and I would play golf in a driving snowstorm.” he adds.
My President, he calls him, which suggests how far the two men have come since their proxy war in 2008. Such are the journeys this book attempts to trace: the intense, intimate, often hostile but more often generous relationships among the once and future presidents.
We The People (Voters), Why Does The Club Matter
As voters we watch the presidents onstage, judge their performance, cheer their successes, cast them out of office for their failures. This be the duty of the democracy.
But judgment is not the same as understanding, and while what a president does matters most, why he does it be the privilege of history. To the extent that we learn about these men by watching the way they engage with their peers-the loyalty, the rivalry, the pity, and the partnerships-the club opens a new window into the Oval Office.
The Club Matters because the presidency matters, and the club serves to protect the office. Once they’ve all sat in the chair, they became jealous of its powers, convincing that however clumsy the other branches of government can be, the president must be able to serve the people and defend the nation when all else fails.
They can support whomever they like during campaigns; but once a new president is elected, the others often act as a kind of security detail. Thus did Johnson once present Eisenhower with a pair of gold cuff links bearing the Presidential Seal. “You are the only one along with Harry Truman who can legitimately wear these.” Johnson observed, “but if you look closely, it doesn’t say Democrat or Republican on them.”
Why does the presidents club matter? The club has become an instrument of presidential power. It is not in the Constitution, not in any book or by law, but neither is it a metaphor nor a figure of speech. It is an alliance the former presidents are conscious of building, and the sitting presidents of using, both to promote themselves and to advance their agendas.
There is no fraternity like it anywhere, and not just because of the barriers to entry or the privileges of membership. For all the club’s self-serving habits and instincts, when it is functioning at its best, it can serve the president, help solve his problems, and the nations, even save lives.
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All The Best,