Book Review: The Presidents Club

The Presidents Club:  Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity
By Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2012

Zillions of books have been written about individual US presidents and their times in office; biographies, autobiographies, histories, and critiques.  The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity, is a different take.  It’s about the personal relationships between these men – they have all been men – from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. 

You’d expect these relationships to be tense, maybe civil at best, like stray dogs warily circling each other in the park.  After all, some of them have defeated others in tough, no-holds-barred elections as Bill Clinton did George H. W. Bush.  Others have based their campaigns on repudiating the records of their predecessors, as Barack Obama did to George W. Bush in 2008.  Not to mention the fact that even when they’re from the same party and on relatively amicable terms, they all have massive egos and ambitions that still need to be satisfied long after they’ve left office.  And in fact, the book describes many incidents where former presidents, notably Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon, acted to burnish own legacies at the expense of the sitting president. 

But as The President’s Club demonstrates, in meticulously researched sometimes mind-numbing detail, there’s been a surprising amount of cooperation, dependency and even genuine friendship among them. 

It turns out they need each other.  

Modern day presidents are elected younger, and so leave office younger, while at the same time living longer.  They have many active years left, often decades, after leaving office.  So ex-presidents need current presidents to help them satisfy their continuing need to be at, or at least near, center stage: keeping them briefed on current issues, giving them assignments and “missions”, and generally keeping them involved.

Sitting presidents, especially newly elected ones, need their predecessors even more.  They need them for guidance, assistance and sometimes just plain commiseration.  And of course the former presidents can be enormously helpful.  They are the only ones who know what it’s really like to hold the responsibilities of the office.  

This is the most striking message of The Presidents Club: no one, no matter what their prior experience, lands in the Oval Office ready to be president. There is no training, not even being vice president, that can prepare you. The difficulty, gravity, complexity and sheer responsibility of the job has no equal.

Every president learns the job on the job. 

The Presidents Club gives a fascinating view into how these men get along and work together (sometimes at cross-purposes) during and after their time in office.  Used wisely, tended carefully, they’re an incredibly valuable asset for sitting presidents, and the country. 

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