The most exclusive club in the world is comprised of men who are or were President of the United States. To date, there have only been 43 men to hold that office. In modern times (post-Truman) handling and utilizing the club became an integral part of the presidency. “The Presidents Club” is a rare window into the relationships between these men and how they each used the relationships to benefit themselves and each other.
The club at times feels like a group therapy session. Whether it is Lyndon Johnson using each man to boost his own self-esteem or Richard Nixon seeking redemption as an ex-president, these men bring their egos and demons directly to the club. In many ways, this book humanizes our presidents—their motives and failings would be familiar to any of us.
Authors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy cite the Truman and Hoover relationship as one that helped cement the power of the club for modern times. And indeed, their relationship is fascinating. Hoover, one of the most unpopular and underappreciated individuals in American history, became a key advisor and friend to Truman and their relationship led to several domestic and international policy achievements. It also gave Truman an outlet to complain about the presidency, specifically the “prima donnas” and how “Washington featured more divas per square foot than all the opera companies combined.” Many years later, Truman said that Hoover was “one of his closest friends.”
Truman’s rocky relationship with Eisenhower is also interesting, though it is one where the Ike seemed to look down his nose at his predecessor. Truman basically begged Ike to run, hoping that he would run as a Democrat, and even offering to essentially turn the presidency over to him. But Ike was a Republican, apparently, and so the relationship blew up and never truly recovered.
Nixon plays a major role, mostly because he had deep ties to every president from Eisenhower to Clinton. From his long letters to Clinton or his gentle manipulation of George H.W. Bush, Nixon never stopped scheming and plotting, even when he was tossed from the Oval Office.
Ford and Carter had an unlikely friendship and so did Clinton and both Bushes. Those chapters alone make the book worth reading. Reagan’s role in the book is mostly limited to his interactions with Nixon before and during his presidency. Because of his Alzheimer’s’ diagnosis, we were unable to see how President Reagan would have interacted with those who followed him in office.
This book is chock full of anecdotes and personalities. If you are fascinated by the presidency, you’ll enjoy this book. If you are curious about the minds of leaders, then check this out. The private correspondence and communications are eye-opening and windows into executive leadership.
This book is really a study of one aspect of the presidency: the interplay between a president and his predecessors. It is enlightening, perverse at times, and eye-opening. The authors didn’t rely on the gossipy talk from former aides (prima donnas) but uncovered letters and writings that make the book feel like a credible addition to the history of the presidency.
The book quotes a poem that Kennedy used to recite: Bullfight critics row on row/ Crowd the enormous plaza de toros/ But only one is there who knows/ And he is the one who fights the bull. All of them men who served as president could relate to those words, and that unique bond is what made their relationships and influence so powerful.
Thanks for reading.