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Review: 'The Presidents Club' by Nancy Gibbs, Michael Duffy explores how former leaders continue to shape history

At Dwight D. Eisenhower's first inauguration on Jan. 20, 1953, Herbert Hoover jokingly suggested to Harry S. Truman that they start "a former presidents club." • But such a club, in fact, had already been formed. It had come about almost a decade earlier when, in the wake of World War II, Truman had asked for Hoover's help in addressing the massive food shortages in the ruins of devastated post-war Europe. A hundred million people faced starvation, and Truman needed Hoover desperately, because Hoover had valuable experience in managing the World War I food shortages in Europe when he had worked in Woodrow Wilson's administration.

Time magazine editors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, also co-authors of The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House (2007), have written a work filled with riveting stories, anecdotes, historical scenes and towering egos: The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity.

The authors assert that the relationships among these club members, the former presidents, were and are not only crucial to their postpresidential lives, but also influence 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 authors point out that the club also "serves to protect the office" and help the sitting president solve his problems.

Gibbs and Duffy trace the various relationships, and their permutations within this elite membership, from the post-World War II era to the present. They point out that it was Richard Nixon who discreetly purchased a brownstone across the street from the White House in 1969, ostensibly to placate Lyndon Johnson, who constantly pestered the White House for personal military transportation and for a place to bunk down during his frequent visits to Washington.

But according to the authors, it was also because Johnson "knew too much about Nixon's past," because Nixon believed LBJ could be a valuable ally and asset in the future, and because Nixon needed Johnson's help in defending the presidency against the "liberals, the elites," the anti-Vietnam war "zealots" whom Nixon saw as giving aid and comfort to the enemy. These were the real reasons Nixon purchased the "Presidents Club" brownstone for Johnson, maintain the authors.

In this book, Gibbs and Duffy lead us on a dizzying tour with tense tales of political intrigue and backstabbing, and also sunny instances of political cooperation and bonhomie. They devote many pages, for instance, to the Truman-Eisenhower love-hate relationship. Truman, a Democrat, was willing to warmly support Republican Eisenhower in Ike's 1952 presidential bid against Adlai Stevenson. But after Ike accused Truman of administrative backstabbing (too complex to go into here), and because Truman accused Ike of failing to defend Gen. George Marshall against communist-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy, the two men became vicious enemies. Truman went so far as to call Ike "a liar, a fool, a hypocrite, so ignorant of government after a life in the military that he was at the mercy of the party bosses."

Later in the book Ike takes on a less combative, more fatherly image as the authors show him consoling a young John F. Kennedy at Camp David days after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of April 17, 1961.

Gibbs and Duffy also delve into the feverish actions of the ever-plotting, paranoid Nixon who, in 1968, seriously undermined Johnson's peace talks with North Vietnam by pursuing his own back-channel diplomatic efforts to end the Vietnam War. Nixon, the authors contend, wanted to claim sole credit for ending this controversial conflict by saving the country from Johnson's "bad peace deal."

On the lighter side, the authors recount the many instances in which club members aligned with each other for joint beneficial projects. We see Jimmy Carter traveling extensively on diplomatic missions (although sometimes quite controversially): for George H. W. Bush in 1989 to monitor the election of the unscrupulous, drug-trafficking President Manuel Noriega in Panama; for Bill Clinton in 1994 to prevent North Korean Premier Kim Il Sung from using nuclear weapons against South Korea. In the North Korean talks, Carter went far beyond his authority in making deals with the premier, the authors point out.

And Gibbs and Duffy also describe the warm bipartisan friendship between George H. W. Bush and Clinton as they coordinated U.S. aid to millions after the 2004 tsunami in Asia, and in 2005 to assist the Gulf Coast states after Hurricane Katrina. Later Clinton, with Barack Obama's invitation, teamed with George W. Bush to offer aid to Haiti after its devastating 2010 earthquake.

Filling their book with fascinating personalities and dramatically revealing scenes, Gibbs and Duffy go far beyond the "club" theme. Meticulously, they describe our modern presidents' relationships and motivations and how those attributes bear upon the shaping of our nation's history.

The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity

By Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

Simon and Schuster, 641 pages, $32.50

Review: 'The Presidents Club' by Nancy Gibbs, Michael Duffy explores how former leaders continue to shape history 06/02/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 2, 2012 4:30am]
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