Book Review-The Presidents Club

There’s a place, a physical space, where the former Presidents of the United States meet. And then there’s a place, more of a mental and attitudinal state, where this same group exists for the purpose of helping whomever has the blessing or burden of serving as President of the United States in current time.

Two journalists in Washington DC, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, have collaborated on a book about the place and space and state. They’ve entitled it The Presidents Club—Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity. Published in 2012, this is the second book on which the pair has teamed up.

The idea of having former presidents provide advice and support to the current occupant of the White House began in the late 1940s. President Harry Truman reached out to the predecessor of his predecessor, former President Herbert Hoover. Hoover, a Republican, was the victim of a savage series of personal attacks by the supporters of Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Truman was no favorite of Roosevelt’s core loyalists in Washington DC and so, when the Missourian took control of the presidency after Roosevelt’s death, he welcomed any friendly face he could. Hoover was handy.

From the relationship between Truman-the-President and Hoover-the-former-President the story of the Club began. Over the next fifty years the Club’s membership and activities twist and turn, sometimes close and robust, sometimes distant and mild. The nature of party affiliation didn’t determine the status of the Club’s inner workings. Democrat and Republican Presidents alike crossed lines to form effective friendships and achieve important results. Differences in where they grew up, their dominant career outside politics, and socio-economic background didn’t prove a problem either. The theme, one especially heartening in a political environment that we’re told is poisonous, is one of surprising harmony and partnership.

The book captured and held my attention, as I think it likely will do for you if you’re interested in national politics and the presidency. Gibbs and Duffy roll out story after story, arranged chronologically, to carry the reader along from 1948 to 2008. For me, these stories are the engine, the reason I consistently told my wife that “this is a really good book.”

Permit me to reference some that stand out. Truman and Hoover labored on major governmental reforms and urged Congress to enact them. After he left the Presidency, Eisenhower provided a stream of advice to President Lyndon Johnson, who valued the counsel in his struggles as commander-in-chief during the Vietnam War. Richard Nixon acted as a one-man institution on foreign policy, particularly involving the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton welcomed his input. George H.W. Bush and George Bush forged a meaningful and personal relationship with Bill Clinton during the latter’s years in the White House. Clinton, in turn, reached out to Gerald Ford and developed such an appreciation for the ex-college football player that he spent time privately at Ford’s burial site. And so it goes.

Do you notice the names that don’t appear in my description? Jimmy Carter, John Kennedy, and Barack Obama. Let’s take them in turn.

Carter participated extensively with the Club. The problem was that his participation often lapsed into self-centered individualism, acting as a kind of loose-cannon who often defied efforts by Clinton (primarily) to control and direct him. Carter longed for the spotlight of media attention. Given his experience as a one-term president and a national chief executive who is seldom cast in a positive light, he likely craved the chance to show his worth in national issues. He enjoyed great success in his personal, post-presidential endeavors, such as Habitat for Humanity and the Carter Center, but it might not have healed the bruises left by a generally dismissive attitude from the public. He didn’t fit well with the Club.

According to the authors, Kennedy didn’t participate much with the Club. In a sense, he had his own group, his family and their close ring of family-like devotees. In addition, Kennedy tended toward what can only be called suspiciousness of many other people of power. Meanwhile, at the time of publication, Obama didn’t have enough of a record (or hadn’t made it available to the authors) to document much of his view toward the Club. My guess is that Obama shares some of Kennedy’s hesitancy to trust other powerful people, especially those not of his own political party. His narcissism (no, I’m not a fan) could also prevent him seeking support from the Club. His childish behavior toward Clinton after one assignment points toward this demeanor. I doubt that we’ll see a lot of evidence of his involvement with the Club once his presidential records are made accessible to researchers. If I’m wrong at that point, reader, let me know and I’ll buy you a beer.

You just never know what will turn up in these book reviews of mine!

One other thing about Obama. The Club has two forms of action. One is the sitting President to the former Presidents. The other is former Presidents to sitting President. It remains to be seen how Obama will behave as a former President and potential member of the Club interacting with a current President. Will he treat the Club differently as a member rather than a consumer?

This duality brings me to a separate point. The sitting President can use the Club for his or her own purposes. Club members can execute specially assigned tasks ranging from raising funds for a natural disaster to conducting private negotiations with other heads of state. The authors place special emphasis on how a sitting President can find one-of-a-kind personal support and understanding only from people who’ve occupied the White House as Chief Executive.

Conversely, existing Club members can use these assignments to polish their own legacies. They can repair damage done to their reputations during their tenure as President by doing a good job of completing their tasks as former Presidents. The best work, it seems, occurs when the former President is able to do what they typically do well. Nixon, for example, excelled at foreign policy as a Club member.

As you can tell, I enjoyed this book. Gibbs and Duffy are solid writers. Their writing style has a sort of sturdy energy. Their passion for political reporting shines through the structure and prose. They shielded their reader from any glaring bias. The writing was a source of pleasure on most pages and a good reason for you to seek out the book for yourself.

I do want to point out a problem or two. It might be an impossibility, but I’d like to see these two political writers have something more of a critical perspective on the office of the presidency. They verge on holding the office and its occupant in awe. It’s understandable in that they work with presidential administrations on a daily basis and they see the toll of the job. Putting myself in their position, you can’t help but sympathize with people who age at double or triple the normal rate in front of your very eyes. Only the callous would be indifferent to the cost.

Still, I’d like just a dash more skepticism toward the Presidents. They’re just people—as shown by their rapid aging under stress—and they hold office, position, and power at the pleasure of the citizenry. The authors give them a thin coat of gold varnish after they depart from office.

I also wish there was more treatment of some formal moments, like funerals. The funeral of a newly deceased President is an excellent study in symbolism and could serve to shed additional light on how the Club’s members see themselves.

Moreover, I think the authors would have been well-advised to do a little more with how the fact of being out of the White House affects the personality of a former President. Standing in the chow line when you’ve been at the white-cloth table strikes me as a huge shift. The authors should have examined how the molded personality potentially shapes the person’s conduct in the Club.

Finally, it seems to me that there are two Clubs. One is the formal one examined in this book. But the other is the group of dead Presidents who lived long ago, before the former Presidents still living were born. This is the Club that always gets larger. The authors hint at sitting and former Presidents reading about their deceased predecessors. This group is a Dead Presidents Society. Does it work in tandem with the Presidents Club? Maybe that’s my book to write.

I’d like to take us now into the leadership portion of the review. Two topics come to mind.

The first is knowledge transfer. The Club is a tool for sharing knowledge from alumni of the Presidency to the current occupant of the Oval Office. A more formal mechanism exists for the period between elections and inaugurations. The Club ensures that at least an informal path is also in place.

Knowledge transfer helps the Presidency sustain itself on both a policy and personal level. Each new President inherits a stream of activity, equal if not greater in extent to the number of policies or policy categories you could name. By consulting with the appropriate member or members of the Club, the new President may gain key understanding of the unstated and unrecorded aspects of decisions and actions resulting in a particular policy. It’s doubtful that a former President can cite all the factual details, but they will be able to weave in important impressions and observations important at the time. The degree to which a current President acts on this offering reflects the elevated state of a specific crisis.

The personal level is the softer side of things. This seems to be the greatest value of the Club in the authors’ views. The Club’s knowledege transfer in quasi-counseling mode eases the current occupant’s stress, or so it’s argued. There’s no denying that each President featured in the book attests to this point.

The role of psychological counselor or confidante hints at the second leadership topic, institutional memory. The Club is a resource for the legacy of the Presidency. Knowledge transfer is about issues in the nation. Institutional memory is about perceptions in the system. The attitudes held toward the Presidency can exist apart from Policy A or Issue B. Attitudes affect the prestige and stature of the office, elements that are held in trust by each President. A President wields formal power in policies but can supplement it with informal power as well; the well of such informal power is in the public’s and political class’s sense of the Presidency as an institution.

I point you back to my only half-joking reference to the Dead Presidents Society. The Presidents Club nurtures institutional memory. But what does the occupant do in sorting through the memory from this living channel along side whatever inner lessons he or she draws from reading about the ups and downs of the individual members of the Dead Presidents Society?

As you think about leadership in your organization, here is where I would recommend you think for a few minutes about the meaning of this book. How is knowledge transferred from one leader to the next? Where is the link to formal power? How is institutional meaning passed on from one leader to the next? And where does the link to informal power show itself most clearly?

Is there value to be gained in seeking a way to establish a version of the Presidents Club for your organization? It’s up to you.

Before signing off, I’d like to mention an exercise in creativity for your human resources, training and development, talent development, or human capital personnel. Have them develop a training and education program for the next occupant of the American Presidency. Give them very little guidance. Allow them full freedom in roaming far and wide intellectually in completing the assignment. Facilitating a group meeting that looks at this question would be both fun and, I hope, encouraging of participants to use more creativity and imaginative thinking in their approach to such issues in your organization.

Buy the book, accept that it’s somewhat lengthy, and dive in. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the intriguing nature of The Presidents Club.