Thursday, August 23, 2012

Partners Across Party Lines: The Presidents Club

(reflections on The President's Club, by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy.  Published by Simon and Schuster, 2012.)

(Notice who set himself apart from the others!)
The Presidents Club is an informal fraternity with unwritten protocols that have been honored for over sixty years by Republicans and Democrats both.   There's even a clubhouse, though it's only a suite of "shabby" rooms near the White House reserved for ex-Presidents' use. Focusing entirely on the relationships of ex-chief executives to President-du-jour, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy reassure us in these rancourous partisan times that it's been this bad before, and that good sense and common courtesy often transcend party.

Beside the burden of life-and-death decisions, they all have in common the experience observed by a "senior advisor to three presidents."  He writes,
When you get in, you discover nothing is what you expect, or believed, or have been told, or have campaigned on.... It's much more complicated. Your first reaction is, 'I've been set up.'  Second is: 'I have to think differently.'  Third is: 'Maybe they had it right.' And it isn't long before they ask, who am I gonna talk to about this?"  (8)
Similarly, Henry Kissinger heard a warning from his aide Daniel Ellsburg, who had worked for Johnson. A new President and his advisors will be exhilarated by revelations.  This turns quickly into feeling foolish for all the things said by the ignorant candidate, and then contempt for all the mavens who criticize without knowing what the President knows (272). 

Among the surprises in the book is the emergence of Herbert Hoover as a model of unselfish service and bankable competence. Demonized by Roosevelt -- who comes across as charismatic, erratic, and ruthless in this book -- Republican Hoover was rehabilitated by the Democrat Truman's sending him to Europe to administer relief after World War II.  The two men became friends, and Truman called upon him again to head a commission to re-organize the vast array of redundant Federal agencies that had sprouted in World War I and grown during the years of New Deal and World War.  Hoover's plan won near-unanimous bi-partisan approval in Congress, and his reforms continued to earn praise and thanks on into the 1960s.

Another surprise is the portrayal of Eisenhower, superficially sunny and personally cold, petty, and vindictive. Championed unabashedly by Truman, Eisenhower turned on Truman in the campaign for Republican nomination, starting a feud that would last until Trumans and the Eisenhowers shared coffee after Kennedy's burial (159).  Over those years, Truman attempted many gestures of reconciliation and support, all received coldly or even returned with insult.Truman's correspondence with him at this time is terse, anger seething under the two men's civility. "I am extremely sorry that you have allowed a bunch of screwballs to come between us," writes Truman, "From a man who has always been your friend and who always wanted to be! / Sincerely, HST" (81). Ike denounced that note to others, but did not reply.

"No man is less loyal to his friends" than Eisenhower, Kennedy observed.  Eisenhower shafted his loyal and subservient Vice President Richard Nixon at the Republican national convention in 1959, saying this of the eventual nominee: "I am not dissatisfied with the individual that looks like he will get [the nomination]" (107). 

Partisanship was so ugly in the early 1960s that Eisenhower could believe that his Democratic successor had engineered the Cuban Missile crisis to influence the next month's midterm elections (David Eisenhower, p. 147).  The insouciant younger President referred to Ike as the "that old a------" (105), but summoned him for consultations and reassuring photographs of the two men together after JFK's Bay of Pigs fiasco.  Ike chided Kennedy for the loose organization that enabled unspokenunderstandings to be so badly misunderstood, and Kennedy learned his lesson.  He was much more careful during deliberations about the missiles in Cuba.

Ike also opposed Senator McCarthy, not so courageously as he should have done.  Truman was infuriated by Ike's failure to defend former Secretary of State George B. Marshall from McCarthy's "communist" label.  Campaigning in Wisconsin, Ike prepared a denunciation of McCarthy and "disciples of hate," and the text was made available to the press, but then Ike omitted the paragraph out of deference to McCarthy's popularity in his home state (85).  There's a comical photo of McCarthy grabbing Eisenhower's hand for a shake, while the President, looking away, tries to dissociate himself from the lout (after p 182). 

About the Presidents of my own lifetime, there were fewer surprises.  LBJ's abuse of power gave him intelligence that Nixon secretly encouraged South Vietnam's president to wreck LBJ's peace agreement in 1968 -- helping Nixon to win the election and prolonging the war six years.  LBJ couldn't reveal what he knew without accepting blame for domestic spying, and Nixon could have been accused of outright treason.  I knew all that, but not the extent of Nixon's fixation on the physical file containing that information.  He told his men to do anything -- burglary, whatever it took -- to get that file.  Thus, Watergate.

I was also amused to learn that LBJ had taken Nixon on a tour of the White House, pointing out to the incredulous newcomer how tape recorders were scattered throughout the place, even under the guests' bed in the Lincoln room.  Nixon was horrified, and had all these discarded -- until his mistrust of media led him to install a new system, to ensure accurate quotations and proof for what he would write in his memoirs.

Ford was kind to Nixon, and his decision to pardon his disgraced predecessor is now seen as a wise one -- something I agree with, but I'm surprised to hear that it's now the consensus. I love Ford's comment, "If politics isn't compatible with compassion, there's something wrong with politics" (310).

I witnessed Nixon's efforts to restore his own reputation, and had a sense of how this led to his overtures to all his successors, accompanied often by back-stabbing comments in the press.  Evidently, Clinton called on Nixon for advice many times, having the ex-President enter the White House after dark, from the back.

I knew about Ford's and Reagan's mutual disdain. 

The fact that Clinton, W., and Obama all feel fondness for George H. W. Bush is news to me.  I love the anecdote about how Bush I's shmoozing with Clinton during a visit led to W's message, "Tell 41 and 42 that 43 is hungry".

The one I haven't mentioned is Carter, and it is a surprise to me how his much-publicized missions to North Korea and Iraq reduced his successors to apoplexy.  He comes across as the one whom no one likes. It's "treason" said Bush's men, and he's a "treasonous p---k" says a Clinton aide (440).  He negotiated a nuclear treaty live on CNN news without consultations.  His efforts in Haiti worked out well, though, when he suddenly cut loose from diplomacy and screamed at the military dictator, "Resign or you and your children will die (446)!"

Overall, I found confirmation of my sense that Presidents haven't much leeway for their decisions.   The human interactions are a pleasure to read about -- these presidents being for us, at least since the days of FDR's fireside chats, almost a part of the family.


George said...

I enjoyed this post, even though I came to it late (Aug. 2014). Isn't it interesting to get the view of a historian on a period through which you lived? I'm quite a bit older than you, but I know I enjoy (sort of) such an interpretation.
George Lamplugh

George said...

What a great system you've got for keeping out spam! This is the sixth--or maybe, seventh--effort I've made to comment on your post about "The Presidents' Club."
The point I'm trying to make is that your review suggests the difficulty for even a trained historian to comment objectively on an event/period he remembers.
But I like what you've done with it!
George Lamplugh