The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

When a president retires or is retired, he still has much to offer. In this well-researched book the authors tell of the relationship between sitting and past presidents starting with Harry Truman.

In 1945, Truman took office after FDR died in his fourth term. He had been vice president for only a few months. (He was FDR’s third VP) Even though he had served in the house and senate, Truman rose to the highest office in a time of great change and there were few he could turn to for assistance. He contacted Herbert Hoover, the last president before FDR came to office in 1933, and the only one still alive. Prior to his term in office, Hoover had been a successful engineer and businessman and assisted President Wilson with managing food shortages during World War I. He served one disastrous term as president and was considered responsible for the depression.

President Truman called on Hoover to coordinate the aid effort to rebuild war-torn Europe after World War II, which redeemed his reputation.  At Eisenhauer’s inauguration in 1952, Truman and Hoover formed the so-called Presidents Club. These two remained close friends.

Most of the presidents covered in this book were in office during my lifetime and it ends with Obama’s first term. However, the reading changed my opinion of almost all of them.

Eisenhauer – when he finally decided to run for office, it was a question of which party. He presided during a time of peace, probably learned from his time in wars. Eisenhauer did not call on Truman for any type of assistance, figured he knew it all. He was a gracious elder statesman and helped others.

JFK – he was truly in over his head and called on predecessors constantly. Apparently, he carried a slip of paper in his pocket with 118,574 written on it. This was to remind himself that that is the number of votes he won by, the slimmest of margins. I find the Kennedy fascination interesting. He was in office just over 2.5 years.

LBJ – the authors make him out to be a man of doubt. The Vietnam War haunted him all the time, though it was a war that was started well before his time. I have lived in Texas most of my life and LBJ is still a larger-than-life figure there. His accomplishments were vast.  I worked for a congressman who said that LBJ is considered the last good politician, the greatest of dealmakers.  

Nixon – a crook. OK, maybe brilliant and driven, but a crook. According to this book, he prolonged the Vietnam War by about 5 years, to help his election chances. Just think of all those who died because of his selfish act. The day the Nixon-delayed Vietnam War was finally ended was the same day that LBJ died. IMHO there is no redemption. The authors make it sound like Nixon waited by the phone to be called into service and several succeeding presidents did contact him for assistance.

Ford – he also served only briefly and came in after the crook. I was not aware that he’d been in congress for a long time leading up to this.

Carter – He is given little credit for his time in office but revered for his post-presidency work, including the Nobel Peace Prize. However, some of his works, supposedly on behalf of sitting presidents, is called into question in the book.  

Reagan – a true con man. He’s the one who started the lean to the right. His Alzheimer’s was well on its way in his second term. Had little to do with predecessors.

Bush – probably a better man than given credit. Was also considered to be doubtful of his own actions.

Clinton – driven, referred to in this book as Bubba more than once. Apparently called on Nixon often for assistance in foreign affairs. Sent Carter to help in international situations, sometimes to regret it.

W – this book gives him better treatment than was apparent. I lived in Texas while he was governor and president, and I never saw that he was much of a leader. He truly made bad decisions but said that history will decide, maybe decades later. (History will absolve me. Isn’t that what Fidel Castro said?)

One of his best moves was to put Clinton and his father together to do fundraising around natural disasters around the world. Bill and the elder George became very close. Bill is considered an honorary Bush.

Obama – just getting started.

No one can possibly know what it is like to be president. That is why it’s so important to have good relations with those who served before. But I can honestly say, after reading this book, that there was no way whatsoever that Donald Trump had what it takes. And I can’t believe anyone who thought he could.

If you’re interested on how history views presidents, this link shows a survey which is conducted after every change of administration. A group of scholars rank them on 10 criteria including leadership, foreign affairs, equality, and more. Surprisingly, Trump is not the worst.

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