The Presidents Club — Presidents are Actually Humans

My cousin Robert handed me The Presidents Club the other day, a book about the years after office of every president since Hoover. It’s a delightful book; I’ve barely put it down.

If our Rowdy Book Club book brings you down — it’s worse than you think — The Presidents Club will give you some hope — politicians can act like human beings, although maybe only when they’re no longer running for anything.

This book did something amazing — made me feel some compassion for George W. Bush. It couldn’t make me feel the same for Richard Nixon, but that’s asking too much. What the book does show is former presidents still wanting to serve their country, still wanting, in George H.W. Bush’s words, to do something “bigger than your own political lives, or bigger than your own self.”

What do you do after you’ve been president? You get a life back, but some of the cool stuff, like the plane, is gone. Most shocking, you arent as important anymore. Nixon and LBJ had trouble being off center stage, Truman and George W. seem to have quite liked it.

The best part of this book — and one of the best things I’ve read in years — is the chapter on George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The two worked together, at W’s request, to raise and distribute funds after the Asian Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. And they became true friends. The Odd Couple, the brash one beating the reserved one in 1992, but joined after office by that desire to do something that matters. Their friendship, Clinton said, demonstrates something the country longs for — people from opposing sides coming together to do good.

At the dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library in 2004, W and his father were there, and W noticed his dad and Clinton, enjoying animated conversation, were lagging behind the main tour. Bush asked an aide to retrieve the two former presidents so they could all get started on lunch: “Tell 41 and 42 that 43 is hungry.” The elder Bush and Clinton became so close that Bush called Clinton immediately after Clinton had surgery, checking up on him. Later W, at the Gridiron Dinner in D.C., joked that Clinton, after surgery, “woke up surrounded by his loved ones: Hillary, Chelsea…my Dad.”

The book shows Jimmy Carter’s huge ego and huge energy for good causes, shows once again Gerald Ford’s decency (and skips over the fact that he charged people money to play golf with him — his version of giving lucrative speeches), LBJ’s demons, Eisenhower’s straightforwardness, and Nixon’s incessant drive to pretend his Watergate lies didn’t disqualify him from the international stage. Amazingly, Clinton talked often to Nixon, getting advice on issues and on living as the president. A major theme of the book is that former presidents are loyal to the office and the country and try not to damage their successors.

This book, published in April, written by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, is the best book on governing and politics I’ve read since Robert Caro’s fourth volume of LBJ’s biography, The Passage of Power. Both show how hard being president is, and how character faults will crack under the office’s pressures. The Presidents Club shows there can be second chances.

— Bruce Benidt
(Photo from time.com)

3 thoughts on “The Presidents Club — Presidents are Actually Humans

  1. Joe Loveland says:

    Excellent Cliff’s Notes, Bruce. Thanks for the tip.

    When politician friends of mine have lost races, I know I’m supposed to be sad for their lost dreams. But I’m always secretly happy for them, because I know they’re getting a huge part of their lives back.

    It’s such a brutal game that these guys must literally feel the weight of the world lifted from their shoulders when they leave office.

    I used to be strongly opposed to term limits, because having senior leaders in government brings so much expertise and knowledge to governance, and I still do worry that without that the lobbyists and staff would truly run the place. But I now reluctantly support term limits. The sooner a politician stops thinking “but I have to do this to get reelected,” the better people and leaders they become.

    As it sounds like this book points out, these were never bad human beings. But political incentives sometimes cause them to do rotten things in office. Remove the incentives, get better human beings back.

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