KCTS 9 Connects/The Presidents' Club - September 7, 2012

Connects: Presidents' Club 09/07/12
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The Presidents' Club

Time magazine-writers Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy take us inside the Presidents' Club.

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About the Episode

Time magazine-writers Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy take us inside the Presidents' Club. Plus, our Insiders Roundtable dissects the political conventions and other top stories of the week.

Enrique Cerna:
The president's club. It's the most exclusive club in the world. Barack Obama is a member. And Mitt Romney wants to be. Time magazine writers Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy have written a book about it. They uncovered the history and fascinating stories of the few who can claim membership. This idea of a president's club, when you first started looking into it, did you think there was really anything to it or was it just this myth?

Nancy Gibbs:
We knew it wasn't in the constitution. We knew it isn't in any text book. So we sort of thought of it as just a way of returning to the men who either are or have been president. But the more research we did, the more we talked to them, the more we realized that it is a real thing. They refer to the president's club. You know, Reagan writes to carter and says, since we're both members of this very exclusive club of ours. Truman and Hoover talk about forming the president's club. So it is actually much more real than even we realized going in.

Michael Duffy:
It has its own rules and has feast days and trinkets. So as the thing has advanced through 65 or 75 years, each president has used it or ignored it in different ways.

Enrique Cerna:
And it goes back to Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman.

Nancy Gibbs:
Two of the most unlikely partners you can imagine, different men, different personalities, different parties. But Truman really needs Herbert Hoover's help, despite the fact that Hoover was something of a pariah. And he secretly mails him a letter talking to him about how they're going to distribute food in Europe to prevent mass starvation. They're very suspicious of each other, but it turns out to be such an effective alliance, and they work so well together despite their differences, that we think of those two as founders of the president's club.

Enrique Cerna:
And Hoover helped Truman gain some credibility because during the depression years, he was despised.

Michael Duffy:
Hoover wouldn't allow him back in the White House. So it was something of a redemption for who have to be asked back, asked by a democrat to help. And it was Hoover who was at Ike's swearing in in 1953, who said, why don't we start a president's club? And Truman says, great idea, you be the president, and I'll be the secretary.

Enrique Cerna:
So let's talk about Eisenhower and how he became part of this president's club once he became the president. And then his relationships went on to carry on with John Kennedy and also Lynden Johnson.

Nancy Gibbs:
One of the thing we kept being surprised by is how often presidents from different parties got along better with presidents from the same party. So Eisenhower enters and leaves office the most admired man in the country. So for Kennedy, who didn't much want, this was the new frontier, he wanted to turn the page, he found himself I think to his own surprise reaching out to Eisenhower, particularly after the bay of pigs, saying, you know, Mr. President, no one knows how tough this job is until you've been in it for a few months. And Eisenhower says, forgive me, Mr. President, I told you that a few months ago. And you see this young Mr. President reaching out to this esteemed oldest of presidents saying, okay, I need you to help me with this. Lynden Johnson also reached out to Eisenhower all the time. And the very night, called him up, said I really need your help. And Eisenhower drives to Washington, comes to see Johnson, guides him about how to manage this transition through this most traumatic time in the country's history.

Enrique Cerna:
And Johnson really relies on Eisenhower and basically says, whatever you need.

Michael Duffy:
I think Vietnam was so difficult for Johnson, that he turns again and again to Eisenhower, the old, you know, master of the European World War II. Johnson sends helicopters up to keep Ike informed of various troop movements. He has Ike into the White House to attend meetings about war planning. He even turns entire meetings over to Ike to run.

Enrique Cerna:
Wow.

Michael Duffy:
So he refers to him as the best chief of staff I've ever had. Even by the mid '60s, Ike is still severed in the country and Johnson is lost on Vietnam, not quite sure what to do.

Enrique Cerna:
I found it interesting that it wasn't until Eisenhower that many of these former presidents, they didn't have the perks that they have today. And they didn't have pensions, they didn't have secret service protection, they didn't have much of anything.

Nancy Gibbs:
They didn't. And some of them didn't really need it. Hoover was independently wealthy. Truman was not. And so it was an act of congress in 1957 that established a pension and an allowance for certain sort of office privileges. Truman couldn't afford the stamps to answer all the mail he was getting.

Michael Duffy:
But every president expands it in some way. It's Richard Nixon who creates the secret clubhouse to give Lynden Johnson a place to stay and work. Johnson is driving Nixon a little crazy once he retires to the country. And Nixon says just find him some place to work. So they create this space, which now 40 years later, is still being used today.

Enrique Cerna:
Let's talk about that relationship between the current president and then the former presidents from the time that Clinton had that, now Obama. How much did they depend on these folks to help them in those tough times, even if they're not from the same party?

Michael Duffy:
I think all of the presidents since Clinton have relied at different times on every one of their predecessors. We're electing presidents younger because of medicine, they're living longer, sometimes we throw them out of office sooner. But even a president like President Obama has asked George W. Bush to do things, Jimmy Carter to do things. Of course, his relationship with Bill Clinton, very complicated, is becoming more and more interlocked as we come into the election, they're doing fundraisers together. Clinton is the star of Obama's video. You can almost imagine that it's Clinton that's running again.

Enrique Cerna:
But Clinton has this fascinating relationship with the Bush family, where he is actually considered to be a son. They talk about him being the brother from another mother.

Nancy Gibbs:
That's the nickname.

Enrique Cerna:
That's kind of amazing to me. But he really has looked to be a father figure.

Nancy Gibbs:
Who could have imagined that we would have George W. Bush who actually lives to see one actual son and one surrogate son in the White House. Barbara Bush thinks that Clinton is the son they never had.

Enrique Cerna:
And what is that relationship.

Michael Duffy:
He's closer to Clinton. Because while they have been rivals, which democrat is going to best advance policies in a conservative area, there's discomfort there as well, he has had a special sort of social relationship with Bush 41. George Walker Bush has paid him a big courtesy by exiting the stage. They have some intersection, it's limited. Jimmy Carter, who was always a difficult former president for everyone, no matter which party, even he has run a few missions overseas for this White House. It's been very quiet. And Carter told me when I interviewed him for this book, and he was most helpful, that when Obama sent him to North Korea, they made him sign an agreement which made him not talk about it.

Enrique Cerna:
Did they all, were the former presidents all open about this?

Michael Duffy:
Carter, Clinton, and George Herbert Walker Bush all helped us. And the others guided us, more removed. But President Obama did not talk with us. He has probably better things to do as president of the United States.

Enrique Cerna:
All right. It is a fascinating book, The President's Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity. And a lot of great back stories here. A lot of great historical information. Thank you very much.

Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy:
Thank you.

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