Monday, January 28, 2013

"The Presidents Club" by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy (2012)

I've often wondered about the relationships between former Presidents; of either party; with one another after they have left office. Next to retired Five Star generals; like Eisenhower; ex-Presidents are one of the more unusual occupations leading to retirement. How do they keep in touch with one another? Have they always done so? And what do they talk about? This book is a wonderful insight into just that question.
Beginning with President Truman, who wanted to do a proper “turnover” of command with Eisenhower; who was snubbed by the General; the authors have done a very credible and organized job in presenting the story of the few men who have led our nation; in war and peace; and how their relationships have often helped to shape foreign policy and world opinion.

I have to confess that I originally picked this book up with an interest in only the Truman-Eisenhower feud. I wasn't expecting to read the entire thing, but found myself drawn in deeper with each chapter. I was fascinated by the whole Truman-Eisenhower affair; as I knew I would be; but I was also pleasantly surprised at the author’s ability to maintain my interest beyond that.

Briefly put, the Truman-Eisenhower feud began when General Eisenhower criticized; for political reasons; his ex- Commander General Marshall, who was a friend of President Truman’s and ex-President Hoover. Although the plan to feed Europe was known as the “Marshall Plan”, it was really the brainchild of former President Hoover, who had done this very thing once before, after the First World War, when he was Secretary of Commerce. His humility drove his desire to not have his name associated with the plan, so the honor went to General Marshall, who implemented it. Remember that Hoover; like Ike; was a Republican. But he was also friends with Truman, and together the two formed the President’s Club on the very day of Eisenhower’s inauguration in 1953. It wouldn't be long until Eisenhower joined the club, his ongoing feud with Truman notwithstanding.

As I've said, this was the most interesting part of the book for me, as I have wondered about the relationship between the two for many years; and through many books; without ever having read such a complete and informative account as I have in this book. The feud between the two men came to an abrupt end on the day John Kennedy was buried. Eisenhower had learned that Truman was staying at Blair House, across from the White House, and in the confusion no one had bothered to provide him with transportation to the funeral of the slain President. It was Eisenhower who phoned Blair House and made arrangements for Truman to ride with him to the funeral. The last time they had ridden together was in 1953, on the way to Ike’s inauguration. During that entire ride they had not spoken to one another at all. But by the end of this day, in 1963, the two would be friends again for the rest of their lives.

It would be easy for the sitting President’s to blame many of their current troubles on their predecessors, and to some extent, that is what the club is there to prevent. All of the former Presidents agree that a show of national unity; rather than an adherence to party loyalty; is the most important role which they each play after leaving office. Even Presidents Ford and Carter found common ground, after their terms were over, by dealing with the Middle East. President Carter even delivered Ford’s eulogy in 2007.

From foreign affairs to politics at home, there are very few men the sitting President can turn to for advice or counsel. Only a few men have held the position and know the pitfalls which await each and every move they might make. At times like these, the Presidents club springs into action, with telephone calls made in the middle of the night. I can’t help but wonder at how these conversations begin. In my mind, it goes something like this, “Hello, Mr. President? This is the President. I hope I didn't wake you. But I need some advice.”

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