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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Presidents Club’

- - Friday, May 11, 2012

THE PRESIDENTS CLUB: INSIDE THE WORLD'S MOST EXCLUSIVE FRATERNITY
By Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy
Simon & Schuster, $32.50, 641 pages

In this well-written and highly readable account of presidential interrelations, we're told by Time magazine veterans Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy that the idea for what they call "The Presidents Club" was born at the end of World War II, when Harry S. Truman tapped Herbert Hoover to lead the effort to stave off starvation in Europe. "Hoover was the man who knew how, and from that simple equation, an alliance was born." In 1953, at the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Hoover suggested to Truman that they form the club.

President Eisenhower, not enamored of Truman, saw no need to seek his advice and counsel. But when he left office, he offered assistance to his successors, debriefing John F. Kennedy on the Bay of Pigs fiasco and advising him on handling the Cuban missile crisis. After the Kennedy assassination, he came to the White House to write out for new club member Lyndon B. Johnson what he should say to a joint session of Congress.

At times, the authors push their thesis, making sure that all pieces of the "club" construct interlock. For instance, there's the problem of what to do with Jimmy Carter. "More than Nixon, who had obvious demons, Carter was the driven, self-righteous, impatient perfectionist who united the other club members around what seemed like an eternal question: was Jimmy Carter worth the trouble?"

Aside from the matter of those Nixonian "demons" - and many of President Nixon's supporters thought them real, taking the form of fierce ideological opponents - Mr. Carter does seem to be the least esteemed of the former presidents. In fact, to keep him in play as a member of their club and give him something in common with his cooperative fellows, the authors exercise a considerable stretch. "Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter disliked each other for five years until they realized they both disliked Ronald Reagan more." Then, the authors write, "they became friends."

An understandable dislike, perhaps, in the case of Mr. Carter, a hapless president made to look silly in debate by Reagan. But for Ford, who, although relishing political combat, was never a spiteful man or a bad loser, it doesn't fit, nor does the notion that he and Mr. Carter "would create a place all their own, a powerful, productive club inside the club."

Despite whatever feelings they may harbor about the demon-ridden Nixon and his efforts to "redeem himself," the authors give him a great deal of space in this large book, considerably more than each of his fellow club members. In a sense, Richard Nixon is their touchstone, and in a work in which "cooperation, competition and consolation" set the tone (why not add "comity"?) the authors, although occasionally leveling hard charges (they speak of his "defiling the presidency") in large part show us a Nixon relatively free from the accepted liberal caricature, ready to give informed and highly valued assistance and advice to his successors.

Thus, "In his public remarks, Nixon was always careful to support Reagan," and "Reagan repaid Nixon ... by asking for his advice early and often - and then taking it." George H.W. Bush, who owed his rise in politics and government to him, "would remain loyal to Nixon ... virtually until his resignation; and as a person long after."

After his death, perhaps the most interesting tribute to Nixon came from Bill Clinton. A week after the funeral, at which he spoke eloquently of his gratitude for Nixon's wise counsel, he told Larry King he missed Nixon the same way he missed his mother.

"Just today I had a problem and I said to the person working with me, 'I wish I could pick up the phone and call Richard Nixon and ask him what he thinks about this.' "

In a 2011 interview with the authors, Mr. Clinton recalled in some detail the contents of a seven-page letter that Nixon had sent him after a trip to Russia. (A "tour de force," he called it. "Nixon at his best.")

Mr. Clinton was asked by the authors how he was able to remember it in such detail.

"I reread it every year," he said.

Now there's comity.

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of "Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement" (Wiley).