We do seem to like the notion of clubs, especially private clubs, clubs we can't belong to like The Women's Murder Club, The Baby Sitter's Club The Joy Luck Club, Fight Club or my fave, the Meryl Streep Movie Club, which is probably about sincere women sharing their inner journeys in a variety of foreign and domestic accents.
So it's no surprise that the most recent club worth our attention is a book about America's most exclusive one. It's a club with five members who come together, mostly when one of them dies. They pay no dues although each has spent a fortune to join. There are no club minutes, but there are individual memoirs. We're talking about the club that is centered in a white house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue where only one of the members currently lives.
This is the story of The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity, the wonderfully engaging and insightful history by Nancy Gibbs, editor at large of Time, and Michael Duffy, former Washington Bureau Chief for Time. It's a comprehensive examination of the relationships between our chief executives, starting with Herbert Hoover.
Poor Hoover. He's indelibly linked with the misery of 1929's stock market crash. Politically, however, he's also the clever fella who created the electoral tactic later known as the "Southern Strategy" which Richard Nixon used quite well during his campaigns. It really ticked off America's black leadership, who then said bye-bye to the GOP and hooked up with Democrats over civil rights.
With all effective historical story telling, heaven is in the details. Successes and failures of these presidents are well documented. Gibbs and Duffy bring us the details, the human foibles, the petty slights and the generous grace notes that elevate this story above hagiography.
Little known at the time: Bill Clinton regularly called Richard Nixon's for advice. When Nixon died, Clinton told a friend it felt like the loss of his mother.
Then there's the 1967 TV satellite debate between then Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Gov. Ronald Reagan on the subject of global affairs. Fifteen million viewers watched Reagan mop the floor with Kennedy who later barked to an aide, "Who the f___ got me into this."
Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon for his part in the Watergate mess ticked off many Democrats and Nixon haters. In this telling, you just might walk away with new respect for the what, when and why of Ford's compassionate and politically unpopular decision that cost him the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter. A quarter of a century later smarter minds prevailed and Ford was honored for the pardon with the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation's Profiles in Courage Award.
Also noted is Nixon's dislike for his own Sec. of the Treasury, George Schultz, primarily because Schultz flat-out refused his president when asked in 1972 to unleash the IRS on a number of Nixon enemies.
Two weeks after the failure of the Bay of Pigs Cuban invasion, the Gallup Poll listed Kennedy's approval rating at 83%. To which the president said, "Jesus, it's just like Eisenhower. The worse I do, the more popular I get."
Then there's the scene when President-elect Bill Clinton makes a courtesy call on former President Reagan in Los Angeles prior to his inauguration. Reagan, ever the showman, spent the thirty minutes showing new president how to properly salute.
This book tends to peter out with the most recent presidential relationships, probably because that bread hasn't quite risen yet. But that doesn't diminish the book's value.
If you follow politics, this is twenty-two hours of primo biographical history in the audiobook edition from Simon and Shuster. Narrator Bob Walter has got the right baritone pipes for the narration but his repetitive vocal rhythms tend to keep the listener at arm's length. The Simon and Shuster print edition runs 656 pages in print and is well worth the heft.
Power is a universal value in the hands of powerful individuals, says Oklahoma University Prof. Rufus Fears in his "The Wisdom of History" course for The Teaching Company. Following the relationships between these powerful men brings us closer to understanding the nature of power and how it's handled.