For only the third time in history, there are a record six living presidents in the United States, including the current White House occupant Joseph R. Biden Jr., along with Barack Obama, who he served as vice president. The list also includes George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and now Donald J. Trump. All went into the White House with different experiences, instincts and personalities but emerged realizing they have a great deal in common. They form a unique club and have an awareness from which we can learn.
Governing’s Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson spoke with the authors of “The President’s Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity.” Nancy Gibbs is now the director of the Shorenstein Center and the visiting Edward R. Murrow Professor at Harvard Kennedy School. She is also a former editor in chief at TIME. Michael Duffy, also a TIME alumnus, is the opinions editor-at-large for The Washington Post.
Governing: What is the “President’s Club”?
Nancy Gibbs: It consists of the sitting president and those who came before. In addition to the public relationships that we witness when they come together for state funerals or after national disasters, the club members tend to have remarkable private relationships. Our book focuses on the post-war collection of presidents. We were interested in what it is that binds these individuals across different personalities and political priorities and leads them to work together for the larger good in continually surprising ways. I think that, up until now, this speaks to something very encouraging in the way that those who reach our highest office view their responsibility to the country as a whole.
Country Above Rivalry
Governing: Why does it matter? How does this phenomenon affect the republic?
Michael Duffy: These individuals go into the office with very different experiences and instincts and philosophies. The job is extremely bruising and scarring, the crucible of American democracy. They emerge with an awareness that they have a great deal in common. They discover a unity and shared experience that we can really use right now. The experience, the stories that these men have written together, is something everyone can learn from.
They are capable of extraordinary signaling. We just saw, less than a month ago, three former presidents signaling to the country that all is not lost, and they did it on a day when it certainly seemed that all was lost. Bush, Obama and Clinton got together and had an unprecedented public conversation about the transition and why it’s important.
Presidents Clinton, Obama, and Bush held a conversation on the peaceful transition of power Jan. 20, 2021, in the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery.
These are three men who still don’t love each other but who knew they needed to be together that day and they needed to be seen together. Many people I have talked to said that this was the most intriguing, inspiring, helpful moment of that day.
Nancy Gibbs: There have been times in history when it mattered in a life and death kind of way. Consider the very unlikely partnership between Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover. They were political and personal opposites, and yet they collaborated after World War II on humanitarian relief in Europe. They saved tens of millions of lives.
Then there are things like Bill Clinton’s friendship with the first President Bush. These two fought bitterly in 1992, and there was no love lost between them. And yet you had that remarkable letter that Bush left for Clinton: “Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.” As bruised as President Bush was after losing the election, these two men came together, first for tsunami relief and then for Hurricane Katrina. They became good friends, and they recognized that the country liked seeing that.
Governing: As President Trump continued to break norms, the former presidents might have considered making a joint statement that repudiated his approach to power. But they didn’t. That’s something that former presidents don’t like to do.
Michael Duffy: In the end, they’re still members of their party. And until the election was over, I think they all felt that it would be better if they did not play a public role. They would have needed George W. Bush because all the other living former presidents are Democrats, and Bush was reluctant to do it for a complicated set of reasons. Mostly I think he felt he needed to keep his powder dry in case something really bad happened and he needed to step in. He didn’t want to do that in advance of the election, because I think he feared that something else might happen after.
Crisis And Picking Their Fights Carefully
Nancy Gibbs: I think that each, for different reasons, is mindful in picking their fights. They operate behind the scenes. They each have different calculations to make. In some ways, it’s a harder time right now. We just came through a presidency where every passing thought was expressed in real time. Where and how they can have the greatest impact may not be as obvious as it might have been in an earlier age.
For President Kennedy, simply being seen and photographed walking the halls of Camp David with President Eisenhower after the Bay of Pigs was enough. Eisenhower’s support was a thunderclap, providing the full force and power of his authority to a young president who’d just experienced a foreign policy debacle. But the media machinery is so profoundly different now that it’s a harder proposition.
Governing: It seems unlikely that President Trump, now in retirement, will ever join the club.
Nancy Gibbs: The essence of the club, the whole motive and motto, is helping those who come next. How would he be able to serve as a back channel to foreign leaders, or as a partner in signaling for bipartisanship, as Clinton did when he called all the formers together around NAFTA? How could he serve as a champion and monitor of democracy around the world? The debate is whether he can even be trusted to get national security briefings. One reason that past presidents get those briefings is so they’ll be up to speed if the sitting president wants to call on them for guidance. Clinton often did this with Nixon about China. Former presidents can be valuable that way. It’s very hard to think now that Trump would be in a position to supply the practical contributions and support that former presidents give sitting presidents.
Governing: Trump has information about his meetings with Kim Jong-un in North Korea and elsewhere that are unique in modern presidential history. If they could get over the hump of mutual distrust and Trump’s shattering of norms and disdain for his predecessors, might there be something useful here?
Michael Duffy: This is one of the few moments in history where there have been five living former presidents. It’s an interesting moment. It takes character to be in this club, and it takes some skills that aren’t in evidence with President Trump. Until he decides he wants to do that, his role will be limited. One-term presidents tend to step away from the game. It’s not clear that Trump is going away. It’s more likely that he’s going to come back. And it’s hard to play any kind of role in the club if you’re not done.
Nancy Gibbs: The other piece of that is a matter of attitude. One thing that club members have in common is a real consciousness that the president is the only person who is elected by all the people, and who, upon taking office, serves all the people. Joe Biden has repeatedly emphasized that he is the president of all people, whether they voted for him or not. That’s a core piece of the club’s gospel. One reason Biden has emphasized this is because Trump explicitly treated his own role as transactional. His stance was that he would serve the people who voted for him. Why would he do things for people who did not support him?
The irony, of course, is that Trump was a former Democrat. He has less actual loyalty to the Republican Party than any previous Republican president, and yet his businessman mentality saw his election as a transaction that put him in a relationship with his voters. Period. He never gave any indication of transitioning to being president of all the people. That is such a critical piece of what allows these men to remain in relationship with one another after their presidency.
Collegiality Vs. Transactional Reciprocity
Michael Duffy: If the other five presidents would just come into one of Trump’s golf clubs and play a few rounds and stay the weekend, Trump might be willing to participate. That way of thinking and that transactional piece will be his terms for membership.
Governing: Considering how much Biden emphasizes unity and bipartisanship, we would expect the norms, values and spirit of the club to be very much present during his presidency. But does the club have the potential to serve the country in the future in the way that it has in the past?
Michael Duffy: We’ll see. I think Americans are now less forgiving of their presidents. They’re more partisan, and their memories seem to be longer. It may just be a more hostile environment all around, quite apart from the relationships between the men themselves.
Governing: Imagine, just as a hypothetical, that Trump invited the other presidents to Mar-a-Lago to golf and dine together, and that there was video showing them in apparent harmonious conversation. Would that have an effect on the Trump supporters who are angry about this election?
Nancy Gibbs: The minimum condition for that happening, which I can’t imagine, would be for Donald Trump to make it explicitly clear that he recognizes that he is no longer the legitimate president, and that Joe Biden is the legitimate president. Think about the epistemic crisis we are in right now, with about two-thirds of Republicans believing that the new president was not legitimately elected. That is an emergency, a democratic emergency. We witnessed the playing out of that emergency in this last impeachment trial. It has implications far beyond the end of Trump’s actual tenure in office.
Maybe if there were a scenario whereby an act of the formers and President Trump could address this catastrophic chasm of knowledge and belief (in the legitimacy of the election), but I just don’t see it. Nothing that we have seen in President Trump suggests that he is capable or openly concerned about that. He has celebrated his power in controlling the beliefs of tens of millions of people. That’s a deal breaker.
Michael Duffy: I can’t imagine the others going. Biden’s a Democrat, as are three of the formers. An interesting feature of the club is that the people in the same party typically do not get along as well as those from opposite parties.
Governing: Why does the cross-party dynamic have more possibilities than the same-party dynamic?
Michael Duffy: Because the history is too fraught in the case of the men from the same party. They’ve all at some point competed or crossed swords. The interparty differences are far more difficult to cope with than the ones between the parties. Biden’s been around for a long time, so he’s crossed paths with all of them, including Carter. Also, like all new presidents, Biden is pretty sure he can do fine by himself, thank you very much. That usually turns out not to be the case, but it’s always the winner’s view at first.
The former presidents coming together to sit with Joe Biden was a spectacular development for Carter. He is no longer the preferred black sheep. He can finally take his place as a full-fledged member in good standing.
Governing: Your book is fascinating on that dynamic, and all that happened on the flight to Anwar Sadat’s funeral (Oct. 10, 1981). Talk a little bit about that extraordinary moment in American history.
Michael Duffy: Before Sadat was assassinated in 1981, it had been customary that someone with head-of-state stature attend such an event. But in that situation, brought about by one of the earliest explosions of the Islamic terror of the past 40 years, the security risks were too great. President Reagan invited Nixon, Ford and Carter to attend. This was one of the first real gatherings of multiple former presidents in our book. None of them particularly liked each other when they got on the plane.
Cramped together on the older, much smaller Air Force One 707, these three men, with their complicated histories of relationships and rivalries, experienced what can only be called an unbelievable flight. By the time that plane landed, Ford and Carter had forged a partnership that would see them do dozens of projects together over the next 30-plus years. Theirs would end up being one of the closest of all the presidential bonds we studied for the book. Whenever you get on Air Force One, you know you’re flying around in history. It feels different from any other plane. Even these two veterans of presidential travel were greatly affected.
We always looked for these human elements in whatever we were writing about. We felt they were the most revealing and important. Though politics is inevitably a part of it, “The President’s Club” is primarily about human relationships.
Acting In Whose Interest?
Governing: Nixon, after his disgrace, had a desperate need for rehabilitation, a desire to be relevant. And it was the unlikeliest of all presidents, Bill Clinton, who finally began to call on him. Nixon became a significant factor in Clinton’s global thinking. What if at some point Donald Trump wants something from this group that he can’t get in any other way?
Nancy Gibbs: Clinton talked about this after Nixon died. He spoke of reaching for the phone to call Nixon before realizing he could no longer do so. He said it reminded him of when his mother died. As Michael says, these stories are about human relationships. Fundamentally, this is about need, what you need, what you’re allowed to need, and who can meet those needs when you are serving in the most fateful office in the world.
Michael Duffy: In the end, this isn’t about what the formers need. It’s about what the current person needs. And the ethos is that those in the club stand ready to help. Tell me what I can do for you. It’s not what you can do for me. That’s not the dynamic of the relationship.
Shared Burden, Shared Damage
Governing: You make the point in the book that it’s a tiny club of unique individuals. There are many CEOs and governors and U.S. senators in this country, but the presidency of the United States stands unique in its difficulties. The pressures of the job are enormous, so much so that we can see the wear and tear on those who hold this office. Who else other than the club could understand what is really going on?
Michael Duffy: Exactly. No one else, not even their wives, can understand what they’ve been through. They find shelter among those who have shared this damage. And it is damage.
Nancy Gibbs: I think another part of it is that they share an impatience with all the armchair presidents who judged them, everyone from academics to media pundits. They understand what Theodore Roosevelt meant about being “in the arena.” Presidents have people taking potshots at them all day long, people who don’t know the full story, haven’t been briefed and don’t know what they’re dealing with. And when you’re in the most powerful position in the world, you can’t grumble about how hard it is. You can’t complain about what it does to the individual. You are essentially alone with frustrations that only you and a select few can understand. And these experiences incline those few to put aside personal and political differences and give one another the benefit of the doubt.
You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the new Governing podcast, “The Future In Context.”