When the powerful need a friend: Inside The US Presidents’ Club
One of power’s cruel ironies is that after craving it for years, its attainment brings a deeply bitter (if addictive) taste. At the heart of the problem is that deep sense of isolation that comes of sitting at the top of the tree. No one can truly understand what it feels like… apart from one’s predecessors. This is the subject of a gripping new take on the US Presidency, Gibbs and Duffy’s The Presidents Club (surely there needs to be an apostrophe in there somewhere!?). There is an irritating proliferation of books about all 44 White House inhabitants, but this is a genuinely interesting addition.
The authors analyse the relationships between all the holders of the office since Truman replaced Roosevelt. One of the most notable themes is the friendships that developed across partisan lines, while those from the same party often struggled to work well together. Not only did Hoover and Truman become incredibly close (despite Hoover having been a Democrat bogeyman), but some of Bill Clinton’s friendships raise eyebrows. Great mutual respect grew between him and the man he usurped, George HW Bush; and most bizarrely, Clinton became very reliant on late night phone conversations with Nixon (the man his wife had helped to oust as a young lawyer investigating Watergate).
But perhaps this is not so surprising. Kennedy, on the day that Soviet nuclear missiles were discovered on Cuba, found himself quoting a poem by Domingo Ortega (translated by Robert Graves) that he often returned to:
Bullfight critics row on row
Crowd the enormous plaza de toros
But only one is there who knows
And he is the one who fights the bull. (p151)
No wonder they turned to the only other people who had faced the bull before them. Only they could understand.
Of course, the very fact that there could be a Presidents’ Club to turn to at all was the result of George Washington’s foresight. As the writers show:
Everything Washington did set a precedent: to accept a salary though he didn’t need one, so that future presidents would not all need to be rich; to go by Mr President rather than Your Excellency, so that future presidents might remain grounded; but most of all to relinquish his power peacefully, even prematurely given his immense stature, at that time a striking act of submission to untested democratic principles.
With that decision Washington established the Presidents Club – initially a club of two, once John Adams took office. Faced with the threat of war with France, Adams named the revered Washington commander of the Army, where he served until he died the next year. Adams was the first to discover that, whatever jealousies lingered in private, a former president could be highly useful.
He would not be the last. (p3)
If Washington had clung to power to the death, then the club would never have got off the ground. But it was only in the twentieth centuries that the club had 4 or 5 members alive at the same time (due to a combination of younger men being elected and the increase in human longevity).
The View from The Top
But it is usually only after settling into the Oval Office that they realise the full extent of their need for their predecessors.
One senior advisor to three presidents recalls watching the revelation unfold, as talented, confident men realize what they’ve gotten themselves into. “When you get in, you discover nothing is what you expect, or believed, or have been told, or have campaigned on,” he says. “It’s much more complicated. Your first reaction is: I’ve been set up. Second is: I have to think differently. Third is: Maybe they had it right. And it isn’t long before they ask, who am I gonna talk to about this?” (p8)
Take this example again from Kennedy, this time early in his Presidency after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion:
The meeting was still going on at 4am. At one point Kennedy broke away practically in mid-sentence, went out into the Rose Garden, and walked alone in the cool spring night air for about forty-five minutes. The others just watched him out the windows. “He seemed to me a depressed and lonely man,” Sorensen said.
Jackie Kennedy would recall the sheer weight of that failure on her eager, optimistic husband. “He came back to the White House to his bedroom and he started to cry, just with me,” she told Schlesinger three years later. “Just put his head in his hands and sort of wept. It was so sad, because all his first 100 days and all his dreams, and then this awful thing to happen. And he cared so much.” (p133)
This is not to say that relationships with predecessors have always been sweetness and light. The rivalries between some were great, or at least, complex. Eisenhower appeared to have little respect for his VP Nixon, and so only really seemed to enter his 1960 campaign against JFK to protect his own legacy from Kennedy’s smears and sideswipes. Carter’s behaviour as America’s ‘best ex-president’ has sometimes caused Oval Office incumbents huge problems, as when he started his own unilateral negotiations in the Far East despite Clinton’s own explicit policies.
Looking for a Legacy
But the aspect that most struck me was the issue of legacy. We always hear of leaders looking to future critics as a way of shrugging off contemporary critics. But the book did help to understand how this can be seen as more than merely self-serving. For there are always moments that require simply the passage of time for interpretation. As Zhou Enlai famously said when asked to comment on the French Revolution (although some think he was actually commenting on the French student protests in 1968) ‘it is too early to say’.
If the Presidents Club had a seal, around the ring would be three words: cooperation, competition and consolation. On the one hand, the presidents have powerful motives – personal and patriotic – to help one another succeed and comfort one another when they fail,. But at the same time they all compete for history’s blessing. Praise or blame in the moment means little: it is how their decisions play out over time that matters, and so the redemption they’re looking for is of a more lasting kind. They are one another’s peers; who else can really judge them? Truman “had strong opinions about the presidents who succeeded him,” Margaret recalled, but he would not voice them; he believed that “more time must pass before anyone, even an ex-President, can evaluate the performance of a man in the White House.” (p524)
This is then reflected in what these leaders are often proudest on retirement:
We know what happened when each president presided; they are often just as proud of what didn’t happen. They wind their way toward solutions, commuting back and forth to the alternative reality where they glimpse the damage if things don’t go as planned. When the weight of office is finally off their shoulders, this is what they remember most. Eisenhower the general was honoured for winning the great war. But Eisenhower the president was proudest of not fighting one…
[As George W Bush put it]: I truly believe that the decisions I made will make the world a better place. Unfortunately if you’re doing big things, most of the time you’re never going to be around to see them… And I fully understand that. If you aim for big change, you shouldn’t expect to be rewarded by short-term history. (p526)
The View from the Bottom Rung
The challenges for those in power are immense, never more so than now because of the 24-hour news cycle, and the threats from global terrorism, environmental catastrophe, economic chaos, the population explosion, rogue states, nationalism etc etc etc. And this is before one has even begun to think about the politics of merely holding onto and wielding power when there are hundreds vying for your seat. Many of us look at this and shrug, simply glad that someone else has the buck stopping with them.
Is it any wonder that the apostle caused us to pray for those in power? (1 Tim 2:1-3)
But there is a bigger question, one with which I’ve been struggling for years. That is the problem of power itself. How can those who do not wield great power help those who do? One of the difficulties is that the NT’s perspective tends to be that of the little guy confronting the overwhelming force of the powers that be (e.g.Paul before authorities, Revelation churches before the Beast). There’s very little in there from the perspective of the throne (we have to go to OT characters like Joseph, Esther, Solomon’s Proverbs, Nehemiah etc for that). But we do need to develop a theology of power, or more accurately, a theology of wielding power.
For this is crucial as a way of helping and serving those who have power. It’s just too easy to cast aspersions and fire brickbats at those with impossibly difficult decisions that invariably entail compromise, wriggle room, political calculus and guesswork. If this book has done nothing else (apart from satisfy an underling’s perennial curiosity for insider gossip) it has been to remind us of the choppy waters that face all those in the hot seat. It’s not enough simply to wash our hands of the political because it’s grubby or distasteful, or to resort to the partisan demonization of political foes. They need, and indeed deserve, a more constructive voice.
No wonder they turn to their predecessors for solace and advice. It’s not simply that they’re the only ones who understand. Few others have even thought about how to manage the ethical traumas involved in such a job.