Presidents gives readers a lively look inside the world’s most exclusive club

With at least a half-dozen newly published books of 600 pages or more sitting on my desk largely unread (Robert Caro’s latest Lyndon Johnson volume is a Texas-size 712 pages, while John Lewis Gaddis’s biography of George F. Kennan tops out at 784 pages), I hesitate to recommend another, even though it’s a mere 641 pages.

Nevertheless, it’s worth turning off the TV and ignoring your iPad and BlackBerry for a few nights or weekends to read The Presidents Club — an enthralling book about the world’s most exclusive club, whose membership is limited to former presidents of the United States.

And if you’re really pressed for time, I’ll tell you how to capture the book’s essence by reading only a key chapter, if you promise not to tell co-authors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy I suggested you do so.

The chapter Nixon, Ford and Carter: Three Men and a Funeral is only 14 pages and begins with this arresting sentence: “Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter disliked each other for five years until they realized they both disliked Ronald Reagan even more.”

It’s a perfect example of the two Time magazine editors convincingly explaining how former presidents, even those with little in common, suddenly decide to become partners and friends. It happened as the two former presidents were returning from the funeral of the assassinated Anwar Sadat in Cairo in 1981. 

“What unfolded in October 1981 would herald the rebirth of the Presidents Club,” they write. “And it happened at 35,000 feet, more or less in full view of nearly twenty-five other people [including Henry Kissinger and Al Haig]. After years of lying dormant, the club was about to wake up.”

Security concerns had prevented President Reagan and then-Vice President George H.W. Bush from attending Sadat’s funeral, but Richard Nixon joined the group, then caused consternation by saying he wouldn’t be on the return flight because he was going to Saudi Arabia on a mystery mission.

Nixon’s absence made it easier for Ford — who’d pardoned him — and Carter to talk frankly, even though they had avoided each other since leaving office and on the flight to Egypt. “Though one was an exacting and difficult engineer and the other an easygoing former jock, they had just enough in common to see the advantages of getting over it,” Gibbs and Duffy write. “Each had been an unexpected president; each had been tossed out of office by voters; each had at least twenty years to live — and each blamed Reagan for his defeat.”

When reporters met with Ford and Carter, they were surprised at what they saw and heard. “Though somewhat formal at the outset, their conversation had quickly turned more casual and everyone noticed that the presidents were virtually finishing each other’s sentences by the end, using their first names, going out of their way to praise each other on various issues. The session was a complete turnaround from the brittle formality of a few days before. And when they were asked about the roles former presidents could play, the two men all but declared the club was back in business.”

The Ford-Carter rapprochement was a dramatic example of the operation of the Presidents Club, which traces its roots to President Truman’s recruitment of Herbert Hoover to spearhead U.S.-led relief efforts after World War II and cites its establishment at Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration, when Hoover and Truman greeted each other warmly. 

There’s obviously much more about how later presidents, including President Obama, have enlisted predecessors with vastly different ideologies and agendas to help them, so please find time to read the entire book. This is a terrific book, brilliantly conceived (I’m surprised no one thought of it before), meticulously researched and very well-written. It gets my vote as one of the best political books of this very political year.


The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity 

By Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

Simon & Schuster, April 2012

641 pages, $32.50