Shortly after winning reelection in 2004, George W. Bush was asked whether he thought more or less highly of his predecessors, now that he’d been in office awhile.
“Of my predecessors? Very interesting,” he said, before immediately adding, “More highly of them all” because “I’ve got a much better appreciation of what they’ve been through.”
That anecdote, told by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy in their new book The Presidents Club, captures how most American presidents feel about one another. Nobody quite knows what it’s like to be president except other presidents.
American presidents “are the jurors who will not pronounce a verdict, because they know they have not heard all the evidence,” the authors write in their closing sentence, “and they are predisposed to be merciful.”
If the Presidents Club had a charter, it would be guided by the three S’s: support and silence and solidarity. While most U.S. presidents have followed those protocols, even across party lines and with former rivals, President Obama has consistently and conspicuously broken them.
Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman became extraordinarily close. “I feel that I am one of his closest friends,” Truman said, “and he is one of my closest friends.”
After Kennedy beat Nixon by a slim margin in 1960, the president-elect invited his former adversary to meet. “I would like to fly down from Palm Beach to have a chat with you — if it won’t interfere with your vacation,” Kennedy said to Nixon. Nixon was happy to go, and they had what Kennedy described as “a very cordial meeting.”
After the Bay of Pigs debacle, Kennedy reached out to Nixon, who visited the president in the Oval Office to offer his advice. The young president also met with Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower. “I asked President Eisenhower here to bring him up to date on recent events and get the benefit of his thoughts and experience,” JFK said. He called on all three for guidance again during the Cuban missile crisis.
Lyndon Johnson was, the authors found, “fully conscious of the power of his predecessors and protective of their privileges. He studied them, fed and tended them, sent flowers, cuff links, statues, put Air Force jets and helicopters at their disposal, had his aides research every single contact he had ever had with any one of them, going back to his earliest Senate days.”
“I cannot tell you adequately my gratitude for your wisdom and counsel, and, for the fact that no one has found it possible to divide you and me,” LBJ told Eisenhower, whom he called “the best chief of staff I’ve got.”
Johnson solicited advice from both Ike and Truman, especially as the situation in Vietnam deteriorated. In asking Truman to visit him in the White House, Johnson wrote, “I don’t want to tax you, but I always want you to know I need your counsel, and I love you.” LBJ called Truman “One of the few comforts I had during the war.”
Nixon and his staff kept in touch with Johnson down on his Texas ranch. “Cabinet members called him regularly with updates, and Henry Kissinger came in person to discuss the progress of the peace talks,” Gibbs and Duffy write.
In August 1969, to mark Johnson’s 61st birthday, Nixon flew the Johnson family to his Western White House at San Clemente for a party, where Nixon led the group as the guests sang to Johnson, who “stood smiling, holding his felt hat and looking a little dazed in the brilliant California sun.”
During the Watergate scandal, Nixon refused to release a story about how LBJ had wire-tapped the Republicans in 1968. He didn’t want to expose LBJ — that was against the code. “The difficulty with using it, of course, is that it reflects on Johnson,” Nixon said. “He ordered [the bugging]. If it weren’t for that, I’d [exploit the crime].”
President Gerald Ford performed perhaps the greatest act of graciousness toward a predecessor in pardoning Nixon even though Nixon refused to admit he had done anything wrong. Ford’s decision helped cost him the 1976 election.
Ronald Reagan helped rehabilitate the image of Nixon, who regularly advised Reagan on political and foreign policy matters.
When George H.W. Bush became president, he sent National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft to visit all four living former presidents (Reagan, Carter, Ford and Nixon). He asked them what they might want in the way of regular briefings and other logistical favors. Bush also offered to install secure telephone lines so that he could reach them at a moment’s notice. He also sent them semi regular dispatches to keep them informed of what was going on in the White House — what the authors refer to as “a kind of club newsletter.”
George H.W. Bush deployed Ford and Carter to help oversee an election in Panama, and sent Carter again to usher in a peaceful transfer of power in Nicaragua. Former rivals George H.W. Bush and Clinton have taken many trips together and are so close that Bush has suggested on a few occasions that he might be the father Bill never really had.
Clinton made good use of the five presidents at his disposal at the start of his presidency, especially Nixon, who practically served as a part-time advisor. A Clinton aide called his relationship with Nixon, “something of a mutual admiration society.” Clinton compared Nixon’s death to the passing of his own mother.
A newly-inaugurated Clinton paid Reagan a special visit in Los Angeles, where the former president gave Clinton a much-needed tutorial on how to salute. Clinton deployed Carter to North Korea and to Haiti to handle very sensitive issues.
George W. Bush has been particularly gracious toward his successor. “We want you to succeed,” he told Obama after the 2008 election. “All of us who have served in this office understand that the office transcends the individual.” Obama, Bush says, “deserves my silence.” He has said, “I love my country a lot more than I love politics. I think it is essential that Obama be helped in the office.”
Perhaps the worst criticism Bush has leveled at Obama is “Well, I might have done it differently.”
Bush’s graciousness toward Obama stands out in part because it has not been reciprocated. Obama’s 2008 campaign is remembered as much for Obama’s berating of Bush as it is for his promises of unity and post-partisanship. As the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza put it, “There was an almost obsessive singularity in the way that Obama and [his strategists] saw the contest. In their tactical view, all that was wrong with the United States could be summarized in one word: Bush.”
As president, Obama has continued his compulsive Bush-blaming. Obama’s inaugural address was one long indirect but unmistakable swipe at Bush. With Bush only a few feet away, Obama declared, “Starting today we must pick ourselves off, dust ourselves off, and being again the work of remaking America.”
Obama has continued to make Bush his scapegoat. As columnist Charles Krauthammer has said about Obama, “Is there anything he hasn’t blamed George W. Bush for? The economy, global warming, the credit crisis, Middle East stalemate, the deficit, anti-Americanism abroad — everything but swine flu. It’s as if Obama’s presidency hasn’t really started.”
That was 2009. Three years later, Obama is still blaming Bush. In December 2011, Obama was asked what he would say to black Americans living in poverty who are disillusioned by the administration. “[T]hey understand what an incredible mess had been made as I was coming into office, and we’ve been spending the last three years cleaning it up.”
In February 2012, he said, “We’ve made sure to do everything we can to dig ourselves out of this incredible hole that I inherited.” In March, Obama complained, “When I came into office there had been drift in the Afghanistan policy.… Over the last three years we have refocused attention on getting Afghanistan right. Would my preference had been that we started some of that earlier? Absolutely. But that’s not the cards that were dealt.” The same month he said, “When I took office, the efforts to apply pressure on Iran were in tatters.”
Obama has not treated Bill Clinton much better. When he sent Clinton to North Korea to negotiate the release of two American women, the White House didn’t want Clinton to get credit. It notified the two women that when the plane landed in California, they would descend the airplane steps alone while Clinton stayed hidden in the cabin. One of the women complained, and the white house eventually relented. “But it was a reminder that the White House was not really comfortable having Clinton back in the picture,” Gibbs and Duffy write.
In September 2010, Obama introduced his wife at an event in New York City for the Clinton Global Initiative. As Jodi Kantor relates in her book The Obamas, Obama could not resist the urge to take a swipe at Clinton:
The former president came out first and praised the current one to the skies. The stimulus! A new college loan program! America’s bright future, the coming wave of high-tech jobs! But Obama was not there to discuss his work; he was there to discuss his wife’s. “Bill Clinton understands where I’m coming from,” he said after taking the podium. The former president, perched on a stool a few feet away, nodded, smiling. “He knows what it’s like to be married to somebody who’s smarter, somebody’s who’s better looking…” — the familiar Clinton smile grew a little tighter, as if he was not sure he appreciated the assessment of him or his wife by the younger man — “somebody who’s just all around a little more impressive than you are.” On “impressive,” Obama let out an uncharacteristic high-pitched giggle. Clinton’s eyes crinkled and he broke into a slow, exaggerated clap.
We’ll know much more about what goes on between Obama and his predecessors once he leaves office. Time will likely soften any hard feelings and animosities that have been created among them.
But from what we’ve seen so far, it’s clear Barack Obama is at best a reluctant member of the Presidents Club. Obama has always seemed like he believes he’s too good for the public who voted him into the presidency. It appears he feels similarly about those who were there before him.