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Friday, March 21, 2014

The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs & Michael Duffy


The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs & Michael Duffy is about second chances for our former presidents and about recycling former presidents’ skills and connections. Herbert Hoover, one who really needed a second chance was the first member of this exclusive club for Harry S Truman. This book chronicles the Modern Club starting with Truman as President and Hoover as the first Modern Day member. Of course George Washington was the first member for President Adams. Lincoln had access to six because of all the one-term presidents. Only Washington and Nixon, upon his second reelection had none. Clinton had five. It is admirable how these former foes became great friends and advocates for the sitting president.
Herbert Hoover became the first weapon used by a sitting president, Harry Truman, in the Cold War. Hoover, who had been responsible for feeding Europe after WWI for President Wilson, now became that food czar for Truman. It was important for America to take the lead in feeding Europe as well as Africa, India, and Japan after the war instead of the Soviet Union. Hoover had experience in the logistics and his exile since Roosevelt became president marked a modern new world for the White House.
Ironically Eisenhower was an aide to Truman before Ike became President. Then Ike, the only modern president who had more experience to be president than any successor never used the Presidents Club as others would. He did command the European theater in WWII. In fact Ike and Truman separated company until after JFK’s funeral. It’s interesting how Ike behaved as president as opposed to as a general. Then I recall how MacArthur behaved and was dismissed. Truman had his hands full with these egomaniacs. As I look back on history, it is too common the same pattern of a war hero botching it up in a civilian position of power. It is good Ike was our last major war leader to become president and it should serve us notice never to elect another one again. Consider the current state of chaos in our military today. Generals make bad presidents because military command is the other side of the coin to civilian leadership.
Enter JFK and a brave new world that goes awry because of the Bay of Pigs. This entire episode is one disaster after another and the shocking detail that many supported a shadow government run by Ike provides fuel for any assassination conspiracy. It is stunning that we have not had a coup in this country and methinks this one episode may have been one of those times we were the closest. Inherited problems by one administration to the next are a constant theme for all presidents. Perhaps this is why a Presidents Club is so important and also ripe with danger so a predecessor can maintain some power into the next.
A quote from then NSC Advisor Bundy addresses important issues that plague any new president and one particular matter of this president, “Bundy invoked his predecessors, with the clear suggestion that maybe Kennedy could learn something from the old guys. ‘Truman and Eisenhower did their daily dozens in foreign affairs the first thing in the morning,’ he noted, ‘and a couple of weeks ago you asked me to begin to meet with you on this basis. I have succeeded in catching you on three mornings, for a total of about eight minutes, and I conclude that this is not really how you like to begin the day.’” Leadership we learn requires discipline and assistance from others and JFK had a haphazard meeting policy. He hated meetings and instead met with advisors one on one. Building on the past is how the present is formed and the future planned. In addition, we now know more about JFK and no these morning meetings were not how he liked to start his day. He preferred to be briefless and not with Jackie.
The conflicts between JFK and Khrushchev remind me of Obama and Putin. Khrushchev built the Berlin Wall. Perhaps Putin will build a Crimean Wall. Also Putin seems to be bullying Obama the way Khrushchev bullied JFK, till The Cuban Missile Crisis. Will history repeat itself?
Johnson started out well, had support and used Ike and Truman well to help with international agenda at expense of domestic agenda. Vietnam was his Waterloo.
Nixon and Reagan had been friends since 1947 since both in California and from Midwest. Their political lives intermingled for decades with Nixon always being the lesser of the two in terms of popularity, whereas Nixon was the shrewder politician.  The battle for 1968 is intense, cagey, and exciting. This is filled with a huge ‘What if.’ Nixon back channels the peace talks just as Reagan will with Iran during battle with Carter. It was politics as usual for Nixon as he continues politicking in his usual underhand devious way. One of the last things LBJ said to Nixon as he turned over the keys to the car were, “I will warn you now, the leaks can kill you.” Nixon was alone in 1972 after Ike, Truman, and LBJ al died in quick succession. And what a mess of things he made of it.
With the election of Reagan, the Club now had three members. Nixon emerged again and as he constantly sought redemption, his membership was useful, while Ford and Carter with Reagan as their common foe became fast friends and formed an unlikely union that lasted for twenty years. Nixon became a very powerful ally to Reagan and Bush I. His political insights were never wrong and he was helpful to both men in winning the WH. What is most scary is how Nixon’s predictions about things is right.
The events of the 41, 42, and 43 are still unfolding as 44 sits in the WH. What an insider’s read and story.


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