The Presidents Club

I’m Canadian so my knowledge of American history is limited. I always groan when Jeopardy categories involve the American Civil War, obscure Vice Presidents or State flowers.

That said, Presidents fascinate me. I think they fascinate us all. American Presidents have the power to make such a difference in the world, for good or bad. Even though we  can’t vote in the elections, who is sitting in the Oval Office really does make a difference to the rest of the world.

Since this is an Election year, reading The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity seemed appropriate.

Here’s the thing: I think that we all think we know the men who have been President of the United States in modern history. Kennedy was all charm and glamour, Nixon was dishonest, and Bush Jr. was dumb. There are photographs of their time in office, their decisions have been broken down in books and their names are in history texts. But no one knows what it’s actually like to be the leader of the free world. Except those men that have sat in that chair before.

Hence, The Presidents Club. When I first saw the title, I assumed that it was made up by authors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy to fit the content of the book. But the Presidents Club is a real thing, started by Truman and Hoover back in the late 1940s. Truman was suddenly President after the passing of Roosevelt and he reached out to Hoover to help him solve the food crisis after the Second World War. Hoover, chased out of office in the middle of the Depression and virtually ignored thereafter, was only too happy to help.

And thus started a kind of bizarre club. No matter how much candidates might hate each other and the ideals that they represent, once a decision has been made, an outgoing President seems to be only too willing to help his successor settle in. He will agree to go on missions for him, offer advice, even make suggestions for cabinet positions.

The club has never had more than 6 living members at any one time; currently there are 5, including President Obama.

The book charts The Presidents Club from the late 1940s until the current day. The book is only 527 pages so there isn’t time to get into everything that happens in each administration (books on Vietnam or Watergate alone would take up the entire thing) so the book focuses instead on the elections and how the sitting President makes use of his predecessors.

I was surprised at how brilliant and politically astute Richard Nixon was: he offered President Clinton a lot of sage advice early in Clinton’s presidency and when he passed away Clinton was said to to have been devastated. Johnson was completely overwhelmed at being President after the assassination of President Kennedy and he reached out to his predecessors to help him sort out the quagmire that was Vietnam. Eisenhower was possibly the most popular President ever and virtually shut out his predecessors completely.

The book is filled with surprising anecdotes and little known facts. Sometimes I found myself skimming a little bit, when military ideas took centre stage (I just cannot get into military strategy) but overall I really enjoyed this surprising read. Different parts of the book changed my opinion of different Presidents: I was surprised to find myself feeling bad for George W. Bush for example.

I feel much more knowledgeable about American Presidents so the next time Jeopardy brings up a Presidential category? I’m going to crush it.

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