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April 24, 2013

The Presidents Club

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Last Thursday, Time magazine editors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy provided a sneak peek into the most exclusive club in the world, “The Presidents Club,” to a crowd that filled McDanielCollege’s Decker Lecture Hall in Westminster.


For presidential scholars and arcane American history junkies alike, the timing of the presentation could not have been more perfect.


According to a website, the George W. Bush Presidential Centerhome to the former president’s official library, museum and institute – will be dedicated with the former president and his wife in attendance.


As has become an historic custom and ritual, all the living presidents attend such an occasion and participate in a carefully choreographed exhibit of pomp, ceremony and circumstance that is truly-uniquely American. The only possible exception could be that of non-other than President Jimmy Carter, whom Mr. Duffy dubbed, with a certain inflection in his voice and curious tilt of the head, “the wild card.”


Mr. Duffy explained that one of the basic reasons they all attend is because the modern phenomena of the ‘presidential library,’ has evolved into a big deal. As I have observed first hand, the libraries are in the business of constantly polishing history in order to perfect, shape and in some cases, define, focus and fiercely defend the legacy of the particular president the institutions represent.


Mr. Duffy quipped at the McDaniel presentation that he can’t wait, and that he fully intended to take the day off just to watch all the living presidents getting together for this august occasion.


How much room is there on one stage for that much ego, Mr. Duffy asked the audience rhetorically.


However, in what must be a bit of an enigma to certain participants in partisan politics, over the years, the former presidents of all political persuasions, backgrounds and personality-types, have formed a strong and unique bond.


McDaniel College history professor Bryn Upton, who facilitated the discussion, explained – only another president can understand what it is like to be president.  Mr. Duffy emphasized that no-one except another former president can truly understand the burdens of the office and those burdens forge a bond and relationship that has a higher calling that easily transcends petty political differences.


Ms. Gibbs noted that “There is no club in America that would have all of these guys as members. They are just that different.”


Nevertheless, according to the book, the modern presidents’ club is said to have begun, “On January 20, 1953, at the inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower, (when) Truman greeted Herbert Hoover on the platform. ‘I think we ought to organize a former presidents club,’ Hoover suggested.


“Every president who followed would have reason to thank them. General Eisenhower, through an act of Congress in 1957, granted the club formal privileges: members received an allowance, office space, mailing rights, a pension.”


“George H.W. Bush launched a kind of club newsletter, letters stamped SECRET sent to some of his predecessors, and offered each a secure phone line to the Oval office…,” according to the book


Looking ahead to tomorrow events in Dallas, TX, it is noteworthy that although the current resident of the White House and all the past presidents talk on the phone and correspond much more regularly than the public is aware. The last time the living presidents gathered together was on Wednesday January 7, 2009.


According to numerous media accounts, including an article in The Grand Rapids Press, the idea for 2009 get together came when President Barack Obama suggested it to President Bush when they met in the Oval Office after the election the previous November.


At the time, it was “the first time all the living presidents have gathered at the White House since 1981.”


Presidents Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton all had attended the funeral of Coretta Scott King in 2006. “Bush, Carter, Clinton and George H.W. Bush were last together in January 2007, to attend President Gerald Ford's funeral service in Washington…


“The last White House event to draw the former presidents was a November 2000 celebration in honor of the White House's 200th anniversary. But one of the former presidents, Ronald Reagan, who was afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, was unable to attend.”


The Grand Rapids Press article reflected upon the bond that brings the presidents together, “… campaign rivalries tend to soften over time as presidents leave the White House and try to adopt the role of statesmen – although Carter, even as an ex-president, has had some critical public words for the current president's foreign policy…”


If you are an historian that glibly subscribes to the tongue-in-cheek definition that history is the inaccurate portrayal of events that ought not to have happened in the first place, the book is a must read and provides a wonderful insight into the happenstance vagaries of history that make up the office of the president.


The book by Mr. Duffy and Ms. Gibbs, “The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity,” was released on April 17, 2012 and is easily available at most book sellers. It is an invaluable addition for anyone who is truly curious about the personalities and response to circumstances of the various presidents of the past several generations.


The introduction of the book explains it well. Voters judge the performance, successes and failures of a president. “That is the duty of democracy. But judgment is not the same as understanding, and while what a president does matters most, why he does it is the privilege of history… the (book on the) club opens a new window into the Oval Office.”


The book provides fascinating insight and research into the secret sauce, and the arcane and mysterious glue that forges unlikely political actors together into a cohesive fabric of history.


. . . . .I’m just saying. . .


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