A Club to Protect the Presidency

Ronald Reagan taught Bill Clinton to salute--and other secrets from the world's most exclusive fraternity.

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From the beginning of the American presidency, never more than five former presidents have been alive to advise their successors in the Oval Office. Time magazine deputy managing editor Nancy Gibbs and executive editor Michael Duffy explore the relationships between current and former presidents and the role the ex-executives continue to play in shaping policy in The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity. Duffy recently spoke with U.S. News about the rules of the club and which former presidents had a tendency to break them. Excerpts:

How was the Presidents Club started?

Truman and Hoover cooked it up in 1953. These two men, who really had nothing in common, had managed during the late 1940s to work together on a number of really important things—saving Europe, feeding Europe, and then reorganizing the federal government—which was remarkable and hard for those of us today to imagine a Democrat president and a Republican working together. On the dais at the swearing-in of Ike, Hoover approaches Truman and says, "We ought to start a former presidents club," and Truman says, "Great idea. You be the president, I'll be the treasurer," and so it was born and those two men sort of kick things off.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

How did former presidents benefit from the club?

These men, when they leave the office, they don't stop being interested in all this stuff. They go from drinking from a fire hose to having very little to do except what they can remake of their lives and their careers, which takes many years to do. They miss the action, and the club allows them a way back in. All presidents have turned to their predecessors, particularly in crises, for special help, for special missions, sometimes for secret missions, and this allows the men who know a great deal and have amazing Rolodexes to keep a hand in the game. It also allows them some portion of redemption. Many of them leave office having been rejected by the public; all of them leave office with massive scars and dents and regrets, and those regrets they have to live with and live with alone.

What are some of the "rules" of the club and why are they important?

Presidents tend not to criticize their successors because they know how difficult and impossible and unpleasant the job is. Even George W. Bush has said of Obama, "He deserves my silence." When you do have advice to give inside the club, you are supposed to do it privately and discreetly and really only when asked. That isn't honored as much in the breach as in the rule, and sometimes Presidents Nixon, Carter, just to name two, offered their advice not only not in private but often not when asked for it, and through this project we discovered just how troublesome those two men could be for the sitting presidents.

[Jimmy Carter: President Obama Leaves Too Much to Congress]

How does the club deal with scandals, such as the Watergate scandal or the Lewinsky scandal?

There is another reason the club exists: to protect the presidency, regardless of the person in it. They know, in this incredibly divided political age, we need a strong, functioning executive. When one occupant of the Oval Office or another puts that at risk, either through, in Nixon's case, political manipulation, or in Clinton's case, personal malfeasance, the club tends to swoop down and say, let's move this along and let's protect the presidency.

What surprised you the most?

One of my favorite stories is Reagan teaching Clinton how to salute. I wouldn't have guessed in my wildest dreams that one man could have even been in that position to help the other, but was and did. That's really interesting. The image of Reagan teaching Clinton how to salute in a Century City office in Los Angeles in 1992—that's lore that turns out to be true.

[Read more Book Club interviews by subscribing to U.S. News Weekly, now available on the iPad.]

How has the club evolved over the years?

I would say the club is about to have a boom. We have two former presidents who are 87 turning 88 this year: Carter and Bush I. We have two baby boomers: Clinton and Bush II, who are 66 this year. Whether Obama is elected this fall or not, he will be one of the youngest ex-presidents ever. It's gone from a place where a handful of men did very serious work together, to now, when it is much more like a fraternity, where among the five who are currently around, there are five or 10 or however the math works different kinds of relationships inside that club, with alliances and rivalries and friendships and not friendships.