History was made yesterday when all the living presidents of the United States—Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush—met for lunch in the White House with President-elect Barack Obama. As noted in this Washington Post article, this was the first meeting of all living presidents since October 1981, when Ronald Reagan hosted Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter as they were assembling to attend the funeral of Anwar Sadat in Egypt. And once Obama is inaugurated, we will be in a period when there are four living former presidents—a rare time in American history.
The Post makes reference to Obama modeling himself on Abraham Lincoln, with his "team of rivals" cabinet (without noting that one 2008 rival, Bill Richardson, has been dropped from the list). But the paper does not note that when Lincoln took office, he did not have such a meeting, even though there were five former presidents living at the time. And for good reason: All five were, to varying degrees, hostile to Lincoln. Martin Van Buren, who had held office almost a quarter-century before, was nearing 80 and living in upstate New York. John Tyler was a member of a peace convention assembled in Washington but was hardly sympathetic to Lincoln; he was soon to be elected to the Confederate Congress, though he died in 1862 before it gathered. Millard Fillmore had been the American (Know-Nothing) Party candidate for president, and thus an opponent of the Republican Party. Franklin Pierce had signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, to which Lincoln was so strongly opposed that he re-entered politics and joined the new Republican Party. And the outgoing president, James Buchanan, was clearly at odds with Lincoln.
That period was one of three in U.S. history when there were five living former presidents. The others were in 1993-94, when Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush were all still living, and in 2001-2004, when Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Bill Clinton were still living. In 1993, I suggested to Ann Stock, the White House social director in the incoming Clinton administration, that it would be nice to invite all five of them to a White House event—and to do what Abraham Lincoln could not have done. I don't know whether she or anyone else in the Clinton administration tried to do this, but it never happened. Perhaps the reason was that Nancy Reagan believed that her husband was not in a condition to attend. I remember attending an event at the Reagan Library in the summer of 1994 (a suitably bipartisan one: Susan Estrich and I were on the same panel) that I hoped the former president would attend. He didn't, and no explanation was given. A couple of months later, Reagan's final letter to the public, disclosing that he had Alzheimer's disease, was released. In any case, Richard Nixon died in March 1994, and the number of living former presidents who could attend was reduced to three. And during the 2001-04 period, there was no possibility of Reagan making a public appearance.
The periods when there have been four living former presidents were March 1825-July 1826 (John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe; this period ended when Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the 50th anniversary of July 4, 1776); March 1845-June 1845 (John Quincy Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, Tyler); March 1857-March 1861 (Van Buren, Tyler, Fillmore, Pierce); January1862-July 1862 (Van Buren, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan); January 1989-January 1993 (Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan); April 1994-January 2001 (Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush); and June 2004-December 2006 (Ford, Carter, Bush, Clinton). In the 19th century, logistics as well as political enmity made it unlikely that there could have been a meeting of these former presidents, and evidently there was no such meeting at the White House in 1989-93 or in 2004-06, although I believe the four former presidents all attended the Reagan memorial service at the National Cathedral in June 2004. I hope readers will correct me if I have overlooked such a meeting.
At other moments in American history, there have been no living former presidents. These periods were December 1799-March 1801, after the death of George Washington; July 1875-March 1877, after the death of Andrew Johnson; June 1908-March 1909, after the death of Grover Cleveland; January 1933-March 1933, after the death of Calvin Coolidge; and January 1973-August 1974, after the death of Lyndon Johnson. At least three of those moments were times of considerable turmoil—the foreign policy crisis at the end of John Adams's administration and the disputed 1800 election, the Great Depression, and the Watergate scandal—in which the incumbent president had no predecessor to whom he could look for advice, and in which he faced fierce opposition from his general election opponents (Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt) or from a hostile Congress. So, we're probably fortunate that Barack Obama has so many predecessors that he can turn to, although he will probably find, as his four immediate predecessors did, that Jimmy Carter will be more hindrance than help.