Written by Time Magazine’s Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs, from their book “The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity“
There is no fraternity like it, and not just because of the barriers to entry or the privileges of membership. It has rules—stay in touch, don’t discuss club business with the press—along with rituals, feast days and a private clubhouse across from the White House reserved solely for the use of former Presidents. It even has souvenirs. Lyndon Johnson gave Ike a pair of gold cuff links bearing the Presidential Seal: “You are the only one, along with Harry Truman, who can legitimately wear these,” Johnson observed, “but if you look closely, it doesn’t say ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’ on them.”
At a time when a Democratic President and a Republican House Speaker can barely carry on a civil conversation, Presidents talk to, and about, one another in a dialect foreign to the current partisan vernacular. “You will be our President when you read this note,” George H.W. Bush wrote to Clinton, the man who had just defeated him, echoing the message of transitions past, even between bitter political foes: “I am rooting hard for you.” When it was George W. Bush’s turn, his commitment to the club’s code of conduct was unreserved. “We want you to succeed,” he told Obama before the Inauguration, speaking for the entire club membership. “Whether we’re Democrat or Republican, we care deeply about this country … All of us who have served in this office understand that the office transcends the individual.”
Collaboration both “onstage” and “out of sight”
Today’s club is remarkable for how much its members do together, both onstage and out of sight. The former Presidents spend a lot of time saying no: to requests to appear, causes to sponsor, business schemes to endorse. But they all keep close track of what their fellow members are up to, even monitoring one another’s health. Recently, they privately circulated prints of a rare photograph in which they all appear, each one signing a copy for the others. Their top aides communicate by phone or e-mail, sometimes every day. As it has throughout history, the club has its share of feuds and tensions, and while none of the members exactly love the President, each has helped Obama in his own way.
More cool facts from the book – offered by TIME:
- The first two calls Barack Obama placed on the night that the SEALs killed Osama bin Laden was to George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
- Obama aides had Jimmy Carter sign a 12-point agreement — including a promise not to speak to the press — ahead of a recent mission to North Korea, much as they asked Bill Clinton to curtail his activities when his wife became Secretary of State.
- Former presidents try to pass on little tricks of the trade to those who follow: Clinton offered George W. Bush speech tips; Lyndon Johnson showed Richard Nixon where he hid the tape recorders; Ronald Reagan taught Clinton how to salute properly during his transition; Nixon gave Clinton advice about Russia, and how to organize his day.
- Clinton became so close to the Bush family that the Texas clan bestowed him a nickname: “Brother from Another Mother.”
Photo: TIME cover