David Adler: The Presidents Club: A profound sense of commitment

May 2, 2013 

After two rough years in the Oval Office, a frustrated John Kennedy candidly acknowledged that there is "no experience you can get that can possibly adequately prepare you for the presidency." There is no guidebook, no manual and, certainly, no on-the-job training for what has been characterized as the most powerful position in the world.

I was reminded of JFK's observation, echoed by his predecessors and successors, while watching news coverage of the recent dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library. President Bush was flanked by President Obama and three former presidents - Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush -who, together, form The Presidents Club, a unique American fraternity, and perhaps the most extraordinary advisory council in the world.

The bar for admission is high: only the sitting American president and former presidents are eligible. This elite organization, ably described in an insightful book, The Presidents Club (2012), written by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, was the brainchild of Herbert Hoover and a function of the old aphorism that "necessity is the mother of invention."

It was on the platform of the inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower, on January 20, 1953, that Hoover, one of the most maligned presidents in our nation's history, suggested to Harry Truman, the only other living president at the time, that "we ought to organize a former presidents club." Truman embraced the idea, and nominated Hoover as president of the newly minted club.

The germ of the idea, that former presidents would serve as an unofficial advisory body for the sitting president, had been hatched only a few years before when Truman, a long-time foe of Hoover, had recruited the former chief from the quiet of retirement to organize and run a machine to feed some 100 million Europeans on the verge of starvation in the aftermath of World War II.

The many staggering challenges and problems that confronted Truman in those early post-war months led him, wisely, to select Hoover, who had undertaken the same task under Woodrow Wilson, in the months following World War I. Hoover quickly laid out for Truman the means and methods necessary to achieve the goal, and reminded the new president that the humanitarian program also represented a critical foreign affairs test for the United States in its effort to stem the tide of Soviet influence.

The fact that Truman and Hoover had been political enemies hadn't prevented a merger born of necessity. Truman was looking for wise counsel and expertise; Hoover, who was seeking a measure of redemption, met both needs. It was certainly an odd pairing. Since 1932, Democrats in virtually every political race across the country had run against Hoover. He was the Democrats' favorite whipping boy.

The emergence of what would become The Presidents Club might not have had a more unlikely birth, but marked a willingness to serve the president that has been expressed by every subsequent former chief executive. Dwight Eisenhower conveyed the community spirit when, in 1968, he told Richard Nixon: "I am yours to command." Nixon, in turn, invoked Eisenhower's pledge when Ronald Reagan was elected.

The loneliness of the decision-making responsibility in the White House, the ultimate responsibility to "make the call," was admirably described by Eisenhower, who, with the exception of a very few presidents, could authentically liken the responsibility to the "nakedness of the battlefield, when the soldier is all alone in the smoke and the clamor and the terror of war." The president, he wrote, must "conscientiously, deliberately, prayerfully scrutinize every argument, every proposal, every prediction, every alternative, every probable outcome of his action, and then-all alone-make his decision."

The ultimate rationale for The Presidents Club may be found in the sympathy that presidents have for one another - for their lack of preparedness, the pressures of the office, and the responsibility for the decisions that they have made. While there is little doubt that the memory of the exercise of great power resonates in the memories, if not the blood, of former chiefs, there is, too, a profound sense of commitment to promoting the success of their successors.

That explains, in large measure, why Hoover would advise Truman, why Truman would support Eisenhower, and why Eisenhower would advise Kennedy and Johnson. When Johnson inherited the office after a young American president had been slain, he wrote to Ike: "I need you now, more than ever." The Great General was in Washington the next morning, outlining for the new president what he should say to comfort a shaken nation. Johnson recognized the sage advice and followed it.

Many years may pass before we learn about the talks and discussions that The Presidents Club engaged in when members gathered for the dedication of yet another Bush Library. But don't be surprised if we learn that they advised President Obama to close the prison at Guantanamo and to proceed with caution in Syria.

Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus Professor of Public Affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as Director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy. He has lectured nationally and internationally on the Presidency and the Constitution.

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