In ‘Presidents Club,’ Gibbs offers insight into exclusive fraternity



Jennifer Shore | Staff Writer

“It’s absolutely Chautauqua. It’s history. It’s biography. It’s interacting across boundaries. It’s political.”

Sherra Babcock, the director of the Department of Education, gushed about The Presidents Club, a book by Time editors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, which also shares the same name as the morning lecture platform theme — it’s not a coincidence.

Four years ago, Gibbs told Institution President Tom Becker and Babcock that she and Duffy were working on a book about the “private side of the presidency.” Becker and Babcock agreed it would be a perfect morning lecture platform theme.

After years of patience and hard work, Gibbs kicks off the week at 10:45 a.m. Monday in the Amphitheater by exploring the roadmap of The Presidents Club.

The club got its start on Jan. 20, 1953, at the inauguration of President Dwight Eisenhower, Gibbs and Duffy write, when former presidents Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover stood on the platform.

“I think we ought to organize a former Presidents Club,” Hoover suggested.

“Fine,” Truman replied. “You be the president of the club. And I will be the secretary.”

The book documents that moment up to the current presidency, looks into “the world’s most exclusive fraternity” and examines the unique relationships between presidents — which can be rocky or grow unexpectedly.

In the lecture, Gibbs said she will explore how U.S. presidents, who might have nothing in common personally or politically, relate to each other in private and often end up with a closeness bound by the experience of occupying the Oval Office.

“There’s no other job like it, and they all come out with scars,” Gibbs said. “We were struck by the way they privately reach out to each other, to advise, to console, occasionally to backstab but more often to work together for some larger good.”

Babcock is “so excited to talk about all these American subjects,” and she said it is a great privilege to have Gibbs here to give insight on a subject like this.

“She understands who we are, and she’s a great speaker,” Babcock said. “She’s a Chautauqua success story.”

Gibbs’ roots at the Institution can be read in The Chautauquan Daily’s archives. She worked at the paper for multiple summers, but her last summer as a Daily reporter covered the morning lecture platform — the same one she will be speaking on.

“I’m probably more self-conscious lecturing at Chautauqua than anyplace else, just because this place means so much to me, and it’s not exactly an audience of strangers,” Gibbs said. “In fact, an audience that includes people who have known you since you were 2 years old can be a little unnerving.”

Gibbs hopes Chautauquans will look at the presidents — and the presidency itself — in a different way and come away with a new sense of what is possible in politics.

“We are so accustomed to watching presidents as individuals at center stage,” Gibbs said, ”but once you look at them in relationship to one another, as part of a very small but extraordinary fraternity, you see very different sides to them.”

Gibbs will present The Presidents Club at 3:30 p.m. Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy with Duffy, and they will both glimpse into the upcoming political season at Friday’s morning lecture.