Gibbs: Former presidents’ relationships go beyond the surface

Laurence Léveillé | Staff Writer

Michelle Kanaar | Staff Photographer
Nancy Gibbs, deputy managing editor of Time, and co-author of The Presidents Club, delivers Monday’s morning lecture in the Amp.

No one understands what it is like to be president, except those who have held the position.

There is no other role like it.

“The presidency, in their mind, is something of a collective that they all remain part of,” said Nancy Gibbs, co-author of The Presidents Club, during Monday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater.

The former presidents have all offered one another their support. When Franklin D. Roosevelt died, Herbert Hoover told Harry Truman he had the right to call for any service Hoover could offer to the country. Dwight Eisenhower told Lyndon Johnson he would be there for him any time Johnson needed him. Richard Nixon told Ronald Reagan, “I am yours to command.”

Gibbs, deputy managing editor of Time magazine, spoke about the former presidents’ relationships with one another beyond politics as the first speaker of Week Nine, themed “The Presidents Club.”

The Presidents Club, as the presidents have come to know each other, was founded by Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman on Jan. 20, 1953.

The foundation of the relationship began just after World War II had ended. Knowing Hoover had dealt with the aftermath of World War I with Woodrow Wilson, Truman had secretly sent a letter to Hoover to solicit his help.

“Truman knew that no one in the world knew more about solving complicated puzzles like the immense global puzzle of getting food from the countries that had it to the countries that needed it as Herbert Hoover,” Gibbs said.

Truman and Hoover were suspicious of each other at first, and they had nothing in common except their concern for the situation in Europe, Gibbs said.

With a plane and staff, Hoover traveled 50,000 miles around the world to 22 countries in 57 days, she said. He helped distribute food from Argentina throughout Europe. They were able to prevent a catastrophe, because they worked so close together, Gibbs said.

The next step in their alliance was to find a way to reorganize the executive branch of the government. After the New Deal, Gibbs said, Truman’s government owned one-quarter of the continental United States, more than 5,000 buildings, a million cars and trucks, a paint factory and a distillery, plus “a single salmon swimming upstream in the Columbia River came under the jurisdiction of 12 different federal agencies.”

Congress allowed Truman to reorganize the government under the condition that Hoover would be chairman of the commission.

Truman agreed, because he understood that Hoover knew what it was like to sit during a national crisis and to not have the tools he wanted to address it, Gibbs said.

“These two presidents, in every way so different, conspired together to supercharge the office of the presidency, to refine it, retool it so that it was fit to meet the challenges of the nuclear age,” she said.

But not all of the relationships between presidents have been “warm,” Gibbs said. Eisenhower and Truman worked well together. They were so close that Truman encouraged Eisenhower to become president in 1948. He also said he could be Eisenhower’s vice president.

When Eisenhower ran for president in 1952, their relationship soured while Eisenhower was campaigning, referencing the corruption in Washington, D.C. While campaigning in Wisconsin, he had Sen. Joe McCarthy alongside him.

Eisenhower did not denounce McCarthy’s tactics, and he did not include a defense of George Marshall, whom McCarthy called a traitor.

“Well, Truman was horrified. He was appalled,” Gibbs said.

Truman began traveling the country. He told people he had trusted Eisenhower and thought he would make a good president, but he betrayed what he stood for.

“You can say the Presidents Club sort of disappeared,” Gibbs said, “except there’s still this bond.”

Despite their issues, the two men were able to rekindle their relationship in a limousine during John F. Kennedy’s funeral in November 1963.

Though Eisenhower was not in need of the club, Gibbs said, he was the most important modern president in it. Presidents who followed him realized how helpful he could be as an icon and celebrity.

“The presidents who followed saw Eisenhower as an enormous instrument of their own power if they used him right,” she said.

The first president to realize that was Kennedy. A photo Gibbs presented in her lecture showed Kennedy and Nixon shortly after elections. The reason the meeting between the two happened was because Hoover and Eisenhower both advised Nixon not to challenge the election results for the sake of the country.

At Camp David five days after the Bay of Pigs, Eisenhower chastised Kennedy about how the situation was handled, Gibbs said.

But although Eisenhower did not agree with Kennedy, he would show his full support in public. The media reported that Eisenhower urged Americans to support Kennedy as well.

When Kennedy was dealing with the Cuban missile crisis, the first person he called was Eisenhower, who told him he would do his best to support whatever Kennedy chose to do.

“How is it that the youngest president in the century reaches out to the oldest president in the century, at that point?” Gibbs said. “Because there’s an isolation in that office that only they understand, that you can’t talk to with just anyone.”

Upon Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson called Eisenhower, saying, “I needed you for a long time; I need you more than ever now,” Gibbs said.

Eisenhower visited the White House and wrote what Johnson needed to say to the joint session of Congress — that he would fulfill Kennedy’s path.

“Eisenhower believed that what the country needed at that moment of such trauma and division and pain was continuity and stability and the sense that someone was in charge and knew what they were doing,” Gibbs said.

Throughout his presidency, Johnson would call Eisenhower asking if he could make up excuses to visit the White House.

If Gibbs had to pick her favorite president to write about, she would pick Nixon. He and Johnson found themselves in what Gibbs called “one of the great political chess matches of all time.”

Johnson wanted to leave his presidency as a peacemaker, and Nixon told him he would help by giving Johnson credit for the end of the war. Johnson supported him until, using surveillance methods, he overheard Nixon and his men channeling the South Vietnamese to tell them not to agree to anything, Gibbs said.

Because Johnson was worried about the state of the United States — and about admitting how he knew about Nixon’s actions — he said nothing, Gibbs said.

During the Watergate investigations, Johnson was asked to tell the Senate to back off from the investigation. Nixon’s men told him they would leak information about Johnson illegally listening in on Nixon about peace talks.

In turn, Johnson said, “Fine, and then I’ll leak what I learned when I illegally bugged you,” Gibbs said. “You have two presidents engaged in a moment of mutual blackmail.”

Two days after Nixon was elected for his second term, Johnson died of a heart attack. That left Nixon as the only president of the Presidents Club, as Truman had died as well.

The “fraternity” officially reformed again on board a 707 that served as Air Force One. Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Reagan were all aboard the plane to go to Anwar Sadat’s funeral, because the Secret Service did not want Reagan going to the funeral on his own, as it was shortly after an attempt on his life, Gibbs said.

Though the three men did not like one another, Ford and Carter found that, despite their differences, they had more in common, including their disdain for Reagan.

“They became such good friends that they made an agreement that whichever one died first, the other one would give the eulogy at their funeral,” Gibbs said.

Carter was the former president who created the template that the others should follow, she said. He became a global troubleshooter by doing things such as monitoring elections, freeing political prisoners, settling boundary disputes and fighting the eradication of disease, she said.

Under George H. W. Bush, Carter was able to show what a former president was capable of doing, Gibbs said.

Two weeks after Bill Clinton became president, he asked Reagan if he had any advice for him. Reagan did: for Clinton to go to Camp David and work on his salute, because it was “wimpy” during his campaign.

“The actor-turned-president who understands the importance of inhabiting the role teaches the new guy how to perform it,” Gibbs said.

Clinton also spoke to Nixon, as the two became “late-night phone pals,” Gibbs said. The men would talk about the Balkans, China and Russia, as well as about how Clinton organized his day compared with Nixon.

“Nixon was like, ‘Yeah, I get it. You want to know if you’re doing it right,’ ” Gibbs said. “They all want to know this. The job is insane.”

The Bushes had the only father-son relationship in addition to the presidency in the White House. The question is not about how the father-son relationship was affected by the presidency, but rather the other way around, Gibbs said.

The two did not treat each other as almost consecutive presidents, she said.

“One thing that the first President Bush knew that any president has is plenty of advisers, but only one dad,” Gibbs said. “And that happened to be what the transaction was, to the point of role reversal.”

The increasing criticism of his son’s foreign policy was agony to George H.W. Bush, she said. Barbara Bush would call her son to tell him he had to stop his dad from reading the newspapers. George Bush essentially became the comforter, Gibbs said.

“Because he knew how hard it was for his father to witness a son burying the burden of that office,” she said.

In every era Gibbs spoke about, she said citizens have been worried about the disillusion, betrayals and dysfunction in politics. But seeing former presidents standing side by side provides a sense of comfort, as it is a “rare moment of truce,” Gibbs said.

It is during those moments when politics go away and a common purpose rises to the surface, she said.

“I hope that by telling these stories, maybe we find a model not just for our next generation of leaders,” Gibbs said, “but maybe for all of us.”


Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity.

Q: I’m curious what you think of Jimmy Carter’s influence on the conduct of ex-presidents. A lot of what you talk about has to do with relationships and circumstances. Has he institutionalized at all the behavior of ex-presidents?

A: I really think he has, and he was always a very interesting asset for them to deploy. At one point, there was enormous tension as North Korea was rebuilding it’s nuclear program, and Clinton was trying to decide whether to send Carter to North Korea and talk to Kim Il-sung and try to diffuse the tension. On the one hand, there’s no one else who could do this. It takes someone with the actual stature, knowledge and relationships of a former president in order to do this. On the other hand, is it worth the risk? There’s no telling what he might say or do. I think Carter showed what was possible in the modern age where the power is turned off, but the influence remains. He really has sort of built the template. If you look at the Clinton global initiative or you look at what Bush is doing down through his presidential library and foundation, the idea that you can leverage your relationships, your Rolodex, your fundraising ability, your stature to really accomplish great good in different parts of the world is really something that Carter established. You could say that Hoover had sort of showed Carter the way — and I think there’s real truth to that. We sort of don’t remember that enough about what Herbert Hoover did after his fateful four years in the office. I think for the modern presidents, Carter really is the model for them.

Q: Reagan is little mentioned in your saga. Why? Was he not helpful? Did he have too little to offer? Or was his illness impact disability to participate?

A: By the time Reagan left the White House and retired, it really was largely a matter of his health. He became increasingly frail. He revealed the Alzheimer’s disease publicly, but he had been ailing for quite some time. While he was in the White House, he did not have much use for Carter or Ford, but Nixon was very eager to get back into the mix. Nixon wrote Reagan a long secret memo during the 1980 transition — he’s like governor of California what does he know about running the government — about who he should appoint to what roles, how he should organize his White House staff, what to watch out for. It was sort of a primer on how to be president that Nixon wrote to Reagan. Through Reagan’s presidency — especially as our relations with the now former Soviet Union underwent such dramatic change — Nixon was a very useful sort of intelligence officer for Reagan. They would brief him, send him overseas to Moscow, have him take the temperature of the leadership over there and his many contacts there and talk to him after he got back. They were certainly prepared to rely on him. The others not so much, and — as I said — by the time Reagan left office, he was not really in a position to be very helpful.

Q: On the theme of the president’s contact with foreign countries during campaigns — Nixon in Vietnam in ‘68 and Carter with the U.N. Security Council before the Gulf War — what can you tell us about the October surprise regarding the Iran hostages during the 1980 Carter-Reagan campaign.

A: The amazing thing about writing recent history, and the tantalizing thing that makes me approach these topics with ever-growing humility is that we don’t know what we don’t know. In some of these instances, I’ve been amazed by what I was able to learn about what was happening in 1968, but that’s partly because of documents that are only now being declassified. Some of our judgments are just snapshots in time that are going to change. I have no secret story behind that transaction. Will there be a time when we know more? Possibly. At this point, I catalogue that as one of the episodes that we don’t know what really happened, and we may not for a while.

Q: Did Kennedy call Truman during the Cuban Missile Crisis?

A: He called briefly, and he called after. And he called Hoover after. He talked to all three former presidents at the moment at which it became clear that the crisis was diffusing. But it really was Eisenhower who was the important one. Truman was — as you remember — one of the great rehabilitation stories of the modern American president. He left office he had a 23 percent approval rating. And while I think he is viewed very differently now, Truman was not in a position to cast any sort of halo effect on Kennedy the way that Eisenhower was. It was really Eisenhower whose approval mattered, whose silence mattered, and so those were the conversations that I think mattered the most. But he called all three of them after the crisis was subsided.

Q: There are fellow “Elis” in the audience today. What role does the Yale Club play in the modern Presidents Club?

A: I have no idea.

Q: Didn’t some ex-presidents turn to some other staff members for intimate advice — like Henry Kissinger? Who has been the leading non-president adviser?

A: Famously, Clark Clifford has been an adviser to multiple presidents. David Gergen has been an adviser to multiple presidents and of both parties. There are some wise men and women whose expertise is considered so transcendent that multiple presidents will call on them. This is part of the tip sheet that they have during their transitions. It is now standard for the presidents to meet — often multiple times — the incoming and outgoing presidents during the months between November and January. One of the things they talk about is who to keep, who to get rid of, who to bring back in, who is really helpful. And so when Eisenhower is coming in to advice Johnson, he’s saying Robert Anderson, you’ve got to call Anderson. He has his list of people. These are the people who really know how this works. You’ve got to get up to speed quickly; these are the people who can help you. So there’s always been that sort of cadre of advisers that persist from one administration to another.

Q: This question refers to Carter’s amnesty issuance in ‘77. Did Ford have a role in that decision?

A: Not that I know of, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t. Ford did help Carter on a couple of things. On the Panama Canal treaty on start, where he would express support for what Carter was doing. And I think that was useful on some of these things the same way that Clinton called Ford, and Carter and Bush back to the White House when he was about to sign the NAFTA treaty. Especially when it comes to foreign policy — things like a Panama Canal treaty or an arms treaty — having multiple presidents by your side gives you great political leverage. Foreign policy tends to be something that exists across administrations. Vietnam and our dealing with Vietnam begins with Eisenhower extends through Kennedy, extends through Johnson and ends with Nixon. Foreign policy is not something that starts and stops with a new president, so that tends to be where — and it was true with Carter and Ford — you see former presidents saying, “Yes, this is OK, I would have done this as well.”

Q: Can you comment on the emotional intelligence of the members of the Presidents Club?

A: I am of a mind that it is very hard to be elected president if you don’t have a pretty high E.Q. I think there are all kinds of intelligence, and I think there are all kinds of intelligence that serve a president well in his role. But I think particularly now — particularly in an age when we see everything, where they are never off stage, where every single person at every single rally has a camera in their hand, and they are one YouTube upload away from having every word they speak be known to the whole world — it is so important that presidents be able to read their audience, read the people around them, sense the needs, and the fears and the hopes that confront them. So I don’t know that I’d necessarily rank one of them over another. Probably Clinton is most famous for the emotionality of his transaction with the electorate. But I’m very interested right now in seeing how Clinton is becoming the iconic president for both parties. I mean, Clinton is appearing in Mitt Romney’s ads, right? “How can Obama be backing away from welfare reforms?” Wait, when did Clinton become the Republican’s favorite former president? Wasn’t that Reagan’s job? I think you see the emotional intelligence, and it’s one of the reasons that this way of looking at the presidents was so intriguing to us — there’s some things that you only learn by looking at people in relationships. So Lyndon Johnson’s neediness — which was profound — had an enormous impact on his presidency. Richard Nixon’s insecurity and suspicion and the sort of hard-edge cynicism of his world view had an enormous impact on his presidency. Bill Clinton’s neediness — we see this again, and again and again. And so I think when you look at the way they interact with each other, when you look at who is smart about what other people need, what it is they’re looking for, how you can win them over, what you need to say to them to get them on your side, which is what the basic political transaction is — that emotional intelligence is of enormous value in being successful at that.

Q: Looking at Israel and the current conflict with Palestinians and the policies regarding the United States’ support of Israel in long term, which of the ex-presidents is the go-to guy on the subject of Israel?

A: I’m not sure one of them is more than the others. Carter obviously has been the one who’s gotten in the most trouble for his statements on the Middle East. But I’m not sure that if you’re sitting in the Oval Office, that you would necessarily favor one over the other of who you were going to send. The Middle East is obviously — to say the most obvious thing — so fraught and so complex that that may be the one region where a president is least likely to deploy a former president as a sort of freelance ambassador. It is so central to American foreign policy, it is so central to global security, that I think it’s one that you can’t outsource. And the presidents themselves have to — that is front and center for them. So I’m not sure that I would be able to rank which one has more clout in that arena than the others.

Q: I know that Thursday afternoon at 3:30 in the Hall of Philosophy, you and Michael will be talking about the book, but as a preface to that — how do you get the intimate, private details on the relationship between presidents? How did you acquire all of this?

A: A couple of things: The way we did the division of labor is, I basically was responsible for the dead presidents and Michael for the living ones. So my interviews were much easier. In my case, the glorious thing about studying presidents right now is that fact that so much is available, literally at our fingertips. You all could go home now and log on to the Miller Center at the University of Virginia and listen to that phone call that Kennedy made to Eisenhower on the morning of the Cuban Missile Crisis Quarantine. You can decide for yourself — the tone of voice, how worried Kennedy sounds, how reassuring Eisenhower sounds. So much more — just in the last five years even — is available online that when you’re talking about material that’s declassified — the letters, the memoranda, the documents, the phone calls — so much of this is not only available at the presidential libraries, which I love. And I love the fact that between Tim Naftali and Richard Norton Smith, you’re really going to get to meet people who have spent their lives and careers capturing the presidency and all of its dimensions and making it available to us to understand better. Now even without going to the libraries, which is a great treat, you can do this if you have a computer — to find out a lot of this stuff. I read presidential memoirs with many grains of salt. I think they are all naturally in the business of airbrushing their legacies — that’s perfectly human, I understand that. It’s a strange experience to sit interviewing a president and know he’s lying to you. But, I kind of feel like that’s his job, and it’s my job to know that he’s lying to me. So this is as it’s supposed to be. I was very lucky in having Michael Duffy, who I think has about the best Rolodex in Washington. So when it comes to the living presidents, when it comes to the recent administrations, the people who were willing to talk to him, who were both the presidents themselves and the aides closest to them, were a tremendous resource to us. I also suspect — and now I’m just guessing — but I also suspect that the presidents who have known us and our work over the years — they obviously get a lot of requests for interviews, they couldn’t possibly do all of them. But I think there may have been something about this topic at this time. — that they were perhaps more willing to discuss than they might have been. I think they understand — and both Clinton and the first President Bush talked to Michael about this — that they saw, when Bush and Clinton started during their road show together, they saw how people responded to it. They saw how encouraged people were by seeing these two guys who had fought a pretty bitter campaign against each other — remember Bush called Clinton a “bozo,” and it’s not like they were pals. But the fact that they got past their very significant differences and were working together, raising money for relief for Hurricane Katrina, for instance — that they saw the way their audiences responded. They saw how much they liked seeing this as being possible. And so I don’t know whether that was an ingredient in their deciding to be willing to talk to us. That this was the story that we wanted to be telling. And as I say, it is by no means all “Kum Bah Ya.” But by and large, we were struck — having been writing about presidents for a very long time — we were struck by how often the motivating force in the decisions they made and the relations they had with each other was not their personal interest, not their party’s interest, not a narrow political interest, but really their sense of, “What is it that the country needs right now?” I think there is a hunger for that. We are encountering it all over the place. So I think that may account for their cooperation.

Q: Just to try to combine several observations and questions — there is an observed imbalance in presidential power between foreign affairs and domestic policies. And given that the presidents exercise more out of autonomy in their power on foreign affairs, does that therefore carry forward into this relationship? That is, do they relate to one another in a more intimate way in the exercise of that power?

A: Yes. It’s very astute, and it’s absolutely true. Because both for the reason you say — that it is over foreign policy that presidents have the most control. But these are also the life and death decisions. These are also the ones where the nature of being president is that you only make hard decisions. And they all warn each other about this: That by the time you’re in the Oval Office, any decision that reaches your desk, by definition, is a hard decision or else it could have been made lower down the food chain. Which means there are strong arguments for going either way. And this is why no matter how successful they were, they all come out of office with scars. They all come out of office bearing the burden of the decisions they made. And the lives it may have cost. They all have in mind the alternative reality of, “But what if I had gone the other way?” And this is something they understand about each other. And it’s something that they talk about with each other: that burden that they are always going to live with. And particularly on foreign policy where the stakes are often at the highest. And where you are talking about committing American lives. George Herbert Walker Bush was himself a war hero. He was a very courageous man. The night that he was going to be ordering U.S. troops into Panama, he found himself in bed — he literally could not move his neck and arms. He was physically paralyzed by the tension of what it was he was about to do. So you can imagine again, you understand what it was like for him to watch and know what his son was going through. So I think this is the arena, partly because foreign policy is continuous and they all can trade ideas about the motives of foreign leaders and about the opportunities that they’re seeing. They can be useful to each other. Richard Nixon was persistently useful as a leader and a strategic thinker to the presidents who followed. And they can be sympathetic to each other in a way they tend not, there’s much less — we found many, many fewer examples of them helping each other in domestic policy issues. The Hoover Commission, as important as it was — and I think that was an enormously important example of how these alliances are instruments of power — I think that was the exception. To the extent that there is interaction about policy, it’s about foreign policy.

—Transcribed by Rabab Al-Sharif and Jen Bentley