By Nick DAngelo
On a cold January morning in 1953, President Harry Truman greeted his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, during the last moments of his tenure.
It was the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, and neither Truman nor Hoover was particularly enthused. “I think we ought to organize a former Presidents club,” Hoover told Truman. “Fine,” Truman replied, “you be the president and I’ll be the secretary.”
Only 44 men over two centuries have been part of what Time magazine calls, “the most exclusive fraternity in the world.” In a modern political environment where leaders are defined by the media as crude caricatures, the sense of presidents as people is both interesting and comforting. After all, these are real men with real relationships, and, perhaps surprisingly, their most pure relationships are often with each other.
Before the club’s formal installation in 1953, it had quietly existed, as presidents relied on their predecessors.
In 1945, Hoover made a courtesy call to Truman, laying out an ambitious plan to provide relief to devastated countries in the aftermath of World War II.
An engineer, Hoover had provided similar advice to Woodrow Wilson in 1918. Surprising political observers and Hoover himself, Truman accepted the proposal, and sent the 71-year old Hoover on a 50,000 mile world tour to gauge support. On the president’s behalf, Hoover met with 36 prime ministers, several kings and the Pope.
Relying on those “who have gone before you” has become a constant theme for modern presidents. In the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon B. Johnson reached out to Eisenhower. “I need you now more than ever,” the newly minted president told the general. The relationship between the two had gone back decades, when then-Senate Majority Leader Johnson helped pass 83 percent of Eisenhower’s legislative agenda. During the Vietnam War, Johnson consistently called on Eisenhower, the hero of World War II, for military advice. Johnson referred to Eisenhower as “the best Chief of Staff I got,” and asked his predecessor to make up cover stories for his visits to Washington so the two could secretly discuss policy.
While some have relied on each other for serious policy advice, there have also been some light-hearted moments in the club. When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 he had five former presidents to tutor him, the largest the club had ever been since 1861. During a visit to California, the 46-year-old Clinton met with 81-year-old Ronald Reagan. After discussing the economy and the debt, Reagan turned the conversation to what he truly felt was important: He had noticed that Clinton’s salute was especially weak. The two spent over an hour practicing.
These men have been brothers-in-arms and much more. Despite being bitter foes in 1992, George H.W. Bush and Clinton have formed one of the closest relationships between two presidents. While Clinton never knew his biological father, he found a strong father figure in Bush. It’s no wonder that the Bush children sometimes refer to their “other brother” Bill.
Bush routinely chastised Clinton to watch his health after his heart surgeries, and the two spent vacations together in Maine. While their partnership has benefited refugees from disasters in Haiti and New Orleans, their “father-son” relationship is perhaps the most incredible product.
All of us are wedded to others through shared experiences. We identify with those who share our majors, who are on our sports teams and, yes, who are members of our fraternities. Through these similarities we share hardship, difficulty and defeat. We also share success, achievement and victory.
Social psychologists contend that relationships are built out of propinquity, reciprocity, similarity and reinforcements. We form friendships with those we are physically close to, those who like us, those whom we share values and views with and those who reward or praise us.
It seems that the Presidents Club has surpassed social psychological theory. None of these seem to explain why men of different generations, philosophies and influences would converge to create such close bonds.
The simple fact may be that these are not ordinary relationships. After all, one can only imagine the enormity of the loneliest job in the world. Comfort from those few who understand that may be a needed reprise.
Regardless of why the friendships are formed, their existence shows us that eventually politics is merely politics, and these 44 people are more than just sound bites and platforms.