The “Presidents Club” was officially founded by former presidents Truman and Hoover at the inauguration of their successor, Eisenhower. The club’s work largely depended upon the needs and choices of the sitting president, the needs and talents of former presidents, and the extent to which the political environment encouraged relations between presidents. In the next half century, the members of this exclusive club would exercise their influence over American society, politics, and foreign affairs, and in the process, shape the office of the president.
- Hoover & Truman (1945-52): When President Roosevelt passed away, Truman relied heavily on Hoover’s experience in international food aid and politics to bring about a smooth transition into a post-WWII society. Hoover’s leadership in averting a humanitarian crisis and his work in reorganizing the executive department repaired the poor reputation with which he’d left the presidency.
- Truman & Eisenhower (1952-1960): Despite initially warm relations and Truman’s early support for Eisenhower’s political career, partisan conflict embittered the two and obstructed collaboration during Eisenhower’s presidency. The need to protect the office of the presidency and national unity after JFK’s death brought the two former presidents closer together.
- Eisenhower & JFK (1960-1963): The young president relied heavily on the prestige and experience of his elderly predecessor to guide the US through a tumultuous period in its foreign relations. He looked to Eisenhower for advice following the disastrous Bay of Pigs, guidance which contributed to his more successful handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
- Eisenhower/Truman & LBJ (1963-1968): Crippled by the lack of confidence that came from his sudden ascendancy to the presidency, Johnson frequently consulted with the former presidents in determining the best policy actions. For instance, the tendency of former presidents (Truman & Eisenhower) to advocate stronger policy actions influenced Johnson’s decision to expand the US’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
- Johnson & Nixon (~1964-1972): Although the pair conspired together in the lead-up to the 1968 election, Nixon’s politically-motivated interference in Vietnam peace negotiations harmed the partnership and national security. Sitting President Johnson’s decision to protect the office of the president rather than reveal damaging evidence regarding the Nixon campaign’s duplicitous activities allowed for Nixon’s election win.
- During his presidency, President Nixon’s relationship with former President Johnson was based on the careful balancing of two factors: President Johnson’s importance as a political ally (particularly his influence over the Democratic Congress) and his knowledge of Nixon’s shocking interference in the 1968 Vietnam peace negotiations.
- Nixon & Ford (1972-1976): Despite his best efforts to distance himself from the actions of his predecessor, President Ford was doomed by his selfless decision to pardon Nixon and move forward with his own presidency.
- Nixon, Ford & Carter (1976-1980): Ford and Carter formed an unlikely but lasting partnership during their trip to Anwar Sadat’s funeral as President Reagan’s envoys.
- Nixon & Reagan (P1, 1980-1988): Nixon regained his influence in the White House under the Reagan administration, during which he became a trusted, private advisor on all matters (Reagan followed Nixon’s suggestion to appoint Alexander Haig—Nixon’s “spear carrier”—as secretary of state, providing the latter with a direct line to US decision making. In Nixon’s words, “I am yours to command.”). Perhaps the most dominant issue was US-Soviet relations; he took it upon himself to guide the direction of bilateral arms reduction negotiation and later offered advice on how to help Vice President Bush win the 1988 election.
- Nixon, Carter, & Bush (1988-1992): Although a loyal Nixon protégé, Bush maintained his independence from the former president on foreign policy issues; this frustrated Nixon, to say the least, and incited him to publicly oppose the administration’s Russia policy. (He suggested in op-eds that the US should look beyond Gorbachev in its relations with the USSR and brazenly announced, during the 1992 election, that the US needed to pour foreign aid into Russia.)
- Former President Carter served as a sometimes helpful, but highly unpredictable agent for his successors. He successfully advanced democratic governance in Nicaragua and Panama; yet he directly undermined Bush administration efforts to use force to expel Hussein from Kuwait.
- 6 presidents (1992-2000): Under Clinton, Nixon’s role could be likened to that of a foreign policy advisor, so direct was Clinton’s reliance on Nixon’s advice. Clinton sent Carter as his envoy to crisis situations in North Korea and Haiti; in North Korea, Carter overstepped his mandate by single-handedly negotiating a deal with Kim Il Sung and announcing it on media. In Haiti, Carter adeptly negotiated military dictator Cedras’s peaceful descent from power; he again infuriated the administration when he offered his own remarks on the incident on media, prior to briefing the White House. Ford and Carter both played a role in bringing about Clinton’s acquittal, thus preserving the sacredness of the office.
- Bush & Bush (2000-2008): The Bushes represented two irreconcilable approaches to foreign policy: while the former advocated a more traditional, quiet diplomacy, the latter urged for a new, global, and public “freedom agenda.” Yet above all, they consistently maintained their supporting father-son relationship. During his son’s presidency, Bush Sr. worked closely and became very good friends with Clinton, a friendship that he would pass on to his son. (Bush Sr. and Clinton traveled and raised money together after the Sumatra tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, becoming a model for bipartisan harmony)
- The Club & Obama (2008-2016): The Presidents Club, during Obama’s presidency, resembled a “sprawling, modern, blended family,” as political rifts healed and Obama came to rely on his predecessors in critical situations (e.g. rescuing American reporters from North Korea).
I was fascinated by the extent to which converging incentives drew current and former presidents together: the incentive of the sitting president to make use of the experience and reputation of his predecessors, the incentive of past presidents to leave a positive legacy, the incentive on both sides to preserve the sacredness of the office. Particularly in the cases of Hoover or Eisenhower, it appears that these men were able to make truly meaningful contributions to America’s foreign policy once distanced from the pressures and political considerations of being in office. Reading about the 1968 election and in the context of the most recent election, I am particularly concerned by the effect that presidential campaigns can have on the execution of effective foreign policy. Due to the global reach of news and social media, it is inevitable that any foreign policy proposal by a presidential candidate will be heard and considered by foreign governments. In order to minimize obstructions to US international engagements caused by presidential campaigns that deviate from the administration’s position, Congress should issue stricter restrictions on the activities of presidential candidates.