I recently read a commentary on TNH’s website titled “The Useful Club of American Presidents” (Aug. 23), written by TNH founder and longtime publisher, Antonis Diamataris. He concludes – correctly, in my view – that “presidents have their own exclusive club…They form a special relationship with each other. There is mutual understanding, perhaps mutual compassion,” even if they don’t like each other. And he believes, as I do, that such relationships are “positive and useful for the country as well.”
I have been fascinated with the American presidency since I was a kid, and I always loved seeing former presidents together. Back in 1981, I remember seeing a photograph of President Reagan together with former Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter at the White House and still consider it one of the most compelling images of modern American history. I’ve always thought that when presidents – current and former – get together, it’s a special moment for America.
In 2012 I read The Presidents Club, an excellent book by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, which chronicles relationships between current and former presidents throughout our nation’s history. Even more thought-provoking is the 2020 book Team of Five: The Presidents Club in the Age of Trump, by Kate Andersen Brower. The front cover depicts another great photo: President Bush in the Oval Office along with President-Elect Obama, and former Presidents Carter, Bush (Sr.), and Clinton. They are laughing and in good spirits; they appear to be enjoying one another’s company.
The author masterfully draws our attention to the 500-pound (orange-haired?) elephant in the room: Trump is different from the rest. Very, very different.
Brower reminds us that when Barbara Bush died, the two Presidents Bush – her husband and son – were obviously there, but so were Presidents Clinton and Obama. Carter was not, because he was overseas. But incumbent President Trump was conspicuously absent – he says so as not to cause disruptions, others say the family (particularly the deceased) didn’t want him there.
His absence was eerie, as was his presence at the elder Bush’s funeral a few months later. With wife Melania at his side, the Trumps clearly stood out as the “which object does not belong” juxtaposed with the Carters, Clintons, Bushes, and Obamas. But who’s fault is that?
Another book I highly recommend is a very recent one, Here’s the Deal, by Trump confidant Kellyanne Conway. She and I belong in the same camp insofar as we criticize much of what Trump did from Election Day through snubbing Inauguration Day, but see no evidence that he committed any crimes, or impeachable offenses, or was responsible for the one percent of the January 6 rally attendees who invaded the Capitol.
Conway writes about how when the nation went into pandemic lockdown mode in early 2020, she encouraged Trump to invite the former presidents to the White House and form a united front against the virus that would evoke a sense of reassurance in the American people. “Ugh, they’re all horrible to me” was his response. Conway persisted, describing how they could all stand in the Oval Office, the four former chief executives lending their support to him. He heard her argument, but didn’t change his mind. Why not?
It is very telling that many will fall over themselves like shopaholics at a Black Friday sale to insist that “it’s Trump’s fault, of course! He’s an unhinged narcissistic sociopath. All of the others get along well together, right? Even ones from opposite parties who didn’t always say the nicest things about one another. Trump’s the oddball. Can’t you see it’s his fault? No question about it.”
Others will be equally hasty to rush to the opposite conclusion, that “they are part of the Deep State and never gave Trump a chance because he would drain the swamp in which they all dwell. Before he even took office they said he was unfit, that the Russians helped him win, and they’ve been criticizing him ever since. These same people had no problem with his ‘tone’ until he became a threat to their power. They are without a doubt the ones to blame.”
When laypersons think that way, leading with their emotions, it’s just part of the human experience. But when historians do it, it’s very troubling. Like everyone else, historians have opinions, draw conclusions, and vote for one candidate over another. But when they act as historians, they need to leave their opinions and their emotions on the doorstep.
Did the former presidents really make Trump feel as if he was beneath them? If so, did Trump simply give up on them right away, or did he make an attempt to win them over? Did they start out being friendly with him and then he shunned them when they didn’t agree with everything he said? Did he think they were all failures as presidents and so he didn’t want any of their advice?
Why Trump is not a member of the Presidents Club is an important study for historians to undertake. I confess that I’m somewhat pessimistic they’ll be able to overcome their fears that their actual findings will be opposite of their desired findings, and so they won’t record history accurately.
Historians, like teachers and news reporters, must honor their obligations to humankind by sharing with them the truth as they best understand it.
I wish Trump was part of the Presidents Club. I agree with Antonis and Kellyanne that our country would benefit from that. But I’m not about to pass judgment one way or another based on cockamamie half-baked red herrings and anecdotes. That’s what litigators and politicians (with notable exceptions) do, not historians.