Sometimes, a book appears in stores or online that catches my eye. I know just by reading the book title that it will be a page turner or for some people a “finger swiper” on our digital readers.
I have been reading the “The Presidents Club, Inside The World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity” for a few weeks now. With a length of more than 650 pages, I have been taking my time reading it. The book is well researched and written by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy and published by Simon and Schuster. Nancy Gibbs is a graduate of Yale University and the University of Oxford. She is Managing Editor of Time Magazine. Michael Duffy is a graduate of Oberlin College. He is Washington Bureau Chief and Executive Editor for Time Magazine.
Right from the first Chapter, they caught my attention and kept it all the way through. I actually read some chapters twice just to retain some of the information they revealed in the book. They discuss the history leading to the formation of the President’s Club but it begins to get interesting when they write about President Harry Truman asking for help from former President Herbert Hoover. The top Democrat asking for help from a Republican most democrats didn’t want to be associated with in any way. But President Truman was different. He knew how to use resources and Herbert Hoover was just the right guy to prevent starvation in Europe after World War II. There are many stories like this throughout the book.
It travels through history covering all of the Presidents to the current sitting President Barack Obama and how they viewed the “Club” and, more importantly, how they used the members of the exclusive fraternity.
I would recommend this book to any history scholar or presidential historian looking for a different perspective on the use of power. It might change your view on several Presidents and how they operated. After reading this book, I changed my opinion on a few Presidents. One President I gained even more respect for during the my reading, Harry Truman. One President the authors elevated his stature in my mind, Herbert Hoover. I knew that former President Richard Nixon was a diplomatic and foreign policy guru and the authors prove it in the book. The book also reveals how certain former Presidents can be difficult at the least.
After reading the book, you can entertain your own conclusions.
Today’s writers have to admit that past investigative journalists (Woodward, Bernstein, and others) who went after President Richard Nixon after the Watergate break-in have a bit of irony to live with today. In a classic law of unintended consequences, since Gerald R. Ford’s Presidency, historians and journalists have been denied the fascination of looking back at an Administration’s legacy by listening to oval office audio tapes. The zealousness of attacking Nixon and forcing his resignation has deprived journalists and authors of pulling back the curtains to see how the White House brokers exercise power.
I write about this because of the current story in the headlines concerning President Lyndon Johnson’s latest audio tape release that shows how Johnson dealt with President Nixon’s perceived interference with the Vietnam peace talks before the 1968 Democratic Convention and Presidential Election. The tapes reveal that Johnson knew that Nixon used a proxy to approach the South Vietnam ambassador to tell him to hold off on accepting peace terms from the Johnson administration because he could get them a better deal. Johnson ultimately decided not to make this public due to security issues but did tell candidate Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who never used the information thinking that he had the election won.
It’s a fascinating bit of history in a long line of Presidential audio tapes. The history of audio tapes recording power broker meetings in the oval offices dates back to 1940. President Franklin Roosevelt got the tape rolling in a word and every President until Nixon used it since that time. The total hours for these audio tapes amounts to just under 5000, recording for history telephone conversations and meetings from both political parties. President John Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were prolific in their use of the audio recordings. A discussion concerning what is on those tapes is for another day. Look at what the media and learning institutions could have been pouring over with a critical eye if audio recordings would have continued. Journalists and lawyers won the battle but lost the war. They proved a point that politics is a dirty business but at the same time they short-changed history. Because of what happened to Nixon, no President since has wanted to put himself in that kind of situation by having that kind of evidence used against him. And for good reason, since Nixon, gotcha journalism has ruled the headlines in addition to 24/7 television and internet media outlets. There’s an empty space everyday that media professionals have to fill.
If not for Nixon’s poor decisions and paranoia, the media and lawyers working the circumstances, today’s writers, authors and college professors would have been analyzing and listening to meetings and phone conversations detailing a number of historical events. I am not saying that Nixon was without fault, but as a historian it is regrettable that major events are not on tape for others to analyze today. Reading someone’s words is not the same as hearing a President or Chief of Staff or Cabinet member at the moment with the personality that comes with speaking the words. One only has to listen to President Johnson’s tapes to understand that.
These are just of a few events lost to history.
President Ford-The Nixon pardon, the national recovery from Nixon’s resignation, the economic recovery, the Middle East peace process, the 1976 Election.
An argument could be made that if Nixon wasn’t forced to turn over the audio tapes, there never would have been a Ford Administration.
President Reagan-The Grenada Invasion, the Cold War strategy, and disarmament talks, the Berlin Wall Speech, the 1984 Election, The Libyan Bombing, The Economic Recovery, The Space Shuttle Disaster, the 1988 Election.
President Clinton-The 1992 Election, The David Koresh Waco disaster, the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, The Somalia Conflict, the Haitian support operation, Osama Bin Laden, the first terrorist attack on the twin towers, the 1996 election, the 2000 election.
President George Bush-The 2000 Election, 9/11 Terrorist Attack, the Afghanistan Invasion, The Iraqi Invasion, Osama Bin Laden strategy, the defense build-up and strategy, the 2004 Election, the Financial Crisis, the 2008 Election, Hurricane Katrina.
President Obama-The 2008 Election, the economic crisis, the Osama Bin Laden decision, the gun control issue, the 2012 Election.
Those are just a few events from each President since Nixon. There are several more topics that would have been enlightening if there would have been an audio recorder in the Oval Office. The point is, due to past events, we, the public, have missed out on many behind the scenes decisions. The curtain remains forever closed where the great and powerful work behind.
It’s President’s Day February 18th. With that, it’s worth discussing the gradual, double-edged communication sword candidates have had to integrate into their campaign to get their ideas to the voting public. Today, information technology has given candidates faster, easier ways to present their solutions and ideas to Americans. It also means the news cycle is quicker and reaches a wider audience if there is a slip up in their strategy or if a candidate misspeaks or gets some facts wrong.
George Washington never campaigned openly for the Presidency. He was ambitious but thought brazenly crusading for the office to be uncouth. He was a master at working behind the scenes, talking to the right people, while appearing to not covet the office but would accept it for the betterment of the nation. As history shows, Washington was the perfect person to be the first President because he didn’t want any royal titles and his leaving after two terms set the standard for years to come.
In 1836, William Henry Harrison first used a train to campaign across America. Later in 1840, William Henry Harrison was the first to openly campaign for the Presidency running against incumbent Martin Van Buren with the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” “Tyler Too” refers to John Tyler who would take office after President Harrison’s death due to sickness brought on by a one hour and 45 minute inauguration speech in the freezing, cold, Washington, DC, winter. Harrison served one month before Tyler assumed the office.
Despite the use of mass transportation such as trains, Candidates James Garfield in 1880 and William McKinley in 1896 won their elections by just sitting on the porch and welcoming visitors and serving drinks. While they were visiting, the candidates had the opportunity to present their ideas and give campaign speeches. McKinley was also reportedly the first to use the telephone to make campaign calls.
After the turn of the century, President Teddy Roosevelt was the first to be documented on film delivering campaign speeches. His bombastic, fist pumping style was perfectly suited for silent film.
Soon afterwards, radio broadcasts appeared on the political scene. President Calvin Coolidge used radio to deliver addresses in the early 1920s. Later, the 1924 election featured the candidates Coolidge and Democratic candidate John Davis delivering campaign speeches on the radio.
The Presidential debates and conventions in 1952 were the first to use the television medium to get their ideas to the public. Eisenhower’s campaign created the first TV ad. The catchy tune, “We Like Ike.” Later, President Lyndon Johnson used the television medium effectively for the “Daisy” campaign ad that ran only once but was effective in beating Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964’s election. Before the development of cable and 24 hour news channels, candidates planned their strategy with the realization that fewer television channels and reporters existed. However, the audiences were larger per channel. Even so, the Public Broadcasting System didn’t begin until 1970.
Today the press pool is larger and news channels and producers require a constant news cycle with pressure to fill the air space and get ratings.
Presidential Candidates have to negotiate several cable news organizations as well as local affiliate news reporters and anchors. In addition, the internet, YouTube, Twitter, blog writers, mobile media have given candidates more information streams. Candidates also use or have to make themselves available for the morning talk show circuit on radio and television. Talk radio has also entered the world of campaigning that can keep a story alive well after the initial news cycle.
The 1996 campaign was the first to use the internet to send out literature such as brochures and other media. The 2000 campaign candidates, Governor Bush and Vice President Gore, each created and maintained their websites. Since then, the internet, with ads, email, and other informational sites, has continually evolved to be a significant part of a campaign.
Despite several additional communication sources to reach the voting public, there is no substitute for face to face, personal exposure–the shaking of a potential voter’s hands. The modern age has seen the use of trains as a recurring theme for presidential candidates. Besides Harrison being the first, others that have used the rails are Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, William Clinton, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush and most famously, Harry S. Truman on his whistle-stop tour.
All of this means that candidates and incumbents have more ways, more paths, more streams to influence voters, get their ideas out, and communicate how they are better for the country than the other person. With these tools for discovery, it is entirely possible voters will elect a woman to the highest office, and soon.
The other side of the coin is that with more opportunities to reach and more hours in the day speaking on the public stage, the chances for a mistake or a misstep increase. The good news is; it is easier to correct it if you have a counter strategy. Technology is here to stay and the days of a candidate sitting at home on the front porch waiting for voters to arrive to hear him speak are long gone.