Our thanks to Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, authors of The Presidents Club--selected as one of the top 10 Best Books of the Month for April--for this exclusive look at other books exploring the public and private sides of the "Oval Office experience."
Because there is no Oval Office owner's manual, and because, as John F. Kennedy observed, "there is no experience that can possibly prepare you adequately for the presidency," presidents study one another. They read the diaries, devour the biographies; Herbert Hoover even wrote an entire book about Woodrow Wilson, and Eisenhower painted portraits of Lincoln and gave them as Christmas presents. "This is my presidential library, from Washington through Bush," Bill Clinton told us, gesturing to a wall of shelves in his private office. He was just finishing Ron Chernow's biography of George Washington, which he considered "brilliant," and as we talked about the rules and rituals of this very small fraternity, he retold stories not just of heroes like Lincoln and Roosevelt but the distinctive trials of Franklin Pierce and Rutherford B. Hayes.
As we set out to tell the story of The Presidents Club--a history of the private relationships among modern American presidents, their backroom deals, rescue missions, secret alliances and enduring rivalries--we followed their lead, reading the work of presidential scholars and journalists who have explored the private sides of public men. It is one thing to watch how they wield their power; another to reckon with what it costs them. That is the bond that brings them together: no one else knows what it is like to sit in the chair.
The story of the club starts with the most unlikely of all presidential alliances: the one between Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman. For those wanting to understand the extraordinary rise of a man called "the accidental President," David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning Truman remains the skeleton key: rich, gripping, graceful and fair. As for Hoover, Richard Norton Smith's An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover offers a complex portrait of a compelling character who was too often reduced to a caricature.
Though there are too many to count, here are other valuable and vivid renderings of the Oval Office experience and the bonds that its occupants share:
- Eisenhower: For a fascinating account of his friendship-turned-bitter feud with Truman, try Steve Neal's Harry and Ike: The Partnership that Remade the Postwar World
- Kennedy: Another great read about the surprising relationships within the fraternity is Chris Matthews' Kennedy and Nixon: The Rivalry that Shaped Postwar America. Richard Reeves' President Kennedy: Profile of Powerprovides an intimate tour of Kennedy's White House and a unique understanding of what drove his decisions.
- Johnson: Robert Dallek's Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961"“1973somehow captures every dimension of the vast, needy personality of this most haunted president"”a man so obsessed with his Club membership that he had White House historians research every encounter he had ever had with Presidents Hoover, Truman and Eisenhower.
- Nixon: William Safire's Before the Fall: An Inside View of the Pre-Watergate White Houseremains the most fascinating portrait of an impossibly complex politician ever written by a White House veteran.
- Ford: In Tom DeFrank's Write It When I'm Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford, the storied Newsweek correspondent conducted a series of revealing post-presidential interviews with Ford before he died, in which he tells tales that curl your hair.
- Carter: Much as Carter invented the modern post-presidency, Douglas Brinkley invented the post-presidential biography. The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter's Journey Beyond the White Houseis a tour de force of writing and reporting about a one-term president making a 30-year comeback.
- Reagan: A longtime diplomatic correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, James Mann crawls inside the 40-year relationship between Reagan and Richard Nixon, remaking recent history along the way, in The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War.
- George H. W. Bush: No one gets Bush better than Bush himself. In All The Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings, the letters are funny, revealing, self-mocking, confiding and honest. BONUS: they tell the story of a father of a president as well.
- Clinton: John Harris, a Washington Post reporter during Clinton's two terms, wrote The Survivor: Bill Clinton In The White House, which remains the best on Clinton's years in the Oval Office. Detailed, fair, deeply reported.
- George W. Bush: Robert Draper's Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush stands atop all the others, chiefly because Bush spoke to Draper at length about his time in office before he stepped down.
- Obama: You cannot understand Obama's relationship with Clinton without reading his book The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. The two men have more in common than either, at least initially, ever imagined.
There are of course a great many more; the presidential libraries and the University of Virginia's Miller Center offer a priceless archive of oral histories and presidential documents.