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Time editors discuss new book about presidents at McDaniel College

The four-story brownstone near Washington's Lafayette Park is one of the most exclusive hotels in the world. There's a fireplace in the master bathroom, and the thread counts on the sheets is high enough to rival the Four Seasons.

And only four people can get reservations to stay there right now — possibly because the coverlet bears the presidential seal, and there are accommodations for the Secret Service in the basement.

The townhouse on West Jackson Place is the residence where Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and both George Bushes stay when they are in Washington on official business. The quartet refer to themselves jokingly as "The Presidents Club," which also is the title of a book by Time magazine editors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy.

The book chronicles the at times surprising relationships between former U.S. presidents and the sitting chief executive. The book covers nearly 70 years, starting in 1945 when President Harry S. Truman teamed up with his bitter rival, Herbert Hoover, to combat a famine in Europe that threatened to claim 100 million lives.

"The Presidents Club" discusses the unwritten protocols under which its members operate — as well as the occasional mavericks who disregard the rules.

"There's no question that Jimmy Carter has redefined what it means to be a former president," Duffy said in an interview, citing the former president's relationship with the housing organization Habitat for Humanity.

'He's been extraordinarily active and amazingly successful. But he's a difficult partner. If you send Carter on a mission, he'll do what you tell him to do. But he'll also do three things you tell him not to do. He's always been an irascible sort."

Gibbs, deputy managing editor of Time, and Duffy, the magazine's executive editor and Washington bureau chief, took a few moments to discuss their conclusions before their visit to McDaniel College on Thursday.

You described the book as a reporting challenge. Were you able to interview all four former presidents as well as President Obama?

Gibbs: The challenge was getting people to talk to us.

Duffy: We interviewed Clinton, Carter and the first President Bush. George W. Bush was the sitting president when we were doing our research, so we couldn't interview him. But Nancy had talked to George W. Bush for a story that had run in Time earlier, and we were able to draw on that. We did not talk to President Obama.

Did you get as much time as you needed with them?

Duffy: Every interview — including this one — involves negotiations. But, I'd really rather not get into them. You're a reporter. I'm sure you understand.

You argue that the mere existence of the Presidents Club says something uplifting about the American character and system of government.

Duffy: It's a peculiarly American phenomenon. If you were to line up Obama and the Bushes and Clinton and Carter, there isn't a club in the country that would admit them all. And the current members have nothing to say about who gets in.

The idea of helping your predecessor is almost unheard of in other countries, In America, you don't have to come from the right family, go to the right school or join the right club to become president. It's such a great reflection of our country.

Gibbs: [Former chief executives] come away thinking that America needs a strong, functioning presidency to succeed, and they become very protective of that office. Democrats and Republicans alike are willing to put aside their own party's self-interest to preserve the presidency. That's been true over the decades.

What are some of the unwritten rules and protocols?

Duffy: Don't criticize the guy in office.

Gibbs: It's certainly not a matter of agreeing to everything that the current president is doing. When Dwight Eisenhower met with Jack Kennedy five days after the Bay of Pigs invasion, he took him out to the woodshed. Eisenhower was candid in private, but he was circumspect in public. That's a line that they all adhere to.

Duffy: They also make themselves available when needed to provide discreet counsel. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have had their ups and downs. But when Obama called, Clinton dropped everything. He said, "When my president summons me, I would play golf in a driving snowstorm."

The presidents can talk to their wives about their problems with the job, and they can talk to their Cabinets. But no one really knows the sheer impossible nature of the thing except for the people who've lived through it. They all come out of that office with such amazing scars. Even when their presidencies have been successful, they have regrets. They know that there are no easy choices in that job, and they'll be explaining the decisions that they made for the rest of their lives.

So once someone gets into office, they cut him some slack.

Which of your findings surprised you the most?

Duffy: What we saw over and over again was that presidents from different parties tend to get along better than presidents from the same parties.

Obama and Clinton, for instance, are rivals for history's favor. They're both trying to advance a progressive agenda, and it's hard.

But Clinton and George W. Bush, the two baby boomers who seem to be polar opposites on the political spectrum, have become friends. They've done a little business together, made a few speeches together, put on a good show. And they're both very close to the older President Bush. One's an actual son, and the other is a surrogate son.

Can you describe Obama's relationship with his predecessors?

Duffy: It's hard to find people who are close to Obama. Obama doesn't do close. But he's asked Bush to do things, sent Carter on a mission and sent Clinton overseas. I'd say he's using the Presidents Club about as much as his predecessors did, but he's using it with less strife.

Why is that?

Duffy: I don't have any idea. I will understand it at some point, but I don't now.

They're all going to be together later this month at the dedication [on April 25 of George W. Bush's presidential library in Dallas]. It's the first time they will have been together since 2009, right after Obama was elected. It will be interesting to see how those relationships develop. It's still very much a work in progress.


If you go

Time magazine editors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy discuss "The Presidents Club" at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in McDaniel's Decker Auditorium, 2 College Hill, Westminster. Admission is $12, which includes a copy of the book. Go to https://library.carr.org/presidentsclub or call the Carroll County Library, which is co-sponsoring the event, at 410-386-4500.

The book

"The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity" was published in 2012 by Simon & Schuster. $32.50, 641 pages

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