Bill Clinton greets us in his Harlem office, looking thin, sounding thin, his voice a scrape of welcome at the end of a long day.
It is late, it is dark, pouring rain outside, so beyond the wall of windows the city is a splash of watery lights and street noise. But inside, past the two armed agents, behind the electronic locks, the sanctuary is warm wood and deep carpet, a collector’s vault. A painting of Churchill watches from the west wall; a stuffed Kermit the Frog rests on a shelf, while a hunk of an old voting machine, with names attached and levers to pull, sits behind his desk. “This is my presidential library, from Washington through Bush,” he says, pointing to bookcases full of memoirs and biographies, and in the course of the séance that follows he summons the ghosts not just of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt but Franklin Pierce and Rutherford B. Hayes.
He dwells on one president he misses – Richard Nixon – and another that he loves: George H.W. Bush. “A month to the day before he died,” he says of Nixon, “he wrote me a letter about Russia. And it was so lucid, so well written…. I reread it every year. That one and George Bush’s wonderful letter to me, you know where you leave your letter to your successor.”
That was the letter that said, “You will be our President when you read this note. … I am rooting hard for you.”
Along the windowsill are dozens of pictures; he looks at the signed photo of Lyndon Johnson, a prize given to him forty years ago when he worked on a campaign in Texas. “Over time,” he predicts of LBJ, “history will tend to be kinder to him.”
In the meantime, it falls to the presidents to be kind to one another. “There’s just a general sympathy,” he says, among the men who have sat in the Oval Office. “President Obama and I didn’t talk much about politics when we played golf the other day.” There are plenty of other people around to talk politics; sometimes you need someone who just makes you laugh. Or tells you not to let the bastards get you down. Clinton was exhausted that day, he recalls, but “when my president summons me, then I come and I would play golf in a driving snowstorm.”
My president, he calls him, which suggests how far the two men have come since their proxy war in 2008. Such are the journeys this book attempts to trace: the intense, intimate, often hostile but more often generous relationships among the once and future presidents. It makes little difference how much they may have fought on the way to the White House; once they’ve been on the job, they are bound together by experience, by duty, by ambition, and by scar tissue. They are members of the Presidents Club, scattered across the country but connected by phone and email and sometimes in person, such as when five of them met at the White House after the 2008 election to, as President Carter told us, “educate President-elect Obama in a nice way without preaching to him.”
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