Presidential libraries are the workshops where legacies can be polished and memories can be modified, and so the living members of The Presidents Club take them very seriously. Which is why five presidents will meet for only the second time today at the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
The last time they gathered was in January, 2009, just weeks before Barack Obama took office, when President Bush summoned the other four to the White House to, as President Carter told us,“educate president-elect Obama in a nice way without preaching to him.” It was a proper, polite conversation, over a lunch of sandwiches, but hardly a bonding one. Bush told Obama that the fraternity wanted him to succeed.
The Club regathers today under altered circumstances. Two men, Clinton and Bush the younger, turn 67 this year; two others, Carter and Bush the elder, turn 89. Bush senior’s bout with an unshakable cough gave the fraternity a scare last winter; he is now feeling much better and resuming a more active, but still limited, schedule. For Bush the father and son, today is sure to be uncommonly emotional and bears close watching.
The Obama and Clinton relationship remains a touchy one. Both men worked closely on last year’s election but remain unspoken rivals for history’s favor. No one yet knows which man, after eight years, will have achieved the most progressive change in a long, center-right era. The race seems a close one at the moment, and both men are fully aware of it.
And while Carter remains a sometimes difficult partner, each of the former presidents deployed him overseas at one time or another, sending messages or gathering intelligence, which Carter always took pains to relay back to Washington upon his return. Carter is now the longest-living former president in American history: he has been out of office for more than 32 years, surpassing Herbert Hoover’s 31-plus year mark last September.
Truman and Ike
These reunions have not always been warm. President Eisenhower was so hostile to Harry Truman—the two old friends had feuded fiercely over Senator Joe McCarthy during the 1952 campaign—that Eisenhower tried to dissuade Herbert Hoover from attending the dedication of the Truman library in 1957. But Hoover ignored IKE and went anyway, since, as he told Truman, “one of the important jobs of our exclusive trade union is preserving libraries.” Eisenhower certainly did not show up; he sent Truman a “congratulatory” letter, to be read by the General Services administrator, that was so chilly “you could almost see the icicles on it on a hot July day,” said one Truman aide.
The feud finally thawed after Eisenhower left office, and had to start figuring out plans for his own library in Abilene. He realized he could learn something from the success of Truman’s in Independence, and so quietly arranged to pay a visit.
The two presidents met and talked in Truman’s private office at the back of the library, before beginning their tour. Should he sign the guestbook? Eisenhower asked. “Definitely,” Truman teased. “Then if anything is missing, we’ll know who to blame.”
Eight years later, Richard Nixon paid a visit to Truman’s library to present him with the piano that had been in the White House when he was there. The encounter was warm, clubby; you would not have known they had hurled insults at each other for decades, as they shook hands and smiled. Nixon sat at the piano and pounded out “The Missouri Waltz.” Truman actually hated the tune, but by then he was too deaf to mind.
LBJ and Nixon
At that time Lyndon Johnson was pouring his considerable energy into building his library in Texas, which he was determined would be the most popular of them all. He would go over to the house where he was born, which had been turned into something of a shrine, and check the license plates in the parking lot to see how many different states were represented. He kept track of the number of postcards sold; he wanted his home to host more visitors than any other birthplace. The library staff learned to inflate the visitor count. Later, after the library was built near the massive University of Texas stadium in Austin, Johnson arranged for the announcer of the Longhorn football games to remind the tens of thousands of fans as they filed out at halftime that there were plenty of bathrooms just around the corner at the LBJ library.
The planning of libraries even drove a crucial plot twist in presidential history. Don Kendall, chairman of PepsiCo, was planning Nixon’s presidential library, and consulted with Johnson about the whole challenge of memory management. Nixon had been foolish, Johnson told Kendall, to rip out the taping system; he would need it when the time came to write his memoirs. So after ripping up Johnson’s recording system, Nixon had a new one secretly installed in February of 1971; five microphones were planted in his Oval Office desk, two on either side of the fireplace; two in the Cabinet Room, then four more in his Old Executive Office Building hideaway. How could so private a man risk what became the ultimate public exposure? “Because he was convinced left-leaning historians would try to deny him his place in history,” Nixon speechwriter William Safire argued, “because he wanted to write memoirs better than Churchill’s; and because he was sure he would have the same total control of his tapes that Kennedy and Johnson had of theirs.” It wouldn’t turn out that way, of course.
The Two Baby Boomers: Clinton and Bush
Bush the elder gave Clinton helpful advice about how to plan his library in Little Rock; and Clinton passed along his own lessons to Bush the younger, when the 43rd president started the project that is opening today in Dallas. When both Bushes attended the opening of Clinton’s library in November 2004, Clinton and the elder Bush fell way behind the touring party – so far behind that Bush the younger got impatient. “Tell 41 and 42,” Bush said, “that 43 is hungry.” An aide was dispatched to track the older two men down.
Clinton and the younger Bush have at times taken their relationship a little further than all others before them: the two men did a round of occasional speaking gigs together, appearing on stage in two wingchairs in 2010 and 2011, just talking about what it means to be president. These little-publicized, often private, events drew big audiences and large speaking fees, some of which were plowed back into their two libraries. And while both men enjoyed their occasional duets, they have more recently refrained from repeating them. Some arrangements may appear too cozy even for members of the world’s most exclusive fraternity.
Nancy Gibbs, TIME Deputy Managing Editor and Michael Duffy, TIME Washington Bureau Chief are the authors of The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity.
SPECIAL: The Presidents Club