"You will be our president when you read this note,"
Note the pronoun: You will be our president. My president. In our interviews and research into the private relations among these most public men, the pronouns matter. At a time when
The offers of help come, often across party lines, because former presidents know what incoming presidents only learn over time.
On the day
That was only the first of their joint missions. It didn't matter that Truman thought Hoover was "to the right of Louis XIV," he said. They never talked about politics anyway because they had something more important in common. "We talked," Truman said, "about what it was like being president."
So did Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy — when they finally got around to talking at all. Here again were two men with little use for each other, after a campaign in which Kennedy portrayed Eisenhower as too staid, even too soft, allowing a supposed "missile gap" with the Soviet Union.
By October 1960, Ike told one Oval Office visitor, "Listen, dammit, I'm going to do everything possible to keep that
But upon Kennedy's election, the stakes would change, and so did the conversation. When they met at the White House in December 1960, Eisenhower tried to alert Kennedy to what was coming. "No easy matters will ever come to you as president," Eisenhower warned him. "If they are easy, they will be settled at a lower level." So how you organize your staff matters, he explained, and he wrote that night in his diary that "I pray that he understands it."
Only a few months later, the two men picked up their conversation — following the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. The language of
"No one knows how tough this job is until he has been in it a few months," Kennedy admitted.
"Mr. President," Eisenhower replied, "if you will forgive me, I think I mentioned that to you three months ago."
"I certainly have learned a lot since," replied Kennedy.
And they talked about how the whole thing had gone wrong. But when they talked to reporters afterward, Eisenhower pledged his support; he ordered his fellow Republicans to resist "witch-hunting."
If ever a president needed the solace of this tight fraternity, it was Lyndon
That night Johnson called both Truman and Eisenhower. "I have needed you for a long time," Johnson told Ike, "but I need you more than ever now."
"Any time you need me, Mr. President," Ike said, "I'll be there."
And indeed he drove to Washington the next day, to view Kennedy's casket lying in state and then sit with Johnson and offer his help. Johnson wanted to know what specifically he should do. So Eisenhower got a legal pad and sat in Johnson's outer office, writing out in longhand what Johnson should say to an emergency joint session of Congress.
He asked the secretary who typed his notes to burn them after and make only two copies, one for Johnson and one for himself.
And what was that advice, from a revered, retired Republican president to a suddenly elevated Democratic one? That Johnson would carry out "the noble objectives so often and so eloquently stated by your great predecessor." Eisenhower knew what the country needed at that moment; it was not a time for partisan positioning.
And so it has been. Though heartsick over his loss in 1976, Jerry Ford helped
It's true that presidents have their feuds, many of them bitter and long-lasting. But by and large the code remains intact. Just recently, Mr. Bush gently took issue with Barack Obama's energy and tax policies, and then he added, "I don't think it's good, frankly, for our country to undermine our president. I don't intend to do so now."