It was one of those moments that, in a mere second or two, changed American history: on Jan. 20, 1953, at the inauguration of President Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman greeted Herbert Hoover on the platform. "I think we ought to organize a former Presidents club," Hoover suggested.
"Fine," Truman replied. "You be the president of the club. And I will be the secretary."
Up to that moment, the Presidents club was more an idea than an institution. Some sitting Presidents consulted with their predecessors, but beyond sharing war stories, there were limits to what a former President could do unless he applied for a new job, like Congressman (John Quincy Adams) or Supreme Court Justice (William Howard Taft).
But with the coming of the modern, postwar age, the Presidents club became an actual fraternity, an abiding alliance between sitting and former Presidents born of the experiences they had shared, the mistakes they avoided and the opportunities they seized. Presidents can do more together than apart, and they all know it, and so they join forces as needed, to consult, complain, console, pressure, protect, redeem.
In the case of Hoover and Truman, they did much more.
The club came about because the two men had already become among the most unlikely allies in American history. Truman had been in office for a matter of weeks in the spring of 1945 when newspapers began warning of the next disaster: "the most stupendous feeding problem in history," as the New York Times described the hideous famine facing 100 million European civilians who'd suffered through years of living in a war zone. Aware of the objections of many in the White House, Truman secretly mailed a letter to the still despised Hoover, inviting him back to the White House for the first time since Franklin Roosevelt's inauguration 12 years before. The two men met on May 28, 1945; Hoover, an engineer by training who had been revered for his relief work following World War I, laid out for Truman what it would take to get the food from countries that had it to those that needed it, a massive logistical challenge on which millions of lives depended.
The austere Republican Hoover left the meeting skeptical that the novice Democrat Truman would do anything so radical as enlist a political enemy in a joint mission. "Nothing more would come of it," Hoover concluded in his memo of the encounter.
But he was wrong. In the year that followed, Truman enacted one Hoover recommendation after another, and sent the 71-year-old former President on a 50,000-mile mission around the world: with Truman's encouragement, Hoover, the man many Democrats revile to this day, met with seven kings, 36 Prime Ministers and the Pope. He gave 42 press conferences. When he was in Cairo in April of 1946, he and Truman did a joint radio broadcast exhorting Americans to conserve food: "The saving of these human lives is far more than an economic necessity to the recovery of the world," Hoover said. It was "a part of the moral and spiritual reconstruction of the world."
And it worked; by the end of that summer, Truman could announce that America had shipped five and a half million tons of grain to the ravaged regions of Europe, thereby keeping the nation's promise and forestalling a humanitarian catastrophe. "Every molecule in my body yells at me that it is tired," Hoover told a friend. "I am going away for a rest."
"Yours was a real service for humanity," Truman wrote privately to Hoover. By that time the two had battled enough common enemies to have seeded something like a friendship. "I know that I can count upon your cooperation if developments at any time in the future make it necessary for me to call upon you again."
And he did. Truman had discovered in Hoover a most surprising ally, whose commitment to serving the country and strengthening the presidency was undiminished by the fact that at that point the White House was occupied by a Democrat. Hoover helped Truman sell the idea of European relief to a skeptical Republican Congress. Even more important, he oversaw that radical overhaul of the Executive Branch: as a result of their partnership, the Hoover Commission, which Congress created, Truman sanctioned and Hoover chaired, produced the greatest transformation of the presidency in history, a concentration of power that ultimately yielded the CIA, the National Security Council, the Council of Economic Advisers, the General Services Administration, a unified Defense Department and much more.
And so it went: an unexpected partnership had produced a new kind of power certainly a new kind of peerage. It was an arrangement that favored them both; by 1951, Truman and Hoover ranked three and five on Gallup's list of Most Admired Men. So as they watched Eisenhower on the Capitol steps preparing to take over the chair both had occupied, it was natural that they would recognize the particular value of a working alliance between sitting and former Presidents.
Not every President who followed would share their willingness to collaborate; but it was already clear that used wisely, the Presidents club could function as an instrument of presidential power. For all of the club's self-serving habits and instincts, when it is functioning at its best, it can serve the President, help solve his problems and the nation's, even save lives.
Adapted from The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity, by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, published by Simon & Schuster.