You would never take a second glance at 716 Jackson Place if you were strolling through the neighborhood around the White House and Lafayette Park in Washington. But the four-story white-painted townhouse with brown sandstone steps is easily the most exclusive clubhouse on the planet.
You have to call the White House for reservations and at the moment, only four men are eligible to use it.
This is the home of the Presidents club, a building the government acquired in the late 1950s, which Richard Nixon reassigned in 1969 for the sole use of former Presidents when they came to town. At the time, Nixon was concerned mainly with keeping his restless predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, happy; Johnson left office knowing a great many secrets about Nixon, which Nixon naturally preferred to remain classified. But in the end, Johnson never had occasion to stay there. Gerald Ford first used the clubhouse, and since then it has served as a discreet Washington hideaway when former leaders of the free world come to town.
George H.W. Bush used to stay there when Bill Clinton was in the White House, but his wife Barbara didn't love the place. At the time, the quarters were decidedly spartan: a couple of bedrooms, a parlor, some pictures on the wall. But under President George W. Bush, the townhouse was extensively renovated using private funds, and it's now an elegant sanctuary less than a minute's walk from the White House gate. Everything inside is new, polished and freshly painted, done up in tastefully muted greens, browns and creams. On the floor near the entrance is a modest blue rug, bearing the Presidential Seal. On the walls of the first-floor parlor are framed prints from 150-year-old magazines, ancient maps of the federal city and pictures of the last four Presidents as well as the current Commander in Chief. The rooms are immaculate, the spaces are quiet, and the building seems secure.
At the rear of the parlor is an office with a desk and fireplace; telephones are everywhere, but there is no computer in sight. Bound volumes of presidential papers going back to Herbert Hoover rest in a bookcase on an office wall.
Up the narrow staircase to the second-floor landing are two dining rooms: one more formal, featuring a long wooden table with Chippendale-style chairs, the other a smaller, more intimate breakfast room for two at the rear. That space leads to a silver-and-black galley kitchen, with a coffeemaker, toaster and anything else you might want for a party of 12 or just one.
Another flight up is the presidential bedroom overlooking Lafayette Park; the white cotton bedspread covering the queen-size bed is embossed with a raised Presidential Seal. Across the room is a large flat-screen TV. The master bathroom is particularly grand: walk-in shower, two sinks, a fireplace and, most incongruous of all, a large, freestanding tub in the middle of the room. In the hall closets are fluffy yellow bathrobes and spare linens still wrapped in plastic. A second bedroom occupies the fourth floor. An elevator connects all levels in addition to the staircase.
There are surely bigger and fancier presidential suites in the hotels around Washington; places with deeper carpets, higher-thread-count sheets and better views not to mention room service. But none of those accommodations have dedicated rooms in the basement for a Secret Service detail.
And the clubhouse is about to enjoy something of a boom. Two former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are just 66 years old, and Barack Obama, whether he wins or loses this fall, will be one of the youngest former Presidents in history when he leaves the White House.
Adapted from The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity, by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. To be published by Simon & Schuster Inc.