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Team of Five: The Presidents Club in the Age of Trump


Team of Five: The Presidents Club in the Age of Trump

In her latest political work, TEAM OF FIVE, Kate Andersen Brower identifies several areas of presidential life that occur in all tenures of the five men on this team. After the death of George H. W. Bush in 2018, four remain in the exclusive Presidents Club: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The book crisscrosses their lives and experiences against the backdrop of our current president, Donald Trump, and his self-created loner status.

Brower begins an exploration of the Team of Five with a Trump interview in the Oval Office in the spring of 2019, a meeting that was surprisingly easy to arrange. She describes as “surreal” one moment in particular: the accidental showing of a top-secret letter from North Korean president Kim Jong-un. The document was handed to her along with a typed list of things he has accomplished while in office. He asked her more than once what she was writing. In her last questions, Brower asked if being president gave him more empathy and understanding for the men who served before him. “No, not really” was his reply.

There are 11 chapters, each one illuminating an aspect of how the Presidents Club functions, and Brower contrasts Trump’s actions and statements with those of his predecessors. In “The Unwritten Rules of the Club,” she explains a relatively new tradition that began with Ronald Reagan for the outgoing president to leave a letter in the top drawer of the Resolute desk for the incoming president. She included lines from several, and writes that the new president has always kept the letter private while in office. It was meant to be used as a buoy representing his predecessor’s support and good wishes.

"The joy of TEAM OF FIVE comes in Brower making connections among these five men and showing that their love for America was greater than their personal differences."

After eight months, however, Trump revealed the handwritten note left by Obama and even showed it to White House visitors. He called it “long” and “complex,” and thought it must have taken him quite a while to write. In his letter, Obama includes a request to Trump to be kind, something not found in other correspondences between presidents. He said, “We’ve both been blessed…. Not everyone is so lucky.” He then wishes Trump and Melania good luck and offers to help him in any way. By showing this message of promise to others so cavalierly, Trump broke an unwritten rule, perhaps seemingly minor, but one that provoked annoyance and added fuel to Trump’s “flamethrowing” reputation.

In “Unexpected Friendships,” Brower focuses on connections made between some of the men after they leave office. Of course, some rifts and harsh words are never forgotten. Richard Nixon was famously trying to rewrite history until the last days of his life, and never forgave the enemies he created during his career. However, Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush developed a loving relationship despite their political polarities, in large part because of George W. Bush. He paired up his dad and Clinton to do humanitarian work together, and the two clicked. Clinton admired Bush’s patrician manner and ease of wisdom and humor; Barbara Bush especially liked Clinton’s saxophone-playing celebrity and style. This deep appreciation of one another gave both much pleasure.

Speculating for future days, Brower asks Trump if he foresees a friendship rekindling with Clinton. As background, both Hillary and Bill Clinton attended Trump and Melania’s wedding several years ago, and the two men had golfed together and been part of the New York City social scene. Trump said it would not be likely. This reaction underscores his breaking with the protocol of the Presidents Club, acknowledging that he said and did things to both Clintons that could not be forgotten.

Other chapters are equally rich and interesting. “First Ladies Circle” introduces the strong women who are married to ambitious men, and how they welcomed the incoming First Lady and helped her assimilate into the White House culture. Each woman created a family home maintaining privacy in very different ways, and Melania is doing so as well.

How each president handled the change (or release!) from being the most powerful man in the world to ordinary citizen is detailed in the chapter “Hangover.” There are huge differences in the transitions, of course, and Brower effectively uses her multiple interviews and resources to show the background stories and the expectations. It was easier for some than others.

Putting together the many pieces of each man’s words and actions from the separate chapters and reconstructing them into a full character was rewarding. As one example, Jimmy Carter has become a productive, inspirational leader in the almost 40 years since he left 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in deep despair over the Iranian hostage situation. Through deep reflection and hard work, he and Rosalynn, his wife of 74 years, have devoted their lives to improving America. He was the outsider to Washington in the 1970s and in many ways is still an outlier: he has been critical of a sitting president (another of the unwritten rules) and done other negative things. However, Brower believes that public opinion has softened toward him.

There are no breaking-news kinds of stories here. After all, the presidents’ foibles and successes have been documented in every conceivable way throughout their tenure in office, and we already should be aware of many pieces of our history. The joy of TEAM OF FIVE comes in Brower making connections among these five men and showing that their love for America was greater than their personal differences. The sadness for the country comes in the current president’s almost-certain exclusion. Brower asks Trump how he will fit into this group, and he shakes his head. “I don’t think I fit very well.”

Reviewed by Jane Krebs on May 22, 2020

Team of Five: The Presidents Club in the Age of Trump
by Kate Andersen Brower

  • Publication Date: May 25, 2021
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction, Politics
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0062668986
  • ISBN-13: 9780062668981