January 7th, 2009
09:00 AM ET
11 years ago

Greene: Members of the most exalted club


SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

(CNN)– When today's rare meeting of five presidents past, present and future takes place in the Oval Office, people around the world will be wondering what it must be like for the men who are members of that tiny and exalted club.

If history is any indication, the five men in the room are themselves occasionally filled with wonder at the thought of it all.

“I recall the first time Mrs. Nixon and I went to the White House,” Richard Nixon said.

He was telling me this during a period of my life when I had set out to try to visit all the then-living former presidents. The idea was to endeavor to find out what their view of the White House was once they were no longer residing there– once they, like the rest of us, were again on the outside. Citizens.

“I was a new congressman,” Nixon said. “And they had, as every president does at the beginning of every new Congress, a reception for all the members of Congress.

“And we had very little then. A congressman, incidentally– when I entered Congress, his salary was $12,500 a year. Which we thought then was not bad. But Mrs. Nixon, she scrimped and she bought a new dress to wear to the White House. A formal.

“She said to me, 'Well, this is going to be a little hard on the budget, but this may be the only time we'll ever be there.'”

This afternoon, as George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush gather privately in the White House, they will undoubtedly be aware of the public's curiosity about what they may be saying to each other. It's a curiosity about the presidency that each of them once possessed– a curiosity, once they are on the receiving end of it, that they gradually learn to accept as routine.

“When I go into a crowd or meet a stranger– you know, obviously they look at me as kind of a unique creature,” Jimmy Carter said. “'This man has lived in the White House, this man has been the highest elected official, officeholder, in the world.' But I try to overcome that– I consider it to be a handicap. Even when I was president, I was always uncomfortable with it. The fanfare and 'Hail to the Chief' and all– it made me very uncomfortable.”

Still, Carter said, people should understand that each man who has been president is a very different person. “I look on them as individualistic, the same way you would look at different news reporters or anyone else. Just having the same job doesn't mean the people who have it are the same.”

Yet parts of the job entail a way of living that the rest of us will never know. “When I was president, I didn't see a lobby for four years,” the first President Bush said to me.

He was referring to the fact that the Secret Service would, in public buildings, usher him through kitchens and locked-down passageways, for his own protection. “I almost forgot what the lobbies of buildings looked like,” he said.

When a man stops being president, he said, he rediscovers small pleasures that once were second nature to him.

“I went out to see a minor-league baseball game the other night,” he said. “The Portland [Maine] Sea Dogs. In the Eastern League. This beautiful stadium, it only holds about 6,000 people. So everyone feels real close to the game. We sat right down next to the field.”

He had an almost boyish sense of gladness in his voice, at the rediscovered joy of doing something so seemingly simple. There had been no particular reason, he said, for the trip to the ballpark– no official event connected with it.

“I just felt like seeing a ballgame,” he said, as if describing a gift beyond value.

And then there are the things that don't change, even for the men who somehow find themselves going to work in that office that is like no other.

“Do I pray?” Gerald Ford said, in response to the question I had asked him.

“Every night. Every night since I was in high school.”

He said it was the same prayer he had recited most of his life, starting when he was a boy in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“Betty and I said this prayer the first night we were sworn in. Proverbs, chapter three. 'Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, lean not on thine own understanding, in all thy ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct thy paths.”

He never varied the words, he said– he said the prayer the same way in his bedroom in the White House as he'd said it when he was a child who never thought he would ever see the White House, much less live there.

Today, when the five current members of the club meet in the Oval Office, they will know without having to say it aloud that just by being there together, they are making history. But, then, part of their job description is that they are making history every day of their presidencies.

And chances are that, at least once in a while, each of them silently allows himself the private and fundamental thought that Gerald Ford told me was his most fervent wish:

“If I'm history, I hope it's history that's good.”

Filed under: Bob Greene • Election Express
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