President Donald J. Trump hasn’t called on his presidential predecessors to help him address the coronavirus threat. Instead, two of them made the call themselves in recent days — not to the White House, but to the American people.
“Let us remember how small our differences are in the face of this shared threat,” former President George W. Bush said in a three-minute video that was part of a “Call to Unite” online offensive of national uplift and national purpose. “In the final analysis, we are not partisan combatants. We are human beings, equally vulnerable and equally wonderful in the sight of God. We rise or fall together, and we are determined to rise. God bless you all.”
He was not alone. President Bill Clinton also had some words for the nation he led two decades ago. “We need each other, and we do better when we work together,” he said. “That’s never been more clear to me as I have seen the courage and dignity of the first responders, the health care workers, all the people who are helping them to provide our food, our transportation, our basic services to the other essential workers.”
Trump has been more pugilist than partner with his predecessors, repeatedly spurning their advice.
“I don’t think I’m going to learn much,” Trump said when he was asked whether he might consult with his White House predecessors as the coronavirus threat deepened. “I guess you could say that there’s probably a natural inclination not to call.”
And yet, in modern American history, other presidents have had a natural inclination to make that call.
In the middle of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the world was closest to nuclear warfare, President John F. Kennedy made three important phone calls: one to Herbert Hoover, a Republican his father campaigned against in the 1932 election; a second to Harry Truman, who thought Kennedy was callow and spineless; and the third to Dwight Eisenhower, whom Kennedy had pilloried in his 1960s campaign for creating a missile gap and for failing to prepare the nation for its dangerous future.
“The ‘ex-presidents club’ is an amazing resource for a current president,” said Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley, who has written on the two President Roosevelts and Kennedy. “The ‘exes’ know how to deal with crisis in real time and can offer sage wisdom. President Trump could benefit from that.”
If you have any doubt about the value of two presidents examining a difficult situation, invest 2 minutes 20 seconds in this Kennedy/Eisenhower exchange from October 1962: https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/educational-resources/john-f-kennedy-and-dwight-eisenhower
In the call, Kennedy opened by informing Eisenhower he was going to impose a blockade — he would eventually use the less martial term “quarantine” — on Cuba.
“Well, I thank you for telling me,” Eisenhower said, adding, “I think you’re really making the only move you can.”
Kennedy interjected: “I don’t know, we may get into the invasion business before many days are out.”
The two then discussed Nikita Khrushchev’s motives in installing missiles 90 miles from Florida. Kennedy said he believed it was part of a chess game over Berlin, then a Cold War flashpoint. Eisenhower didn’t agree.
“I just don’t go along with that thinking,” he said, explaining, “I don’t believe they relate one situation with another.”
Then the vital question: “General, what about if the Soviet Union, uh, Khrushchev, announces tomorrow, which I think he will, that if we attack Cuba that it’s going to be nuclear war? And what’s your judgment as to the chances they’ll fire these things [nuclear weapons] off if we invade Cuba?”
Eisenhower: “Oh, I don’t believe that they will.”
Lyndon Johnson enlisted Harry Truman in his 1965 fight to win passage of Medicare — and then invited him to the presidential signing ceremony. George H.W. Bush consulted with Carter on crises in Panama and Nicaragua. Clinton repeatedly consulted with Nixon on Russia and post-Cold War matters. George W. Bush leaned on Clinton in the effort to battle AIDS and on his father and Clinton in the effort to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.
Amid his impeachment trial and then the 2020 coronavirus crisis, Trump made no such phone calls to former presidents, though his four living potential White House “kitchen cabinet” members might offer unusual perspective: Carter, who fought to eradicate guinea worms and river blindness; Clinton, who also faced and defeated a partisan effort to remove him through impeachment; the younger Bush, who faced an invasion from abroad of a different but just as chilling quality; and Barack Obama, who battled an Ebola epidemic.
Even so, Clinton had some unsolicited advice for Trump as the impeachment drama unfolded. “Look, you got hired to do a job,” Clinton told CNN. “You don’t get the days back you blow off. Every day’s an opportunity to make something good happen.”
Presidential relationships, to be sure, often are fraught. Truman and Eisenhower were never close. Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t consult with Hoover, who was an ardent critic of FDR’s New Deal. Abraham Lincoln was convinced that James Buchanan helped create the Civil War; the only known interchange between the two of them in the Lincoln presidency came in the form of an Oct. 21, 1861, letter, now buried in the Library of Congress, in which the 15th president asked of the 16th (whom he addressed as “My dear sir”) to return to him “some seven or eight volumes” — books he inadvertently left in the White House library.
But for most of them, the presidency is what Thomas Jefferson — who had a late-life intimate correspondence with his predecessor, John Adams — called a “glorious burden,” one that only 45 men have shared in more than two centuries.
“It is more than a mere courtesy for sitting presidents to consult with their predecessors,” said Brinkley. “It is a great opportunity for them, and you have to wonder why President Trump wouldn’t want to use the presidents to help heal the nation.”
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.