U.S. Presidents: The Very Elite Club That Never Meets

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From the moment he became president, Dwight D. Eisenhower barely spoke to Harry Truman. Franklin Delano Roosevelt practically banned Herbert Hoover from the White House. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were the best of friends, but only after both left office; they bonded on a long plane flight to Cairo, when Ronald Reagan sent them to the funeral of Anwar Sadat.

And George W. Bush has telephoned Bill Clinton on a regular basis over the last several years — a discovery that might shock Americans who remember well how Mr. Bush accused Mr. Clinton of dishonoring the Oval Office. That such conversations occurred has not previously been reported, but according to one person familiar with their frequent exchanges, the two swap stories about politics and engage in “presidential small talk.”

“One thing historians have talked about for years is that there should be a better way for sitting presidents to use the experience of former presidents, and it doesn’t happen enough,” said the presidential historian Michael Beschloss. “The reasons are varied: sometimes personal antagonisms, shyness, the feeling that the former president is too removed from today’s politics to know very much. The result is that there is a reservoir of wisdom and experience that is not relied upon.”

Historians say they cannot remember a time when another president, or president-in-waiting, has convened his predecessors for the sole purpose of picking their collective brains. “It’s crazy, because it’s such an exclusive club you wish they would rely on it more,” said Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential biographer.

And when John F. Kennedy bungled the Bay of Pigs invasion, he invited his predecessor to Camp David. In his book “Eisenhower: Soldier and President,” the biographer Stephen E. Ambrose describes how the two strolled the grounds, heads bent, deep in conversation, with Eisenhower scolding his successor, who confessed, “No one knows how tough this job is until after he has been in it a few months.” Yet the resulting photograph helped Kennedy, giving the public the impression Eisenhower was behind the young president.

Yet even if there was no advice, Mr. Obama walked way with something perhaps equally valuable: front-page publicity and political goodwill.

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