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Go inside 'The Presidents Club'

I'm almost done with one of the most fascinating political histories I've ever read. "The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity" is a highly readable examination of the lives, foibles, faults and strengths of presidents since Herbert Hoover, all in the context of a "club" formed by Hoover and Harry Truman in 1953.

When readers hear "political history," their eyes glaze over. But this work by Time magazine editors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy is so well-written that it enlivens a topic that could be - and often is - dry as an academic paper. The authors' skills as longtime political reporters and writers of clear, lively prose make for a compelling and accessible account of the men who occupied the Oval Office from mid-20th century until today.

The writers' sources range from presidential wives and friends, memoirs and speeches to interviews with former presidential staffers and confidents, and insider communiques, some of which were either never public before or were ignored by other reporters and historians. The result is a pageant of presidential history, lore and legend that shines a sometimes unflattering, sometimes ennobling light on presidents from Hoover to Barack Obama.

The "club" was formalized and funded by Congress in 1957, and has been a force in American politics and policy since then, and largely unknown to most Americans. Indeed, the club seldom made news as a club, but often affected current events because former presidents, by varying degrees, influenced foreign and domestic policies. The best segments of the book chronicle the involvement of former presidents with sitting presidents who had been political rivals and/or personal antagonists.

That's when the stories get interesting - when the men who know what it means to be president put aside political differences, either to protect the club or the presidency itself, or to influence the way a president conducts business.

For example, it's not widely known that disgraced Richard Nixon was President Bill Clinton's closest foreign policy adviser almost until the hour of Nixon's death in 1994. The book is filled with similar revelations about all the presidents since Truman (Franklin Roosevelt was dead, but Truman forged a bond with a man he and FDR had savaged for years, Hoover).

Even for readers who believe history is dull, "The Presidents Club" is worth a look. It's got its analyses of policy and politics, but it's more about the personalities - warts and all - of the men who were (and are) the most powerful on the planet.