After a generous introduction by son Niko Duffy ’13, TIME Magazine executive editor Michael Duffy joined his colleague Nancy Gibbs, deputy managing editor at the magazine, in a convocation speech on the American presidency. Together, they have extensively covered the United States’ chief executives -- whom they characterize as a tight-knit “club”-- and during their talk, they shared their motives for pursuing this story.
“When we think of Presidents we tend to see them one at a time,” said Duffy. “But for our task we wanted to examine how they matched up when put together.”
Both editors offered glimpses into this highly exclusive fraternity, where the one pre-requisite is a term in office via election by the citizens of the United States. Duffy has coauthored two books with Gibbs – along with a TIME cover article in April earlier this year – on the subject.
The two collaborated well, alternating at the podium during the convocation speech to cover various topics and to recall personal anecdotes from their time covering the White House.
Duffy read an excerpt from their book The President’s Club as if offering a teaser for a thriller novel; he gave intimate details about the close friendships and bitter rivalries between presidents and their predecessors. He used terms like “surrogate father” to characterize the ties between Bush senior and Clinton: “Bill knew he was in when Bush gave him the ultimate symbol of acceptance: a nickname.” That nickname? “Brother From Another Mother”.
Underlying the colorful stories and humorous tidbits of history was a vital unifying theme: the impact of governing the world’s most influential country. Duffy and Gibbs did not hesitate to talk about rivalries, such as the sour relationship between Truman and Hoover that spanned nearly a decade and was only remedied by Kennedy’s assassination.
Yet the two TIME journalists emphasized the solidarity between the men of the Oval Office, which has united them despite cross-party and ideological differences, the political feuds and campaign drama. “These men recognize the importance of preserving the Presidency,” Gibbs said, detailing scenarios where a former president had the means of calling out the one in office, only to back down when another member of the fraternity advised against it for the sake of national unity.
“No matter how successful you are as President, you always leave office with things that aren’t done,” Duffy remarked. “These men all have capacity for mistakes, and come away with the scars and wounds of being President. Only amongst themselves can they bond the way we ordinary people would never be able to imagine, and discuss things they couldn’t even tell their spouses or children.”
The two journalists highlighted the battlefield of American politics, and the audience responded warmly to the second convocation of the term. It felt remarkably homely to hear about comical and outrageous acts and heroic and respectable motives.
Some Americans today might find it a stretch to identify with a sitting president, and yet Duffy and Gibbs’ storytelling grounded these men who at one point in history were representatives of the nation. “The office transcends the individual,” said Duffy. “Yet at the end of the day we the people are the ones in control of the club.”