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Who knows the presidency ?like the presidents themselves?

The U.S. presidency has become the loneliest job on the face of the earth.?First, an army of armed and highly skilled men constructs a wall of glass between you and the 300 million people you represent.

Then, a small cadre of overzealous aides – all vying for your singular favor – compete vigorously for your individual attention to the exclusion of all others.

When you seek the opinions of your high-profile and highly paid advisers, you know full well that each represents a powerful constituency and is looking to protect his or her turf.

Some presidents, like Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and, it appears, Barack Obama, have a spouse they confide in at the end of the day in the privacy of the presidential living quarters.

But others, like Abraham Lincoln or Richard Nixon, either couldn't, or deemed it useless to explore important world questions with a first lady.

So who is a president to turn to for condolence, guidance and unadulterated advice? And what about just shooting the bull over a drink? Few presidents had Franklin Roosevelt's loyal Louis Howe to lean on.

A president looks for someone who has shared the worries of his egg-shaped office, who dreamed in the same bedroom and looked in the same mirror, someone who sought the same ghosts of past presidents in the dark hallways. The only person who has experienced the highs and lows of the most powerful position in the Free World is another president.

That's the premise of "The Presidents Club," the highly readable latest book by Time magazine editors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. The book combines the flow of a Gibbs cover story and the depth of Duffy's government experience into a lengthy work that can be picked up and put down without loss.

It is often dead serious. But in the hands of two highly accessible writers, it is just as often chatty, even gossipy, as when Lyndon Johnson quips about George McGovern, his party's candidate to unseat Nixon in 1972: "I didn't know they made presidential candidates that dumb."

Most of LBJ's best lines were so laced with barnyard references that they are unsuitable for a family newspaper. Likewise, Nixon's late-night rants were drenched in gratuitous sexual references which can't be reprinted here without blanking out every other word.

Both were strong, proud and earthy men. It is no wonder President Johnson was on the phone to candidate Nixon just before the '68 election, criticizing Hubert Humphrey's Vietnam remarks. Remember, Democrat Humphrey was Johnson's vice president. Nixon was "the enemy."

That was inside politics at its toughest. At one point, LBJ ordered Nixon: "I don't want you to quote me, or even repeat me." Nixon stammered: "I won't. I won't. I'm not even letting anyone know I called you."

True to form, Nixon double-crossed the president in the closing days of the campaign to assure a Nixon win. And LBJ never forgave him.

The authors present a convincing case that in the aftermath of the Nixon win, both he and Johnson were convinced the other had secret evidence that might incriminate them. That fear, they claim, thwarted any serious attack by either man on the other.

There was an obvious distrust between those two presidents, but that was not the rule. Democrat Harry Truman trusted discredited President Herbert Hoover, a Republican, with the task of reorganizing the executive branch after more than 12 years of Roosevelt rule.

John Kennedy trusted Dwight Eisenhower enough to seek his advice on the Cuban Missile Crisis before initiating a blockade of the island. And that was all the more telling considering that Eisenhower, a five-star general, had skewered the young Kennedy in the privacy of Camp David for acquiescing to his military advisers on the Bay of Pigs debacle, instead of following his own instincts.

These private conversations all are thoroughly annotated from diaries, presidential notes, letters, and phone transcripts.

Gerald Ford went so far as to elicit from Jimmy Carter, during a plane ride from the Mideast after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's funeral, a promise that the survivor of the two presidents would present the eulogy at the other's funeral. Of course, Carter beat Ford in 1976. And Carter presented the Ford eulogy in 2006.

The deeper you read into this volume, the clearer you see it is only superficially about the informal Presidents Club. It is a 60-year look back into the inner sanctums of America's fabled and often troubled presidency, as seen through the eyes of past, present and future presidents.

Sometime the look is candid, such as when the first President Bush tells his sons that Richard Nixon was "a great leader, a first-rate intellect, and a third-rate person."

At other times, it is comical as when the 81-year-old former President Ronald Reagan insists on teaching Bill Clinton how to salute the Marine honor guard. Reagan tells the new president he learned to deliver a crisp salute on a movie set years earlier.

And at times, it is insightful as when Gerald Ford says of Bill Clinton: "The guy can sell three-day-old ice."

That's only a sampling of the great quotes in this book. There are so many quotable quotes it makes John Bartlett look wanting.

Truman, after planning his own five-day funeral, says: "A damn fine show ... I just hate that I'm not going to be around to see it." Or LBJ to Nixon: "Let me tell you Dick, ... the leaks can kill you." Johnson apparently didn't know about the plumbers.

Americans are fascinated with their presidents and Gibbs and Duffy play deftly to that fascination. In 1973, after the deaths of Truman and Johnson, there were no living members of the Presidents Club. Nixon was on his own. Twenty years later, Clinton had five former presidents to contend with. Can you name them? (Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and George H.W. Bush.)

It is refreshing to learn that one president can talk to another in everyday terms, without the formality of an official memo, prepared speech or communiqué. And what they say can be a little scary, as in this exchange:

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy asked Eisenhower about the Soviets: "What's your judgment to the chances they'll fire those things off?" And Ike answered: "Oh I don't believe they will."

The two men, one new to the job, the other a revered war hero, were not talking about pop guns or Fourth of July firecrackers. They were discussing nuclear warheads. That's what makes a Presidents Club.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.


The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity

By Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

Simon & Schuster

630 pages, $32.50