In a famous photo, President John F. Kennedy is seen facing the windows of the Oval Office with his back to the camera. Slightly bent over, with his hands spread out on a credenza, he appears in deep and painful thought. The caption of the picture says it all: “The Loneliest Job.” Only the relatively few people who have been President of the United States truly understand the enormity of the job’s burden. It is for this reason presidents, despite their party affiliation, and often after leaving office, develop close bonds with one another, give the current office holder the benefit of the doubt and make themselves available to whoever may be president at the moment to help and advise.
Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, in their fascinating new book, The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity (2012), describe this phenomenon. Perhaps the most poignant example of such relationships is the very warm friendship that exists between former presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush. In recognition of this, the younger Bush, when president, once joked that “when Clinton woke up from surgery he was surrounded by members of his family—Hillary, Chelsea and ‘my father.’”
Candidates running for office may be somewhat clueless as to what the real pressures of the job are. Eisenhower, who knew his fair share of pressure while serving as commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II explained: “The problems a president faces are soul-racking…. The nakedness of the battlefield, when the soldier is all alone in the smoke and the clamor and the terror of war, is comparable to the loneliness—at times—of the presidency, when one man must conscientiously, deliberately, prayerfully scrutinize every argument, every proposal, every prediction, every alternative, every probable outcome of his action, and then—all alone—make his decision” (p.8). Kennedy, who more than thought himself ready for the job during his campaign and post-election preparations stated a mere ten days into his tenure, during his first State of the Union address: “No man entering upon this office could fail to be staggered upon learning—even in this brief 10 day period—the harsh enormity of the trials through which we must pass in the next four years. Each day the crises multiply. Each day their solutions grow more difficult” (p.128).
The book is full of examples of presidents turning to their predecessors for advice, guidance and support. After the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy invited Eisenhower to Camp David to advise him in dealing with the military and to garner his support to forestall a national crisis. LBJ called upon Truman and Eisenhower in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination for support and often called on Eisenhower for guidance during the Vietnam War, their different party affiliations notwithstanding. In an almost bizarre interaction, Clinton often discussed foreign policy with Nixon and mourned the loss of his advice upon his death.
Current presidents come to realize that they cannot do it alone. While they have staff who are more than willing to offer advice, they find the need to talk with people who understand them and can guide them from a common vantage point. As their terms progress, presidents begin to view their predecessors as necessary friends instead of political opponents.
All leaders will benefit by engaging colleagues who share their challenges. We see the importance of this idea from an elaboration on a comment by Chazal, quoted by Rashi, at the beginning of this week’s parsha. The Torah states (26:3): “If you walk in [the path] of My statutes and you observe My commandments and perform them,” then you will be the recipients of wonderful blessings. Rashi explains that this verse exhorts us to immerse and exert ourselves in the study of Torah. Torah does not come easily. Mastering Torah requires intense and sustained effort. In fact, Pirkei Avot (chapter 6) describes the set of 48 strategies it is necessary to employ in order to successfully acquire it.
The tenth strategy instructs us to learn from and be apprenticed to rabbis. This requirement is self-evident. The twelfth strategy instructs us to teach students Torah and get involved with the passionate give and take that characterizes such endeavors. As any person who has taught a class is aware, the level of learning and preparation needed to teach without a doubt sharpens one’s skills. However, the eleventh strategy that underscores the importance of learning Torah with peers seems at first blush somewhat puzzling. While certainly a nice idea—why should learning with peers be so necessary as to be counted among the 48 strategies?