When George W. Bush retires from the presidency in January, he will have to decide what to do with the rest of his life. How has the role of ex-presidents changed over the years?
What do ex-presidents do?
It’s a question that has haunted many of them. After all, once somebody has held the most powerful job in the world, anything else is bound to be anticlimactic. In the earlier days of the republic, presidents mostly just went home and took it easy. George Washington tended his plantation at Mount Vernon and distilled whiskey. John Adams returned to farming and corresponded with Thomas Jefferson. Franklin Pierce found himself at wit’s end. “After the White House,” he complained before dying of cirrhosis of the liver, “what is there to do but drink?”
Were some ex-presidents more productive?
Yes. In his ostensible retirement, Jefferson built the University of Virginia. John Quincy Adams continued in politics, spending 18 distinguished years in Congress. William Howard Taft got himself named chief justice of the United States. In recent decades, most ex-presidents have felt some need to do something.
Why the change?
As life spans increased, ex-presidents found that they had to keep themselves busy for decades after leaving office. The explosion in media and political commentary has also made these men increasingly concerned with how history will remember them. “With the advent of globalization in a world dominated by the U.S., the opportunity for formers to make their marks has increased significantly,” said Mark Updegrove, author of Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House. “Former presidents are now pursuing their own agendas, agendas that they have almost left over from their White House years.”
Who created this new template?
Richard Nixon. Having resigned in disgrace in the wake of Watergate, he was determined to rehabilitate himself for posterity. So he wrote thick books about history and diplomacy, traveled the world for high-level meetings with foreign leaders, established a presidential library in California, and consulted frequently with his Oval Office successors. By the time he died, in 1994, Nixon had largely reinvented himself as the elder statesman of U.S. foreign policy.
What have his successors done?
They’ve generally tried to burnish their historical legacies by casting themselves as humanitarians. Working from the Carter Center in Atlanta, Jimmy Carter promotes human rights, monitors elections around the world, and tries to bring peace to global hot spots such as the Middle East—sometimes to the consternation of his successors. Bill Clinton has established his namesake foundation to address such global concerns as AIDS, poverty, and climate change. Recently, George H.W. Bush worked with Clinton to raise more than $120 million for victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Don’t ex-presidents make a lot of money?
Yes, but that’s a relatively recent phenomenon. When Harry Truman left the White House, he had to take out a bank loan to tide him over in private life. He had no official government income or support except for his Army pension of $112.56 a month. Yet he turned down every lucrative consulting gig and endorsement offer that came his way. “I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable,” he declared, “that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency.”
Who changed that ethos?
Gerald Ford was the first to prove that having “President of the United States” on your résumé could be enormously profitable. After he left office, in 1977, Ford hired a William Morris agent and quickly cashed in, giving paid speeches and personal appearances, narrating documentaries, and joining some 20 corporate boards. By the mid-1980s he was earning $1.7 million a year. Suddenly, an ex-presidency was big business. Ronald Reagan grossed nearly $2 million annually for his speeches. George H.W. Bush pulled in $4 million on the lecture circuit. Bill Clinton, though, has taken the moneymaking ability of ex-presidents to a new level. When he left office he was $12 million in debt for legal fees over various investigations. Today, thanks to thousands of speeches, lucrative consulting jobs, and book advances and royalties, he and Hillary are worth more than $100 million.
Is there something wrong with that?
Many critics think so. “We’ve gotten to know our presidents through their careers in public service,” said Brian Flanagan of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies in Grand Rapids, Mich. “People can feel betrayed or confused when they see a former president in a different light, cashing in on their celebrity.” Clinton’s defenders note that he donates about 80 percent of his speaking fees to his foundation (which leaves plenty left over, since he gives more than 100 speeches every year), and that someone with his talents could have earned far more in the private sector than he did as governor and president. So why not play a little catchup? “We’ve come a long way from Harry Truman,” says former Clinton advisor Leon Panetta. “A lot of people who have devoted their lives to public service, who lived hand-to-mouth during months of public service, are suddenly able, after public life, to find some rewards.’’
Bush’s next act
“Some of you may be anxious about finding a new job or a new place to live,” President Bush told the assembled members of his White House staff last week. “I know how you feel.” Bush, of course, doesn’t have to worry too much about actually getting another job; he leaves the White House with assets estimated at up to $21 million. Still, there is already a lot of speculation about where, exactly, Bush will land. He has given a few hints, remarking that he thinks he would be “bored” merely returning to his remote, sun-blasted 1,500-acre ranch in Crawford, Texas, which he used as a vacation retreat during his presidency. Instead, he and wife Laura are reportedly looking for a home in the wealthy Highland Park area of Dallas. “It’s her turn,” said one Texas lawmaker. “He wanted the ranch. She wants a home in Dallas.” There, Bush plans to build the George W. Bush Presidential Library at Southern Methodist University. He says he also hopes to develop “a fantastic Freedom Institute” to promote democracy around the world. As for cashing in, Bush was remarkably frank to biographer Robert Draper: “I’ll give some speeches,” he said, “just to replenish the ol’ coffers.”
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How our botched understanding of 'science' ruins everything
- Why so many Christians won't back down on gay marriage
- California's epic drought
- How to be the star of a cocktail party where you don't know anyone
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- Peter Thiel, and the not-so-secret secret of innovative success
- 13 Urban Outfitters controversies
Subscribe to the Week