The Ex Files
George W. Bush joins the club.

The Wall Street Journal, Friday, January 16, 2009

When Barack Obama becomes the 44th president next week, George W. Bush will join an even more exclusive club. Of the 42 men who have served as president, Mr. Bush will be only the 34th to become a former president. (Grover Cleveland, of course, served two "terms" as an ex, 1889-93 and 1897-1908.) What does a man do after leaving the highest office in the land, whether by his own choice, by that of the voters, or by constitutional mandate?

Some have continued their careers in politics. In 1830, two years after losing his re-election bid, John Quincy Adams won a Massachusetts congressional seat, which he held for nine terms. He distinguished himself as an opponent of slavery, both in the House and in his successful representation of rebellious slaves in the Amistad case of 1841. In 1875, Andrew Johnson reclaimed the Senate seat that he had vacated in 1862 to become military governor of Tennessee.

Cleveland was the only former president to return to the White House, but others tried. Martin Van Buren in 1848 and Millard Fillmore in 1856 mounted third-party bids, as did Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, after unsuccessfully challenging incumbent William Howard Taft for the Republican nomination. None came close to winning, but TR's 27% of the popular vote and 88 electoral votes were enough to hand victory to Woodrow Wilson and push Taft into third place. Taft spent the Wilson years as a Yale law professor and president of both the American Bar Association and the League to Enforce Peace. In 1921 President Warren Harding nominated him to be chief justice. He served until shortly before his death in 1930, and he preferred the Supreme Court to the White House. He is said to have remarked, "I don't remember that I ever was president."

The trend in recent decades has been toward longer presidential retirements, in part thanks to improvements in lifespan. Three 20th-century presidents--Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan--lived past 90, a milestone only John Adams had reached before. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush are both 84 and seem to be in good health. Hoover's ex-presidency was the longest so far, just over 31½ years. Ford died less than a month shy of 30 years after leaving office. If Mr. Carter is alive at the end of next year, his postpresidential longevity will surpass Ford's.

Hoover's productive and public-spirited postpresidency was in some ways exemplary. Although he had good reason to be bitter over his repudiation by the voters and his continuing status as a Democratic scapegoat, he refrained from publicly criticizing his successors. He became friends with Harry S. Truman, who sent him to postwar Germany, where he helped deliver food aid. In 1947 Truman appointed Hoover head of the advisory Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government. He also wrote books, oversaw the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and raised money for the Boys Club.

Taft was the last former president to serve in, or even seriously pursue, full-time governmental office. In part this is because being an ex-president has itself become far more rewarding than it once was. Until half a century ago, former presidents received no pension or other benefits. Many, including Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant, struggled financially. It was Truman's relative poverty that moved Congress in 1958 to pass the Former Presidents Act, which entitles ex-presidents--unless removed from office through impeachment--to a lifetime pension (currently $196,700 a year), medical care at military hospitals, Secret Service protection, and budgets for office space, postage, staff and travel.

Assured of at least a comfortable retirement, former presidents have found ways of making it a highly lucrative one. Richard Nixon earned book royalties and was handsomely paid for his 1977 interviews with David Frost. Ford served on corporate boards, Bush père became an adviser to the Carlyle Group, and Bill Clinton has made tens of millions in speaking fees. Because Hillary Clinton is the first presidential wife to hold public office, Mr. Clinton's postpresidential finances have raised new questions about conflicts of interest. This week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee grilled the secretary of state nominee about foreign governments' donations to her husband's library and foundation.

But the most controversial living former president surely is Mr. Carter. To his admirers, he is a selfless public servant in the tradition of Herbert Hoover. And Mr. Carter does deserve praise for his charitable activities--building houses for Habitat for Humanity and combating Third World diseases like guinea worm.

Unlike Hoover, however, he has not been shy about criticizing his successors. At times he has even meddled in affairs of state, as in 1991, when he wrote to members of the U.N. Security Council urging them to vote against the U.S.-sponsored resolution authorizing the liberation of Kuwait. When the Norwegian Nobel Committee gave Mr. Carter the Peace Prize in 2002, its chairman described the award as "a kick in the leg to all that follow the same line as the United States."

Yet when it comes to giving comfort to America's adversaries, Mr. Carter is not the worst ex-presidential offender. That would be John Tyler, who left office in 1845. When he died, in 1862, he was a member of the Confederate Congress.

Next article: Blogged Down (The American Spectator, 2/09)

Previous article: Fact-Check Follies (The American Spectator, 12/08-1/09)

Go to main list