Jaws dropped last week when it was learned that former President Bill Clinton drew some $9 million in speaker's fees in the year 2001. Though seemingly determined not to overshadow the junior senator from New York who doubles as his wife, Clinton nevertheless maintains a certain rock-star status. Once Hillary's political honeymoon ends, does anyone really expect Bill to remain offstage?
Clinton is not the only former president to make news recently. Jimmy Carter drew front-page headlines with his trip to Cuba in May. Gerald Ford co-chaired, with Carter, the national commission that studied our electoral system in the wake of the 2000 presidential election, and was recently seen opining in tThe Washington Post in favor of therapeutic cloning. And George Bush Senior's role as mediator in the Colin Powell versus Donald Rumsfeld foreign-policy divisions in his son's White House continues to generate media whispers. Didn't these guys retire?
Many scholars deem Carter the first "postmodern" president. That makes Richard Nixon and Ford -- the only former presidents alive at Carter's inauguration -- the first two members of the class of six postmodern ex-presidents that include Ronald Reagan, Bush Senior, Clinton and, of course, Carter himself. For the most part, this cohort -- five of whom are still alive -- have thrived as former presidents.
Thriving requires surviving, of course, and the postmodern exes are nothing if not survivors. Eliminating presidents who died in office, the first 28 ex-presidents -- from George Washington through Lyndon Johnson -- lived an average of just 11.6 years after leaving the White House. As of July, however, the Nixon-to-Clinton cohort already averages 15.2 years, a figure growing daily because only Nixon is dead. With Clinton's brief post-presidency excluded, the mean increases to 17.9 years, and the 54-year-old Clinton may eventually raise the group's mean post-presidential tenure to twice that of its 28 predecessors. Ford and Carter already rank second and fourth, respectively, in post-presidential longevity. Ford will soon pass legendary ex-president John Adams into third place, and both Ford and Carter may pass Herbert Hoover's 31-year standard.
Because ex-presidents are living longer, in-office presidents have to deal with having more of them around. Other than Washington, of course, every president has taken office with at least one living predecessor. In the first two centuries of the republic, Abraham Lincoln was the only president inaugurated with five former presidents alive. Remarkably, Clinton became the second and George W. Bush the third.
Living long, not well, may be the best revenge on one's White House successors. As Hoover, who died in 1964, said when asked about those who blamed him for the Depression, "I outlived the bastards."
The six postmodern ex-presidents are a study in contrasts.
Because he left office in disgrace, Nixon's successors were largely prevented from tapping him for diplomatic delegations or government commissions. Despite being excluded, or perhaps because of it, Nixon influenced politics in the best way possible: by publishing widely, especially his views on foreign policy.
Ford, too, has had a relatively active post-presidency. He helped Carter secure passage of the Panama Canal Treaties. More recently, GOP leaders blunted Ford's attempt to invoke his unique legitimacy as presidential pardoner to broker a deal in Congress that would have prevented Clinton's impeachment. Most famously, Ford was mentioned as a possible vice presidential running mate for Reagan in 1980.
Carter has redefined post-presidential power in the 21 years since he left office. Regarded as one of the most successful ex-presidents, Carter has been praised for logging countless hours of nontraditional service with groups such as Habitat for Humanity (and for not capitalizing on his status by giving thin speeches for fat honoraria).
Reagan has been the least active of the postmodern ex-presidents, but the Gipper has a built-in excuse. Nearly 78 when he left office, Reagan was soon diagnosed as having Alzheimer's disease. Still, Reagan's influence as an icon -- the physical embodiment of tax-cutting, social-conservative ideologies -- continues to guide conservatives and the Republican Party.
George Bush Senior's post-presidential legacy is literal and figurative. He groomed and helped elect two son-governors, one of whom (so far) has made it to the White House. If only as an informal adviser and confidant, Bush pere has nepotistic influence on presidential politics of a sort that only John Adams enjoyed.
As for Clinton, it's too early to say what his post-presidential influence will be, other than that he will not go quietly.
Paul Light of the Brookings Institution compares presidential power to a car and its fuel. The car represents formal powers of the presidency, from issuing executive orders to serving as chief executive. Presidents then provide fuel in the form of their own expertise, energies, intellect, and priorities.
Former presidents have no formal resources beyond a security detail, a small staff, and a pension -- more like a skateboard than a car. Any effect they have on national or international politics thus depends entirely upon the fuel they bring to retirement: The issues they champion, the funds they raise, the dignitaries they meet, the commissions they lead.
Former presidents have served in Congress (John Quincy Adams) and on the Supreme Court (Chief Justice William Taft), but service in elected or appointed office today would be gauche. (There were rumors in late 2000 that Clinton might run for the Senate from Arkansas, but they were mostly that -- rumors.) Still, there's plenty for ex-presidents do.
For starters, ex-presidents are popular fundraisers. For the political parties as well as individual candidates, having a former president headline an event increases the take. A recent concert featuring Michael Jackson at Harlem's Apollo Theatre, headlined by Clinton, raked in more than $2 million for the Democratic National Committee.
The media also provide ex-presidents a not-inconsequential bully pulpit from which to clamor. Carter met with Castro during the same week that Bush was trying to deflect questions about why his national security team failed to foresee the September 11 attacks. Whatever relief Carter's headlines provided, this compensated for the fact that Bush had to pause in the middle of planning a new cabinet-level homeland-security agency to discuss nagging relics of the Cold War.
In an era of partisan-led "politics of personal destruction," ex-presidents may also lend legitimacy to investigations of topics that tend to polarize the parties and disaffect voters. Carter and Ford capitalized on the need for bipartisan rubberstamping by supervising the study of the election catastrophe of 2000.
Ex-presidents provide staff and advice, too. President Bush has key advisers that served not only in his father's White House (e.g., Chief of Staff Andrew Card), but in the Reagan (Budget Director Mitch Daniels) and Ford (Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) administrations as well. In Vice President Dick Cheney, Bush has a number-two man who served in all three.
Finally, ex-presidents provide institutional memory, consolation, and advice to sitting presidents and their advisers. Though partisanship usually conditions presidential relationships, in the early months of his first term Clinton reached out to an aging Nixon for the latter's advice on handling post-Cold War politics. As symbolic reinforcement, every ex-president save Reagan attended President Bush's address from the National Cathedral on the Friday after September 11.
Despite the comfort of his father's reassuring grasp after his speech at the National Cathedral, one wonders if Bush or any other president enjoys having former leaders of the free world -- related or not -- looking over his shoulder. Ex-presidents retain presidential-sized egos, and an unparalleled legitimacy to criticize incumbent presidents.
So perhaps it's no coincidence that in his first official overture to his predecessor, Bush asked Clinton to lead a delegation to East Timor to celebrate the new nation's independence from Indonesia. It may have seemed like Bush was trying to draw on Clinton's expertise and to involve him in governing. But placing one finger on Washington on a globe, and the other on East Timor, I realized the two points lay on almost exactly opposite sides of the planet.
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