What Next, Mr. Former President?

Posted February 13, 2009 at 3:05pm

As presidents get elected younger, they face a big question when their terms end: What’s next?

“Citizen-in-Chief: The Second Lives of the American Presidents” gives new insight into to the meaning of the post-presidency years and how they have significantly differed for each of the former presidents. Husband and wife team Leonard Benardo and Jennifer Weiss show that the return to normalcy is actually a greater hardship than the stress in the Oval Office.

During their terms, presidents have power and glory. After those terms are over, all bets are off. According to “Citizen-in-Chief,” many former presidents — such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, who were faced with the poor economic conditions in Virginia — were left completely broke. Although Jefferson continued to live an extravagant life despite his debt, many ex-presidents faced, as the authors put it, a “humbling experience.” The most modern example is Harry Truman, who after leaving the White House, paid for his own train ticket to his mother-in-law’s house in Missouri.

Benardo and Weiss write that by the 1960s, Congress realized that American presidents deserved a more respectful transition. Under the Former Presidents Act, they are paid a yearly salary and receive money for additional transition costs. Former presidents are also flown back to civilian life by Air Force One and provided Secret Service protection.

The downside to that level of compensation, though, was that some expenses got out of control. In 1997, Congress cut back to avoid incidents such as Lady Bird Johnson’s million-dollar expenditure from hiring 12 men around the clock to provide shade for her and friends while they were on vacation. The authors point out that former President George W. Bush will be the first to experience this decrease. While other presidents and their spouses receive Secret Service protection for their lifetime, Bush will receive it for only 10 years.

In modern America, former presidents have found they do not need to transition to a normal life after all. The book goes into details about how Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton found they could earn extra money from writing memoirs, giving interviews and speaking at events. Johnson became the most affluent former president since Herbert Hoover, ending up with assets worth $20 million.

Many, of course, opted for another go at the presidency and ran for a second term. Grover Cleveland, after losing to Benjamin Harrison, vowed to return to Washington for a second term, and he did. Teddy Roosevelt, Millard Fillmore and Martin Van Buren also ran for re-election, although this time as third-party candidates since their parties did not renominate them. They were all unsuccessful.

Other ex-presidents found different ways to get back to Washington. John Quincy Adams was persuaded to run for the House after his controversial presidency. Adams won and became a strong antislavery voice. Eisenhower also had an effect on Washington, although not through public service. John F. Kennedy often discussed matters with Eisenhower, who had more experience and knowledge about conflicts.

Surprisingly, the presidency is not always the peak of individuals’ careers. “Citizen-in-Chief” describes how William Howard Taft dreamed of succeeding to the Supreme Court. In 1921, he was nominated as the chief justice. Jimmy Carter also had more success in the years after his presidency. He has been endlessly praised for his nonprofit work.

As the authors point out, presidents are getting elected at a younger age, leaving plenty of time after they serve to do other things. At the end of his first term, President Barack Obama will be 51 years old, and should he be re-elected, he would be 55 when he leaves office. While he has already left a legacy as the first African-American president, he may very well go on to do other things. When his administration ends, the question is what the people will expect from this ex-president.