America's former presidents represent a tremendous resource for the nation that has been largely wasted over the years. Once our chief executives leave office, no matter how talented and successful they've been, their successors often are too proud to ask their advice, and until recently, the "formers" have tended to fade quietly into retirement. But that's changing, thanks in part to active ex-presidents such as Jimmy Carter with his focus on international peacemaking and Bill Clinton with his global work for humanitarian causes. In fact, Clinton may return to even more of an influential role if his wife, Hillary, wins the White House next year and as "first gentleman" he becomes her informal adviser, as many expect.
But there's another former president who has an interesting and important take on life after the White House—George Herbert Walker Bush, the father of the current commander in chief. I spoke with him this week by phone from his office in Houston as he prepared for Saturday's reopening of the George Bush Presidential Museum at his official library in College Station, Texas. He wanted to chat about the importance of the presidential library system, which all recent chief executives have established to commemorate their time in office and explain the history of their times. "All do a good job in terms of education," Bush told me, adding that they are not only "a great repository of papers and memorabilia" but becoming fascinating destinations for tourists and other Americans interested in their country's past.
In Bush's case, his museum has been renovated to include interactive features like computerized video monitors where people can get answers to their questions about his life and his presidency. There are also exhibits on the Persian Gulf War, the reunification of Germany, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. In addition, there are replicas of the White House Situation Room, the president's study at Camp David, and the Oval Office, where visitors can sit in the "seat of power" and have a photo taken behind the president's desk.
On a more personal level, I asked Bush, whose one-term presidency I covered from 1989 to 1993, how he's doing. He said he is still active in fundraising for cancer research and various charities and makes sure to keep busy. "There's plenty of stuff to do in the community," he said. He had no desire to talk politics, saying he is out of that game and leaves it to his son. In any case, he doesn't think a former president should inject himself into public life. "A guy ought to finish his job and then go home," he said with typical modesty. He added that each former president should define his own role, and there is no institutional way to keep the ex-presidents active in public life. Each, he explained, will inevitably have his or her own ideas about what to do after the White House years.
Bush recalled that Harry Truman once suggested that former presidents become lifetime nonvoting members of Congress so they could regularly share their thoughts about policy and politics. Bush is aghast at the idea, especially the prospect of sitting through congressional hearings.
"Can you imagine anything more deadly?" he said with a laugh.
Bush does talk frequently with his son, although neither will reveal what they discuss. The elder Bush also said he talks "quite a bit" with Bill Clinton, with whom he has worked in tandem to raise money for tsunami relief and on other projects. But, at 83, he admitted that he is slowing down and is less peripatetic than he used to be. "I'm a little older guy than you remember," he told me. But he added that if "some big catastrophe" struck and he was asked to help raise money again, he would make every effort to do so.
On a less serious level, I asked him if there is another parachute jump in his future. In recent years, he has made flashy exits from airplanes a couple of times to mark his bailing out of a disabled torpedo bomber in the Pacific during World War II. (A replica of the TBM Avenger is a popular feature at his museum.) But some of his pals and his wife, Barbara, wonder if he's getting too old for such things. Yet he proudly said he plans to make another jump on his 85th birthday on June 12, 2009. He currently has no plans to do a bailout in the meantime, but hastened to add: "I reserve the right to change my mind."