With Bush's Departure, Mulling the Future Lives of Former Presidents

A new book looks at what former presidents from Washington to Clinton did after they left office.

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Why don't presidents have a more defined role in public life—as members of the National Security Council, say—where their experience could be put to use?

The question of what to do with these people has confounded Americans for years. People just didn't know how to effectively draw upon their reservoirs of wisdom. I guess part of the issue is that there's never been a former president that's clamored for it. There's been a more or less unstated rule that a former president should not play a formal role in politics. What did you make of the White House meeting a few weeks ago between Obama and all of the living presidents? Why doesn't that happen more often?

It was unprecedented for a president-elect to bring together all the surviving ex-presidents, to help provide him some degree of insight and counsel. One could be uncharitable and just look at it as an early Obama photo op that had no greater meaning to it, but I actually think it was significant, in terms of symbolism. Who do you think had the most successful post-presidency?

I would say it would be head to head with John Quincy Adams and Jimmy Carter. Adams had an astonishing 17-year sequel as a member of the House of Representatives. He had a very middling—one could argue, below-average—presidency, but [within a year of leaving office in 1829] he was on his way back to Washington, where he [led the effort] to deal with the question of slavery. Why Carter?

There's no question Carter has changed the thinking about what a former president should or could do. People disagree; they have some problems with some of his involvement in foreign affairs. But he has made human rights part of the foreign policy lexicon, and he has maintained this notion that every side needs to be heard and respected and sit around the table. Some historians predict Bush's post-presidential years will be like those of James Buchanan, who failed to prevent the Civil War. Bush has said he hopes to be resurrected by history, as Truman was. Which do you think is more likely?

After the last eight years, I believe Bush will be more like Buchanan, who was never rehabilitated, spent the remainder of his days writing this exculpatory memoir, and has been seen ever since as a colossal failure as president. It's very difficult to predict things, but I'm hard-pressed to imagine that the Bush administration is going to be seen in a different light.