George W. Bush, in his final news conference as president earlier this month, scoffed at the notion that he would withdraw quietly into private life. "I'm a type A personality," Bush said. "I just can't envision myself, you know, the big straw hat and a Hawaiian shirt sitting on some beach—particularly since I quit drinking." The remark was met with laughter, but it still begged the question: What is the former occupant of the world's most powerful office supposed to do when he leaves the White House, anyway?
In Citizen-in-Chief: The Second Lives of the American Presidents, two journalists, Leonard Benardo and Jennifer Weiss, the authors of a local history of Brooklyn, try to provide an answer, offering an extensive look at how former presidents, from Washington to Clinton, have kept themselves occupied after leaving office. Benardo, in a conversation with U.S. News, also made a few predictions about what may lie in store for Bush—and how history is likely to view him. Excerpts:
So, how do Bush's post-presidential plans stack up against his predecessors'?
You know, the reality is only a minority of former presidents ended up spending their post-presidential days living a tranquil existence. The received wisdom is that until Jimmy Carter, they all played golf à la Gerald Ford or spent time on their farm à la Eisenhower. Only a few actually spent their time twiddling their thumbs in some bucolic setting.
Why, because they had to make a living? Bush himself has said he hopes to do some "replenishing of the ol' coffers."
There's not one broad narrative on the issue of money. The Founders considered making money rather unseemly. But after World War II, former presidents began to craft opportunities for themselves. Truman was the first to get a pension, and now there are all sorts of accoutrements that come with being the ex-president that didn't exist before.
Well, you get a stipend of just under $200,000 per year, an office, some staff, and security. With Secret Service protection, we're looking at maybe several million taxpayer dollars per year.
For each passing president, making ends meet has seemed like less of a problem. Bill Clinton has reportedly made more than $100 million since leaving office. Do you think that's good for the presidency?
Unless there is some public outcry that shames them into not cashing in, I don't think there's anything we can do about that. What we can do is ask for full disclosure. Clinton raised $165 million for his library, but none of the sources had to be disclosed. There's no reason why former presidents should be able to raise impossible sums of money from corporations and sovereign governments without letting the American people know where the money came from.
What do you think Bush's top priorities as an ex-president will be?
He certainly will be interested in his legacy. I think he'll be interested in shaping his library and policy institute at [Dallas's] Southern Methodist University, in terms of the way in which it takes on the history of neoconservatism and Iraq. But I don't think he's going to be satisfied with that.
What do you think will be next for him then?
You know, Bush always wanted to be baseball commissioner. But at this moment, with his approval ratings at rock bottom—on par with Richard Nixon and Harry Truman when they left office—it would be a near impossibility for Bush to walk into that. Major League Baseball is enormously profitable right now, and I don't think they would want to risk it.
Bud Selig, the current commissioner, has said he may step down in 2012.
It might make more sense then. In three years, I don' t know. The security envelope of having a former president of the United States coming to games—it could just be a massive headache.
In the meantime, would that leave humanitarian work, like his father?
The question is to what extent he looks at his father as a model. I would argue [Bush I] had a somewhat ignominious first period out of office, when he seemed to be much more interested in making money. But then came Katrina and before that, of course, the tsunami in Southeast Asia, and I think he acted admirably in working to raise funds and attention to profound natural disasters. I think he had a second life, if you will. I don't know whether George W. Bush will be able to direct activities internationally with the same legitimacy and credibility his father could.
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.
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.