Americans are fascinated by their ex-presidents. The public has been through so many experiences with them that even when they leave office, the "exes" remain celebrities and, more important, compelling reminders of the recent high and low points in our history.
All this comes to mind because of Jimmy Carter's visit to the Mideast last week. Carter brokered the Israel-Egypt peace accords while he was in office and won the Nobel Prize for his post-presidential efforts at peacemaking. It's unclear how much his current trip is being coordinated with the Obama administration, which again raises the larger question of what role the former presidents can and should play in the life of the nation.
Two other former presidents re-entered the spotlight. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush recently held a joint appearance in Toronto. It was a polite affair that generated little news, suggesting that both men are trying to finally put aside their differences, which former presidents tend to do. "They see themselves as part of a distinct club," says historian Robert Dallek. "The passions fade away, and they tend to come together and consider themselves as elder statesmen."
There are four of them alive now—Carter, Bush, Clinton, and George H. W. Bush. There are two Democrats and two Republicans, each very different in personality and outlook, and all of them experienced in the toughest job on Earth.
The potential relationship between the old and the new started out in a promising way, when Bush the younger, at Obama's request, hosted all the living ex-presidents at the White House before he left the scene. This generated memorable photographs in the Oval Office but, apparently, little else so far.
Carter and Bush the younger are politically radioactive in some ways, so it's more difficult for Obama to associate his administration with them. It is Bush the father and Clinton who offer the best potential to give aid and comfort to the new commander in chief. Bush 41, for example, was an expert on foreign affairs. Clinton developed a special expertise on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Both are widely respected around the world.
Incumbent presidents sometimes avoid contact with their predecessors because they don't want to be tarnished by past errors and seem insecure in their own judgments. But experts say misplaced pride should not keep Obama from using his predecessors to help him govern.
It's been done before. John F. Kennedy famously asked Dwight Eisenhower, his seasoned predecessor and a former general, for guidance and support after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, and Ike obliged. Clinton invited Richard Nixon to the White House for private meetings early in his first term, which Clinton later said he valued because of Nixon's encyclopedic knowledge of world affairs. Such private counseling could be invaluable for Obama, too. Obama noted in a C-SPAN interview broadcast in May that he had spoken to George W. Bush since he took office but declined to elaborate. An Obama adviser, however, said they talked about Iraq policy and Obama's plans to withdraw U.S. combat troops by next summer—an effort to inform, not solicit support. This gentle outreach could pay dividends in the form of valuable advice from Bush in the future.
Clinton, whose wife, Hillary, is secretary of state, wants to maintain a public role of his own. Last month, he agreed to become a special envoy to Haiti on behalf of the United Nations; he will focus on ways to foster democracy and strengthen the Haitian economy. Clinton has used his post-presidency to make money on the speaking circuit (at a rumored $1 million and up per speech) but also to do good works such as helping raise money for tsunami relief in East Asia, which he did in tandem with George H. W. Bush.
Former presidents usually want to be useful in some way, in part to burnish their legacies and also out of a patriotic desire to help the country. And Obama wants to reach out to all of his living predecessors. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says Obama is speaking to them privately, but he doesn't want to violate confidentiality by talking about the frequency and content of the president-to-president contacts. Other White House advisers say Obama realizes that only a president can fully understand what his job entails. And experts say it would be a shame if he failed to make maximum use of the other four living members of the world's most exclusive club.