Home, and then what? Pondering the ex-president

Each dawn through the 1950s and into the 1960s, he would emerge from the house on North Delaware Street and amble through town in suit and Stetson hat, a snowy-haired Midwestern retiree on a morning constitutional to the library where he volunteered.

Each dawn through the 1950s and into the 1960s, he would emerge from the house on North Delaware Street and amble through town in suit and Stetson hat, a snowy-haired Midwestern retiree on a morning constitutional to the library where he volunteered.

He had been a farmer once, and after that a haberdasher and a judge. But the slight man with the wooden cane became much more. He helped reconfigure Europe after World War II. He met Stalin and Churchill as an equal. On two August days in 1945, his decisions doomed more than 200,000 people and saved uncounted others.

Now he was an old man on a walk -- to a library that bore his name and chronicled his life.

"I don't think we thought of him as leader of the free world. He mowed his own lawn," says Mary Sue Luff, 77, who learned to give tours of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum from the man himself. "He was just a person."

The American presidency follows an arc unusual in human history. Here, people don't become monarch for life. They don't get overthrown in coups and get exiled. They don't die in office -- usually. A citizen emerges from among us, leads the planet's most powerful nation and then, if he lives through it, walks away and goes back to just being a citizen again.


Time has carried us away from the days when a former president could walk the streets of his Midwestern community unmolested. Today an ex-president is many things, but he is never obscure.

He is Jimmy Carter, freelance diplomat, house-builder and self-styled national conscience. He is George H.W. Bush, skydiver and proud father-in-chief. He is Bill Clinton, activist and deliverer of expensive oratory. And he is George W. Bush, blunt talker, mountain biker and brush-clearer, whose ex-presidency has yet to be defined.

Each shares one task with the others: Upon leaving the White House, he must carve a new life that will, in every way, be unlike the old one.

What do Americans do with those who have led when they return to walk among us? Are they a council of elders who dispense wise advice? Stewards of the bully pulpit who must forever watch their words, lest they be perceived as speaking for the country? Or are they old men who retreat into secure homes, guarding dusty memories of big deeds? Truth is, we're not sure.

From the beginning, we fretted about what would become of this odd breed of sudden spectators. A year before George Washington took office, Alexander Hamilton worried that former presidents would be left "wandering among the people like discontented ghosts, and sighing for a place which they were destined never more to possess."

That remains true today. We know what to make of our presidents while they're in office; after all, they belong to us. But in the national consciousness, former presidents are precisely what Hamilton foretold -- phantoms who walk the land, sometimes in the shadows and sometimes in the spotlight, daring us to figure them out.


At the beginning of the jet age he helped usher in, newly minted ex-president Harry Truman took the train home.


"I'm in the army of the unemployed now," he told the late-night crowd gathered at the Independence railroad depot for his homecoming in January 1953. To underscore his point, Truman added, "I'll be open to dinner engagements."

The man who once referred to himself as an "ordinary gink" did far more than that in his remaining two decades, in ways both productive and embarrassing. But the wistful spirit of his comments -- and the tacit recognition that, politically, he was suddenly so five minutes ago -- reflected the long-standing perception of the post-presidency in America.

The ex-president who went on to big things has been more exception than rule. Yes, there was John Quincy Adams, whose post-presidential Congressional resume outstripped his White House achievements. Yes, there was William Howard Taft, whose ascent to Chief Justice, for him, dwarfed his rocky executive tenure.

And no one can top Grover Cleveland, who became president, went home, then four years later returned for an encore presidency. (Theodore Roosevelt tried the same thing but failed, splintering the Republican Party in the process.)

Quiet retirement was more common. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson went home and read, wrote (most famously to each other) and basked in founding fatherdom. James K. Polk made it home to Tennessee and promptly expired. Ulysses S. Grant, felled by cancer, worked feverishly to finish his memoirs and generate family income. Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge died within a few years.

With the exception of some campaigning, implicit and otherwise, former presidents trotted themselves out here and there but mostly remained part of the landscape of the past -- living icons of the eras they shepherded us through, our partisan images of them mellowed by the passing years.

"Americans have been, by and large throughout history, puzzled by the notion of the ex-president," says Leonard Benardo, co-author of "Citizen-in-Chief: The Second Lives of the American Presidents."

"What do you do with these people?" he says. "There's a reservoir of intellectual, strategic and other resources that need to be tapped. How does one do that? It has confused and befuddled American public opinion and the American consciousness."


For the first eight years of Truman's post-presidential life, only one person shared his lot -- Herbert Hoover. But Americans were starting to live longer and remain productive longer. Gradually, the country began to realize it had to start thinking about its former chief executives.

Truman helped shape this. Though his predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had commissioned the first presidential library, Truman was the first president to live to see his built -- and work to mold it. And when Truman, whose only steady income was an Army pension, got into some financial discomfort -- he refused to serve on corporate boards or endorse products, saying it cheapened the presidency -- Congress decided to grant ex-presidents pensions in 1958.

Then, after the Kennedy assassination, Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first former presidents to receive federal protection -- something Bess Truman refused but finally agreed to after Lyndon Johnson called up and beseeched her to reconsider. After that, the Secret Service bought the house across from Truman's and an agent replaced Independence police Lt. Mike Westwood as Truman's companion on morning walks.

"It was a very dull duty. Several of the agents got graduate degrees," deadpans Randy Sowell, an archivist at the Truman Library.

Such things were mere building blocks. Something more momentous was happening. America after World War II was indisputably a global power, and its president -- in no small part because of how Truman ran things -- was a more global figure than ever before. This extended to ex-presidents, who became valuable resources and a strong bench for the current leader.

When Kennedy needed guidance during the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, he looked to Eisenhower. When Johnson needed an aging public face to launch Medicare, Truman became recipient No. 1. When Ronald Reagan needed envoys to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's funeral in 1981, he chose his predecessors, 1976 election rivals Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

Carter and Ford connected. "By the end of that trip," Carter said in the 2008 documentary "Man From Plains," 'I would say that he and I had become the closest friends of any two former presidents in history."

Even Richard Nixon clawed his way back toward respectability, leveraging his experience in foreign affairs and becoming enough of an elder statesman to generate news stories in the late 1980s that said, in effect, "He's back."


It was Carter who really changed things for ex-presidents. Monitoring elections, building houses, establishing the Carter Center and conducting freelance diplomacy -- often recklessly, his critics say -- he has become known more for his accomplishments after the presidency than those during it. In effect, the guy who ran in 1976 as the humble peanut farmer from Georgia is a case study in the self-branding of a former president.

Sure, he went home. And sure, he takes walks. But the homespun folksiness of Truman -- and of an earlier edition of Carter, for that matter -- is absent. "Get out whenever you can," Carter said recently, when he was asked what a former president should do. "Use the tremendous influence that accrues to every former president trying to benefit as many people as possible."

And so it happens that George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who jabbed at each other as campaign adversaries in 1992, travel the world together, helping out people in need and cracking jokes about each other.

With four living former presidents, the opportunities today are myriad. Millions in speech honoraria is there for the taking -- something Truman refused to do. Causes abound, as do book deals; Bill Clinton got a reported $10 million advance for his memoirs. Second lives beyond politics are not only possible but, increasingly, inevitable.

"I wouldn't think they'd want to retire and go sit on a porch somewhere," says Karen Mishra, a marketing expert at Meredith College in North Carolina who studies how leaders build trust. "They need to be intentional -- to say, 'What is it that's really important to me? I'm not going to take on the world, but I'm going to choose one or two causes that matter to me.'"

They used to be the leaders of the free world. Now they have to pick their spots.


In the movie "Frost/Nixon," the disgraced former president, portrayed by Frank Langella, welcomes guests to his exile landscape of California palm trees and sunshine. "Please excuse my golf outfit," he says. "It's the official uniform of the retiree."


Langella plays Nixon as melancholy and a bit lost without the office that defined him, and he nails it. A patina of glory days gone by seems to hang over modern former presidents, even those who have made the post-presidency their own.

It peeks through the no-nonsense demeanor of Harry Truman's post-presidential interviews. It is evident in the highly busy Jimmy Carter, followed by Jonathan Demme's camera in "Man from Plains." It was etched upon Bill Clinton's face as he arrived for Barack Obama's inauguration last month.

Men of action and deed, now spectators. Because all the charity work and election monitoring and well-compensated oratory in the world can never approximate being the guy in the big chair.

Today, to be an ex-president means immortality in your own lifetime. It means watching your legacy cast by armchair historians and editorial writers even as you race to seal it yourself. It means being defined not only by your actions but by your era, whether it be the epic oomph of ending a world war, as Truman did, or the dull sting of an energy crisis, American hostages and bad leisure suits that Carter faced.

Is it any wonder that those among us who rise to the top dramatically don't do well with wandering off into the sunset gradually? George W. Bush, days before leaving office, practically shuddered at the notion. "I'm a Type-A personality," he said. "I just can't envision myself, you know, the big straw hat and a Hawaiian shirt sitting on some beach."

Americans tend to forget, when they consider the peaceful transition of power that defines our extraordinary system, that presidents are, finally, humans. We insulate them, cloak them in legend, denounce them with partisan scorn and expect them to bounce back up like a sparring partner.

But when they go home, whatever we think of them, they work for us no longer. Nor do they belong to us.

"I'm still working on that list of life goals I made as a young man," Bill Clinton wrote at the end of his 2004 memoir, "My Life." How similar to Jay Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's tragic American hero, who scribbled out his own goals in the leaf of a book as a boy long before making it big.


Fitzgerald ended his novel with these famous words: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." And whatever former presidents do afterwards, no matter how important, in the eyes of Americans that is the fate that ultimately awaits them all.


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