Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

November 3, 2012

The four living former American presidents are an example of life beyond the White House

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— — In the classic 1954 movie “White Christmas” one of the questions that Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye asked in song was “What do you do with a general when the general is unemployed?” in reference to their friend Gen. Waverly, played by Dean Jagger, who portrays a struggling Vermont inn landlord after his service in the Army had ended.

The same question has been offered for more than 200 years about presidents who leave office. (Now — I know what some of you are thinking and I don’t have to guess just which president it is that you would like to have jobless!). It certainly is an interesting idea about the possibilities for someone who leaves the most powerful, high profile position on the planet. Is there anywhere to go except down?

The financial boon is so exceptional that chief executives no longer have to worry about their future. They are afforded a nice pension, a staff, protection by the Secret Service, and a variety of possibilities including lucrative speaking ventures that mean their “golden years” may be exactly that. It is not exactly a bad job, for instance, to have to organize one’s own library. That has not always been the case. One thinks of poor old Ulysses Grant, for instance, who was virtually penniless as death approached.

Grant, the Union hero of the Civil War, had served two terms in the White House but bad decisions in public life had rendered the Grant family destitute. With agonizing throat cancer taking his life, Grant willed himself to complete his memoirs (underwritten by Mark Twain) and died just a few days after completing them. The work was a success and although Grant passed away, his family’s future was saved.

Some presidents have gone on to great public success. William Howard Taft, who at 335 pounds, once got hopelessly wedged in a White House bath tub, had no such troubles being stuck without a job. He remains the only U.S. president who went on to become chief justice of the Supreme Court. Taft had generally been known as a cautious man who believed that excessive presidential power was unconstitutional and many historians believe he fit (no pun intended) much more naturally into his position on the high court.

With four living retired American presidents, citizens can see first hand how retired leaders conduct their lives. In a revealing article by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy the quartet of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush are profiled in their post-presidential time. 

A key point is that the ex-presidents have each other. After all, with the exception of their wives, the “retired” leaders have more in common with the ones who have shared their unique position than anyone else on earth. This camaraderie is displayed when they gather at dedications, sometimes funerals, and other public functions. At other — private — times, former presidents may simply talk about the awesome responsibilities of the office.

Political parties aside, many presidents have called upon and worked closely with their predecessors asking for advice about concerns ranging from international relations to how to organize an effective White House day planner. Clinton and the elder Bush, who squared off a generation ago in a hard-fought election, have become close friends. Bush has been especially considerate in helping Clinton deal with a variety of health issues in recent years, including open-heart surgery. George W. Bush, the son, admits the two have a strong bond. In fact, “W” notes that the Bush family now sometimes refers to Clinton as their “Brother From Another Mother.”

Two living presidents — Carter and GHW Bush — are 88, and two are 66 — George W Bush and Clinton. Interestingly, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter have been married for 66 years. Presidential wives (presidential husbands soon?) play a major part in their spouse’s transition. Clinton has stepped back while his wife, Hillary, has become secretary of state. Good help and quick wit from the wives when Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson left Washington for their home back in Texas, there was no staff to help with their luggage when they got off the plane. She broke the tension with LBJ by laughing through a great lesson for anyone used to not stopping at traffic lights for several years, “The coach has turned back into a pumpkin. And all the mice have run away.”

Don’t forget to vote for America’s most visible public servant this coming Tuesday.

Larry Hypes, a teacher at Tazewell High School, is a Daily Telegraph columnist.