Long after nightfall on January 20, 1969, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson arrived at their 330-acre Texas ranch. LBJ had been an ex-President for just a few hours. Throughout the day people had gathered, first at Andrews Air Force Base, then at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Texas. They showed up to say thank you to the man who had ascended to the presidency in those chaotic Dallas moments more than five years before—and who less than a year before had pulled himself out of the race for a final term in the White House.
One of the first signs that life was going to be comparatively perk-free was when they came upon the scene of their massive collection of luggage. It had all been left in the carport that evening with no one around to carry the bags. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson laughed, and she remarked: “The coach has turned back into the pumpkin and all the mice have run away.”
The U.S. Senate is sometimes referred to as the country’s most exclusive club. But actually, that distinction better describes the fraternity of former Presidents of the United States. Reentering the atmosphere of earthly reality, minus the privileges and powers inherent in our nation’s highest office, has not always been an easy adjustment.
As we move into the noon hour this Friday, we will have five former presidents roaming the land. There is the first President Bush who has clearly managed to conduct himself with the kind of self-effacing dignity that characterized his personal style during his Oval Office tenure. His son, George W. Bush, has obviously learned from his father.
Then there are Jimmy and Bill – two men who seem determined to magnify the weaknesses of their previous service in ways that make the news on a near-daily basis.
For a long time after Mr. Carter headed back to Plains, Georgia, after a single frustration-laden term, I often thought that he was a better ex-president than he was a president. He was building homes for the poor, teaching his Bible class, and using his influence for the general betterment of mankind. But frankly, I liked “Habitat for Humanity” Jimmy much better than the “Hurray for Hamas” cheerleader who has too often conducted his own misguided and counterproductive shuttle diplomacy without portfolio.
Bill Clinton reminds me a little of Theodore Roosevelt, at least in the sense that TR reputedly wanted to be the bride at every wedding he attended and the occupant of the casket at every funeral. Mr. Clinton seems to want to be the candidate in every election.
It remains to be seen what kind of former president Mr. Obama will be. He will remain a resident of Washington, DC, which may make it hard for him to fade away. Stay tuned on that one.
In fairness, being a former president must be an awkward thing. Woodrow Wilson (the last president to remain a DC resident, though Bill and Hillary maintain a home in the district) left office a broken man – physically and emotionally—the cheering having stopped long before his White House exit. Lyndon Johnson went back to Texas and spent his final years working at his ranch and on his memoirs.
Some former presidents found their second wind after leaving office. Richard Nixon made a new career for himself as a writer and thinker – and did much to rehabilitate his image and reputation after his resignation. His funeral in 1994 (attended by all four members of the fraternity at the time) was in many ways a healing event providing a measure of needed closure. His successor Gerald Ford, by all accounts, enjoyed the high esteem of his countrymen – as did Ronald Reagan, even as he entered and endured the long and sad goodbye of Alzheimer’s Disease. Harry Truman conducted himself well as a former president – though, sadly, he didn’t live long enough to see his complete recovery from the distinction of leaving office with the lowest ever recorded approval rating.
But I think the gold standard for ex-presidential life and service, was set by a man who seemed to embody the very idea of an ineffective presidency.
I am, of course, referring to Mr.Thirty-One: Herbert Clark Hoover.
In a real sense, the presidency was the worst thing that ever happened to him. He had been so successful prior to that and was known for his unmatched resume and clear sense of duty and compassion. The man pretty much saw to it that Europe didn’t starve after The Great War ended in 1918.
His election in 1928 was one of the most inevitable political events of those times. It was a no-brainer. The Great Engineer was probably the most qualified man ever to hold the office. But we all know the rest of the story. The economic catastrophe of the age happened on his watch, and for a number of reasons, his reputation as a great man unraveled.
It’s interesting to note that Hoover wrestled with what to call his crisis. Up to that time, massive financial reverses had been referred to as panics. But Hoover didn’t want to scare folks, so he made sure the obviously more benign term – depression – was used. Of course, he didn’t foresee the addition of the enduring modifier great to it.
Mr. Hoover was swept out of office by promises of change including the “yes we can” of the day: “Happy Days Are Here Again!” Of course, the truth is that Franklin Roosevelt didn’t really change much, adopting and continuing many of Hoover’s policies and approaches. But his frenetic first hundred days and his savvy use of the media of the times made sure that people “felt” like things were changing. FDR was, in many ways, the father of the post-modern politics of meaning.
Hoover lived for more than thirty-one years as a former President. He wrote sixteen books (including one titled Fishing for Fun – And How to Wash Your Soul), and eventually was able to serve his country again with great distinction. I say “eventually” because he was banned from the White House during FDR’s lengthy administration. In fact, the relationship between the thirty-first and thirty-second presidents was probably the worst ever between two former chief executives. For all of FDR’s purported charm, he also had a capacity for brutal pettiness.
In the early days of his presidency, Harry Truman invited Hoover back to the White House – something both men felt was long overdue. And as Europe struggled to recover from the ravages of World War Two, Mr. Hoover was dispatched by the President to tour Germany—using Herman Göering’s old train car—to investigate the food supply. Hoover told Truman that the situation was dire, and this was the catalyst for an extensive program that provided food for millions of school children.
The 40 tons of food were described at the time as Hooverspeisung – Hoover Meals.
Soon another assignment came from Truman. He asked Hoover to serve on a commission to reorganize the executive departments of the federal government. He was elected chairman and it then came to be known as the Hoover Commission. When Dwight D. Eisenhower became President in 1953, he asked his most recent Republican predecessor to serve as chairman of another such commission.
And by the time Herbert Hoover died at the age of ninety in October 1964, having lived out his final years in an apartment at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, he had proven himself to be a dedicated and constructive former President of the United States.
It seems to me that former Presidents have two good options if they want to preserve or enhance their legacies. They can go to the ranch, like Lyndon. Or they can wait to be called on to serve, like Herbert.
When former Presidents take too much initiative to seize the moment, they seem to be forgetting that they already had their turn.
I wonder how what kind of former president the next one will be?