Don’t Mess With Exes

Dont Mess With Exes
Photograph by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Take the grips up to the attic.” That was Harry Truman’s response to a reporter who asked him, as he arrived back home in Independence, Missouri, after leaving the White House, what he intended to do first (“grips,” for all you kids out there, used to be a common synonym for “suitcases”). Truman was a famously modest person, but his reply underscores the profound strangeness of leaving the Oval Office. There are few transitions more poignant than the one our outgoing presidents undergo—from the leader of the free world, most powerful human on earth, to private citizen in a matter of minutes.

But far more interesting than what a president does in the first few hours after leaving office is what he (or she—someday it’ll happen) decides to do with the rest of his life. George Washington, the first post-president, returned to Virginia, the state that has sent more presidents to the White House than any other, where he farmed tobacco, corn, and wheat for the rest of his days, with a brief interruption for military service. Thomas Jefferson built the University of Virginia. Ulysses Grant wrote a superb autobiography. Theodore Roosevelt went on safaris. Some have been more involved than others. Lyndon Johnson, burned by an unpopular war and unsure about his place in history, lived out his post-presidency in self-imposed exile on his ranch on the Pedernales River. William Howard Taft, on the other hand, went on to be the chief justice of the Supreme Court for nine years.

Since Truman put his grips away, modern former presidents have taken on a more engaged role. “In contrast to their predecessors, ‘formers’ are living longer, doing more, and [are] in a position to wield greater influence on U.S. policy,” writes Mark Updegrove, the director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, in Austin, in his 2006 book, Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House. “In effect, the post–White House years have become a new phase of presidential privilege.” More and more, formers are global brands

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