“After the white house,” lamented Franklin Pierce, the fourteenth president of the United States, “what is there to do but drink?” For the forty-third president, who famously gave up alcohol after his fortieth year, it hasn’t come to that. And notwithstanding his anemic public opinion numbers upon leaving office—66 percent of Americans disapproved of his performance—he has far greater opportunity than his nineteenth-century predecessor to do something substantive and meaningful with his post-presidency. Consider these examples of other modern presidents who left office amid controversy but went on to have major impacts on domestic and world affairs during their post-presidencies.
Richard Nixon left the White House as ignominiously as any U.S. president. He was the first to resign the office, which he did under duress in 1974 as the Watergate scandal unraveled. Reviled by most Americans, he retreated to his estate on the coast of Southern California for a period of self-imposed exile. But Nixon, who made a career of reinventing himself—at least ostensibly—didn’t stay down for long.
The 2008 film Frost/Nixon implied that the disgraced former president never recovered from a series of paid interviews with British talk show host David Frost, in 1977. This made for a clean Hollywood ending—what would Jaws have been if the shark hadn’t died?—but in reality Nixon survived the interviews and shortly after became active once again in the area of foreign policy. While in office, he had distinguished himself by opening the door to normalized relations with China and maintaining détente with the Soviet Union. During his post-presidency, he traveled the world as a sort of self-appointed secretary of state, trading his status as a former U.S. president for access to current and former leaders. After being frozen out of Washington in the Ford and Carter years, he became a trusted foreign policy adviser to Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. As historian Stephen Ambrose put it, Nixon evolved from a political pariah into “the senior statesman above the fray.”
Though his tenure didn’t end in resignation, Jimmy Carter wasn’t much better off than Nixon upon leaving Washington. Defeated by Reagan in a landslide and tossed out of office in 1981 after a single term, Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, embarked on “an altogether unwanted life,” as he put it.
Humiliated, they retreated to their hometown of Plains, Georgia (population: 650), with scant idea of what to do next.
His first big move, before scoring points by banging nails for Habitat for Humanity, was to establish, in 1982, the Carter Center, a private nongovernment organization attached to his presidential library. As he stated in a recent interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, the Carter Center was designed to fill “vacuums in the world. When the United States won’t deal with troubled areas, we go there and we meet their leaders who can bring an end to a conflict or an end to human rights abuse.” The Carters have traveled to the far corners of the world to monitor elections, engage in peacekeeping missions, and eradicate little-known but pervasive Third World diseases like river blindness and Guinea worm disease.
In 2002 Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize for his “untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.” Carter, who strove to be a peacemaker as president, now considers the work of the Carter Center to be his “major legacy.” These days, Carter is often called America’s best former president (putting aside his often inexplicable gaffes and lapses in judgment). It’s a dubious distinction to be sure but a good sight better than simply being labeled a failed one-termer.
Despite a 65 percent job approval rating, Bill Clinton left the White House with a suitcase full of scandals. His eleventh-hour presidential pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich further tarnished his reputation, which had already been dragged through the mud during the Monica Lewinsky affair. After searching restlessly for a postpresidential role—and perhaps atonement—Clinton took a page from Carter’s playbook. In 2002, after co-chairing the International AIDS Conference with Nelson Mandela, Clinton committed to helping Mandela find a way to treat the millions afflicted with the disease in Africa and elsewhere. Pouring his formidable energy into the task, he success-fully lobbied drug companies to offer generic antiretroviral drugs at less than a third of the cost of brand-name drugs.
The endeavor provided a template for the Clinton Global Initiative, launched in 2005, through which its namesake leverages his rock star status to create partnerships with corporations, governments, and other nonprofit organizations toward filling the same kinds of “vacuums” at which Carter takes aim. At the CGI’s annual New York conference last September, Clinton boasted of 1,946 commitments to social change that “have already improved nearly 300 million lives.” It was enough for the website the Daily Beast to proclaim, “Bill Clinton has set a new bar for post-presidential achievements.”
Nixon, Carter, and Clinton all found some measure of redemption through activist post-presidencies, each of which built on their presidential agendas. It also helps that Americans love a comeback and respect hard work and persistence—and that passions subside over time.
Passions are already beginning to ebb around Bush, whose approval numbers have increased as Obama’s have slipped. Still, Bush feels little need to feather the nest of his place in history. While most former heads of state pay lip service to that sentiment, one gets a clear sense that Bush means it. Any activist agenda he may pursue through the Bush Institute or otherwise will likely have to do less with winning over critics and building his brand than with dedicating himself to causes that he feels a responsibility to further. One also gets the impression that he’ll do it a bit more quietly than his predecessors.
As to the verdict that history will ultimately render, a lot remains to be seen. Will Iraq, as Bush had hoped, become a stable beacon of democracy and have a transformative effect on the Middle East? As documents are declassified, will they reveal the effectiveness of his draconian security policy in keeping the U.S. free from attack? How much of the financial crisis will be directly attributable to his deregulation policy? Regardless, doing something important with his presidential afterlife couldn’t hurt.
Throughout his career, Bush has shown an impressive ability to surprise those who underestimate him, as he did earlier in his life by putting a bibulous past behind him and plotting a spectacular political rise. After a sobering presidency, his post-presidency offers him another shot at rehabilitation among detractors. If they don’t come around, well, George W. Bush can live with that too.