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The Ways American Presidents Re-invent Themselves When They Retire

by Louis J. Wasser

“My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse, or a politician. And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference.” — Harry Truman

If you want to learn how to reinvent yourself when you retire, look at the record. There are now about as many ways for an American president to retire as there have been retired presidents. You can stay put on your Texas ranch and haul out the oils and canvas (George W. Bush). You can start a foundation, make a fortune on the speech circuit, and pretend not to know whether your wife is going to run for your former seat (Bill Clinton). You can become a prestigious foreign policy adviser (Richard Nixon). Or you can take a long, leisurely train ride to your home town, and stay quiet as a church mouse for the rest of your life while you carefully count your pennies (Harry Truman).

Duke University Library.Truman was probably the last (and possibly the first) of the humble-pie American presidents. He hopped on a train with his wife Bess, whereupon the two of them worked their way back to their home in Independence, Missouri, only to be welcomed home by a crowd of townfolk. He regularly turned down speaking engagements. In 1971, Truman refused to accept a medal of honor from Congress, observing: “I don’t consider that I have done anything which should be the reason for any award, Congressional or otherwise.”

In retirement, Truman had a meagre World War I army pension of $112.56 per month to support him and his wife. It was this situation that led Congress to enact the Former Presidents Act, to provide retired presidents with a pension and office expenses.

After retiring in disgrace, Richard Nixon, through books and appearances, managed to resuscitate his reputation. To some extent, his image as an elder statesman offset the shame he had come to endure through the Watergate scandal.

Wikipedia.Determined to deflect Americans from his reputation as a weak president, Jimmy Carter gave vent to his religious and altruistic nature once he retired from the Oval Office. He wrote over 30 books, monitored over 90 elections, became a worldwide advocate of humanitarian causes and, with his wife Rosalynn, carved out a week a year to build homes with Habitat for Humanity. Never one to duck controversy, Jimmy Carter has managed to inflame Israel and its supporters by accusing the Jewish state of apartheid towards Palestine. One Carter biographer, Julian Zelizer, goes so far as to describe the itinerant 39th president as “the re-inventor of the post-presidency.”

Wikipedia.If Carter though was its “re-inventor,” Bill Clinton, by far, is the post-presidency’s arch-promoter. Talk about re-invention — since his impeachment, America’s 42nd president has gone from the country’s outhouse to its penthouse in record time. He has started a powerful foundation, and has written an influential (though some claim poorly written) memoir. He has racked up one speaking engagement after another, as a political analyst and participant-historian, to help make him and Hillary conspicuously wealthy.

To his busy life as a foundation head and speaker, we must not forget to add Bill Clinton’s activity as a supporter for Barack Obama, as well as a busy campaigner for the non-candidacy of Hillary Clinton (will she or won’t she in 2016?). When Congress voted to enact the 22nd Amendment, limiting an American president to two successive terms, were a couple like the Clintons even on the country’s radar? With all due respect to the father-son teams of John Adams & John Quincy Adams, and George H. W. Bush & George W. Bush, if Hillary ascends to the presidency in 2016, instead of playing Hail to The Chief, maybe the Marine Band should play Family Affair.

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