The Power of the Post-Presidency

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“The Contemporary Presidency: Postpresidential Influence in the Postmodern Era” by Thomas F. Schaller and Thomas W. Williams, in Presidential Studies Quarterly (Mar. 2003), 1020 19th St., N.W., Ste. 250, Washington, D.C. 20036.

When Bill Clinton left the White House at age 54 in 2001, he entered that curious twilight zone in which the powers of the presidency have vanished but the afterglow remains. Thanks to today’s increased longevity, the afterglow often lasts a lot longer than it used to, and it also burns a little brighter.

Clinton’s nearest Democratic predecessor, Jimmy Carter, has made his 22-year “post-presidency” outshine his presidency, most recently winning the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to promote peace and human rights around the world, note Schaller, a political scientist at the Univer­sity of Maryland, and Wil­liams, a research analyst for a private firm. Some of Car­ter’s post-presidential ventures have been controversial, such as his freelance trip to North Korea during the 1994 crisis over Pyong­yang’s nuclear efforts.

Carter, who left office in 1981 at age 56, has had the fourth-longest post-presidential term of all the 33 chief executives who lived to have one. He may soon overtake John Adams, who died in 1826, a little more than a quarter-century after he left office. Carter’s immediate predecessor, Gerald Ford, is currently in second place in post-presidential longevity and may wind up ahead of Herbert Hoover, whose “term” lasted more than 31 years.

Hoover perhaps needed all that time to refurbish his reputation after the Great Depression. He wrote more than two dozen books, coordinated a U.S. relief effort in Europe after World War II, and headed government reform commissions during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations.

Early ex-presidents “mostly retired to their homes and plantations,” note Schaller and Williams. But the sixth, John Quincy Adams, is still reckoned among the most influential of former presidents. After leaving office at age 61 in 1829, he served with distinction in the House of Representatives for 17 years. He opposed slavery and the Mexican War, and helped establish the Smithsonian Institution.

Another middling president who had a very influential post-presidential career was William Howard Taft. Defeated for reelection in 1912 (thanks in part to the third-party candidacy of his erstwhile mentor, ex-president Theodore Roosevelt), Taft went on to teach law at Yale University and then to serve from 1921 to 1930 as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Abraham Lincoln faced a different kind of challenge from a predecessor when he took office: After trying to mediate the North-South conflict, John Tyler (1841–45) won a seat in the first Confederate congress. But Tyler died before taking office and openly confronting Lincoln.

Tyler was one of five ex-presidents still living when Lincoln took office, a number that was matched only when Bill Clinton moved into the White House. As lengthening lifespans and voracious mass media expand the powers and the number of ex-presidents, it’s not hard to imagine that some future presidents will look back on Tyler’s timely expiration as a precedent that more should follow.

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