“The Ruling Passion of the Noblest Minds”

In recent years, political scientists studying the American presidency have shifted their scholarly focus from personality to positionality, that is, from the presidential psyche to the presidency’s perch within the government. The strongest proponents of this approach hold, as Stanford’s Terry Moe puts it, that “Presidents are not individual people. They are actor-types occupying an office whose powers and incentives are institutionally determined.”[1]

But scholars have rarely extended this thinking to the broader trajectory of those who climb the political ladder, stop in the Oval Office, and are ejected from government housing—by the voters, by the 22nd Amendment, or by choice—after a relatively brief interval. The end of a term brings its own well-studied temptations, from dubious pardons to a slew of “midnight” regulations. (Alexander Hamilton’s warning against term limits in Federalist 72 predicted such “pernicious” behavior, born of “mak[ing] the harvest as abundant as it is transitory.”) But January 20 is seen as a hard stop. How the present president might act with the knowledge that he, someday she, will soon be a former president—and the incentives and constraints separately bound up in the institutional role of ex-president have received little attention.

Paul Musgrave’s rich lead essay does just this. He notes the personal enrichment post-presidential life offers, the temptation to cater to donors who will ease the building of monuments in the form of museums and foundations, a justice system that imposes no retrospective accountability on an administration’s behavior. To shift the incentives facing presidents who know that ex-presidency looms, he suggests demoting past presidents, symbolically and financially, cracking down on foundation fundraising, and shifting presidential records to more generic public archives. He would create a well-funded public office of “President emeritus”—with salary and duties—while establishing investigative “truth commissions” to routinely assess each newly past administration.

Whether such formalization of the role is needed depends on one’s diagnosis of the general good run the United States has had in its ex-presidents. Since Harry Truman celebrated his return to Missouri by “taking the grips [suitcases] up to the attic,” they have built libraries, given some well-paid speeches, written dull memoirs (though, thanks, Obama), played some golf, and done the occasional good deed. Some (Carter) were heavier on God, some (Clinton) on mammon. If they have generally receded into comfort rather than fame at least they have not drifted into infamy. Even Andrew Johnson, solid candidate for worst-ever president, did not replicate that performance as ex-president, though perhaps only because he managed to die after just one speech in the Reconstruction Senate to which he had been selected.

Musgrave rightly warns that we shouldn’t take this granted. Certainly enhanced partisan polarization may draw former presidents out into the public sphere in new and potentially destructive ways as they seek to defend their legacy at the ballot box. But perhaps that sense of legacy can be a useful means of regulating post-presidential behavior, giving more credit than Musgrave does to presidents’ fears of how a given action will look to posterity. Hamilton suggested that a love of “fame”—meaning not celebrity but earned glory, in the sense that Machiavelli defined gloria[2]—is “the Ruling Passion of the Noblest Minds.” This has been a major factor in the rational choice analysis of presidential behavior. To quote Moe again, “arguably the single most important motivator for presidents” is “to be judged successful in the eyes of history.”[3]

I’d certainly agree that ex-presidents are not above the law. But, to take one example, Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon has already imposed its own accountability. While later observers have forgiven and even honored Ford’s choice, the contemporary verdict of the public was damning: Democrats netted 49 House and 4 Senate seats in 1974, and Ford himself lost his own election in 1976. Did the pardon beat him? “It probably did,” Ford said in 2004.

And if fame is a motivator, I wonder if making the presidential library system more generic instills the wrong incentive. I write as someone whose research hinges on documents unearthed in reading rooms from Abilene to Atlanta to Austin. It’s true that the geographic spread of the system makes records less accessible; it’s also true that the divergent libraries and their associated museums grant insight into the physical community from which presidents spring, as well as their tastes and predilections (after all, they are people as well as actor-types.)

Allowing scholars to serve as the “eyes of history” requires an upgrade to various aspects of the current system. For example, the Presidential Records Act (PRA), revised in 2014 to account for new communications technologies, should be strengthened both to give the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) direct oversight over White House recordkeeping and to avoid evasion through the use of newly substantial criminal penalties. (I could be convinced to support capital punishment for those—even presidents—overtly destroying documents.) The minimum 12-year lag time shielding deliberative documents from view should be shortened, and the range of exemptions allowing additional delay trimmed. Indeed, in 2001 George W. Bush—under the guise of “further implementing” the PRA—issued an executive order that granted current presidents power over past records and allowed former presidents (and their heirs!) to exercise post hoc executive privilege. While Barack Obama rescinded that order, the sequence suggests the politicized ping-pong assessing the historical record can prompt. Access should be statutorily guaranteed.

So should funding, in two ways. First, millions of pages of documents already eligible for release languish for lack of staff to process them; the George W. Bush Library alone has a backlog of 158 million pages (as of mid-2019) just in records identified as responsive to extant Freedom of Information Act requests.

Second, rather than having NARA withdraw from the presidential museum game, we might prefer it double down. Currently, most presidential libraries are twinned with museums, complete with gift shops and wedding facilities, and often subject to a tug of war between the president’s family and/or foundation and professional historians. The former want hagiography; the latter want something like the truth. As Musgrave notes elsewhere, the original version of the Nixon Museum even managed to present the Watergate scandal as a testament to presidential heroism. A publicly funded museum system, devoted to historical accuracy and overseen by nonpartisan civil servants with the ability to make documents available to research teams, could provide a carrot for both good presidential and post-presidential behavior. Indeed, despite ongoing tensions, the Nixon family’s desire to have a “real” presidential library finally led them to recast the museum’s narratives in far more accurate terms.

This shift to a presidential Smithsonian system of sorts would cost a fair bit, to be sure. And it would not prevent presidents from opting out of the NARA system, jettisoning their records, and building a private monument to their own glory. But it would label that competing museum a clearly personal and partisan endeavor. If fans wanted to add an expensive day at Mar-a-Lago to their Disney World vacation, they could surely do so; but this would be understood as more akin to marveling at the world’s largest piece of cheese than to learning history.

Legacy is in the eye of the beholder, of course. A former president who does conflate power with glory, fame with celebrity, may not be swayed by the judgment of history as amplified above. Indeed, perhaps our relative good luck in past presidents has actually been a second-order product of those selected as president in the first place. If presidents are indeed interchangeable at some level, driven by similar motivations, it is in part because they are chosen to be. James Ceaser noted forty years ago that if the problematic aspects of ambition “cannot be checked by law, [they] might nevertheless be regulated by the general institutional structure of the selection system” aimed at ensuring “an able executive”—and warns that a nominating system driven by abstract “democracy” may be problematic for real-life democracy if it strips away parties’ responsibility for policing candidate quality.[4] As Jonathan Rauch and Ray La Raja point out more recently, the 2016 Republican primary process is a case in point.

Perhaps the “noblest minds” aren’t required in office—but a kind of nobility is. Without that, the norms that don’t check presidents will not rein in emeritus presidents either.


[1] Terry M. Moe, “The Revolution in Presidential Studies,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 39 (December 2009), 704.

[2] Politics can provide lasting glory, Machiavelli stressed, but fame and infamy differed: by the latter, “one can acquire power but not glory.” See The Prince, translated by David Wooton (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1995), 28; Russell Price, “The Theme of Gloria in Machiavelli,” Renaissance Quarterly 30 (Winter 1977), 588-631.

[3] Terry M. Moe, “The Politics of Bureaucratic Structure,” in John E. Chubb and Paul E. Peterson, eds., Can the Government Govern? (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1989), 279.

[4] James Ceaser, Presidential Selection (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979), 13, 17, 343.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Paul Musgrave argues that both formal laws and informal norms shape an ex-president’s obligations and opportunities. Not only that, but a sitting president’s expectations about their future will shape their behaviors while they serve. Musgrave recommends several measures both formal and informal that he argues would lessen the influence and the dangers that ex-presidents can present.

Response Essays

  • Lori Cox Han characterizes the norms governing former presidents as mostly informal. Under them, modern ex-presidents have pursued a wide variety of activities. Regarding the newest member of the club, she writes, “The many things that made Donald Trump unique as a candidate and president… are exactly the things that will drive his post-presidential years.” She predicts that we may see renewed attention to post-presidential ethics, and perhaps new formal restrictions on former presidents’ behavior.

  • Lisa Anderson writes that the integrity of the institution of the presidency is the most important consideration in crafting our rules and norms for ex-presidents. She agrees that presidential libraries and foundations should likely be abolished, among other reforms. She closes by recommending a set of new disclosure requirements for presidential candidates, writing, “the character of our ex-presidents will never be better than the quality of our presidents.”

  • Prof. Andrew Rudalevige invokes Machiavelli to discuss the institution of the former president. Those who have served are likely to be motivated by the judgment of posterity, and that judgment should be used to keep them acting in honorable and useful ways. To that end, presidential recordkeeping should be reformed and centralized, aiding scholars in their work while limiting former presidents’ powers to hide documents from public view.