Joe Biden’s Corvette, Donald Trump’s Papers, and a Last Note on Our Former Presidents

I have found the reflections of my colleagues in this conversation instructive and intriguing. At this point, I have two observations by way of response.

I stand by my conviction that, in general, trying to control the behavior of American ex-presidents is a fool’s errand—and likely to be very expensive to boot. After all, if I am going to support higher taxes, I’d rather coddle food pantry managers, special education teachers, rural nurses, city bus drivers, and a lot of other people who also provide services to their fellow citizens. That said, president-elect Joe Biden has revealed the extent to which even candidates consider the opportunities and constraints of post-presidential lives. Famously attached to his ‘67 Corvette, he remarked to a UAW audience in 2014 that he objected to the secret Service policy that forbids ex-presidents from driving: “There are a lot of reasons to run for president, but there’s one overwhelming reason not to run for president,” he joked. “I like to get that [Corvette] Z06 from zero to 60 in 3.4 seconds.”[1]

So perhaps limits on what ex-presidents are permitted to do would create salutary incentives—and disincentives—to those who consider running for the office. And since I think our most pressing concern is the integrity of the office, and only secondarily of its occupants, whatever contributes to shaping a pool of candidates who respect the office seems like a good idea. Drag racers take note.

I am also struck by the concern of my colleagues with what is essentially special pleading by historians to improve the control of and access to presidential papers and archives. I am certainly not immune to a narrow preoccupation my own scholarly interests, but I think the case for supporting access to the flotsam and jetsam of presidential life, particularly while the president in question is still alive, needs to be a bit more high-minded.

What does knowing more that we now know about what went on in the White House five or ten years ago contribute to public life? A measure of prospective transparency—of the antiseptic that is sunshine—may be a restraint on really silly behavior in office (though several of our current ex-presidents seem to have been quite undeterred) but more efficient processing of millions of documents seems unlikely to avert ignorant decisionmaking, restrain bad policy or, for that matter, prevent illegal or unethical behavior. After all, most of that takes place in plain sight, thanks to the diligent efforts of our media colleagues to find stories that will drive readership and revenue. So, while I do agree that a more rational system of preserving presidential papers (including, of course, their digital analogues) and systematically making them available to professional and amateur scholars alike is desirable, I doubt that it would have a discernable impact on the behavior of our presidents, in or out of office.



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.