De-Glamorizing the Former Presidency

This has been a great and productive debate. Yet I want to refocus our attention on the core problem: what should we do with former presidents, given our overriding interest in ensuring the presidency is managed well?

Ex-presidents are an expected part of American political life. Since Hamilton’s time, serious students of American political institutions have recognized that the temptations—or cautions—of a post-presidency serve to influence how presidents will act while in office.

Yet the most powerful incentive to produce desirable behavior in presidents—the promise of re-election—has been removed for many presidents by the 22nd Amendment. Simultaneously, whatever norms once existed to sand the rougher edges of presidential behavior have been eroded to the point that whatever “textbook” expectations about former presidents we may have derived from the behavior of, say, Harry Truman serve us poorly in understanding the former presidency in an age of incredible opportunities for personal aggrandizement and enrichment.

Most of the contributions to this debate have recognized these changes. I think this symposium has done an excellent service in collecting and updating those changes, placing them into comparative perspective, and in general organizing what scholars know about these changes. That is a credit due to the experts who have taken part in them.

Yet there is a curious air of pessimism, even fatalism, that we can do anything about them—or even to admit that such changes have any real importance. In part, I think this derives from scholars’ habitual inclination to understand matters in the abstract rather than to put their understanding to any practical use. Yet if the past four years in U.S. politics have served no other purpose, they should alert us to the dangers of assuming that the system one is studying works well and will continue to serve its purposes automatically.

At the same time, there’s been a misunderstanding of my proposals.

Lisa Anderson, for instance, assesses my proposal for pensioning off former presidents as akin to Daniel Boorstin’s proposal for a “House of Experience.” I will admit that from one angle the proposals look similar. But Anderson misses the point. She’s right to note that “young-ish former presidents can make [a fortune] over a lifetime in lecture fees, book advances and consulting deals”—and even more correct that “it is hard to imagine the American taxpayer being willing to underwrite emoluments sufficient to compensate for the loss of those opportunities.”

Her analysis, though, does not really engage with my proposal at all. I actually share Anderson’s skepticism that former presidents are particularly wise or insightful, which is why I didn’t recommend adopting Boorstin’s proposal (or later, similar proposals from Larry Sabato).[1] What my proposal would do is to offer former presidents a choice: either they can accept a taxpayer-funded position of honor to do very little work for a handsome (but not Obama Netflix-level outrageous) sum, or they can walk away and do nothing.

Anderson may not be aware that former presidents in the United States currently receive both public subsidies and intense opportunities for private enrichment. As the National Taxpayers Union summarizes these benefits, they include

  • Funding for presidential office space and a staff anywhere in the United States
  • Up to $1 million annually in travel costs (as well as $500,000 in travel costs for their spouses)
  • Health benefits for those eligible by dint of service
  • Lifetime Secret Service protection
  • A pension at the level of a Cabinet Secretary’s salary

The NTU missed that former presidents and spouses also receive franking privileges—and classified briefings from the CIA.

These emoluments already amount to a substantial sum being paid to former presidents by right. Much has been made of the origins of the Former Presidents Act, under which many of these benefits are accorded to presidents, and how Congress sought to rescue Harry Truman from the embarrassment of (relative) poverty by granting him a pension. Less well known, however, is the fact that Herbert Hoover, a multimillionaire and still living ex-president when Truman’s pension was passed, also accepted the generous pension—to avoid embarrassing his colleague, it was said. (May we all have the privilege of avoiding embarrassing a friend by being forced to accept $200,000 a year.)

At this point, of course, the enormous personal enticements available to formal presidents that Anderson identifies renders all of the support offered by the Former Presidents Act moot. It represents nothing more than a subsidy for millionaires under the fig leaf of protecting the dignity of the office. Yet the circumstances that prompted that support have long since passed.

My proposal would consolidate all of this support and offer former presidents a choice: all, or nothing. Either former presidents accept a generous benefits package in exchange for alleviating some of the representational burden for the current president, or they return to the status of private citizen immediately upon leaving office.

The reasoning here is simple. If President Emeritus is a formal office, as the FPA has essentially made it, then it should come with some obligations and protections. Former Presidents should, in essence, be treated as federal officials and be subject to the same degree of restraints on outside earnings that incumbents are. And they should equally be accorded the respect that comes with forgoing wealth for public service—even as we recognize that the amount of wealth they are forgoing is tremendously large. (In this respect, it’s worth noting that presidents today make much, much less in real terms than they historically have—a bump in the FPA level to, say, $1 million annually would only restore former presidents’ pay to what Franklin Roosevelt earned, which was already half what Theodore Roosevelt made.)

Anderson and others may object that nobody would take this deal. In that case, the taxpayers will save a bundle (Bill Clinton alone has cost taxpayers more than $20 million since leaving office). More important, if former presidents elect to eschew a position of public honor and guaranteed wealth, if not oligarchic comfort, in order to pursue their private interests, then we know that we should treat them as purely private citizens with no more special status in our political life than former deputy assistant secretaries of the Commerce Department.

Much of my original essay meant to establish precisely the odd, and unhealthy, hybrid role that formers already play in our polity. Symbols reflect the uncomfortable degree to which the presidency—and by extension the ex-presidency—fits uneasily within the norms of popular sovereignty and limited government that one might think proper for a democratic republic. The trappings of the modern presidency cover practically the entire range of traditional royalist—or imperial—representations of sovereignty, including state aircraft, summer palace, rulers’ tombs and regalia symbolizing their power of life and death. Decades ago, the sociologist Robert Bellah identified the investiture of a new president as an important ceremonial event in America’s “civil religion”—“the religious legitimation of the highest political authority”, a claim that would have been familiar to potentates of earlier empires too.[2]

Presidents, in other words, receive a tamer version of the same official venerations that ancient rulers, from Rome to the Inca, once expected. These outsized official honors continue after they leave office, from presidential libraries to having aircraft carriers named for them, to having their face engraved on dollar coins. And yet it’s also clear that the normative underpinnings of this system—like the presumption that presidents can be relied upon for voluntary compliance with the Presidential Records Act—have eroded to the point that they are no longer reliable.[3]

We should be focused on how to curb these excesses, or at least put them to good use. As I thought about what reforms could be made to check presidential bad behavior, I considered a number of reforms that wouldn’t involve constitutional amendments, which are at this point not a viable option.[4] Repealing the 22nd Amendment, after all, would be the simplest way of handling the entire issue, by reverting to the Hamiltonian design.

The common thread running through my various proposals is the need to supply other incentives to restrain presidential behavior, or, at least, to de-glamorize the former presidency. Sometimes, that takes form in actual institutions, like my proposal for the President Emeritus position. At other times, that takes the form of mobilizing and clarifying the terms of moral engagement.

I am, to be sure, far from convinced these proposals are the only, or even the best, ones out there. But I am also certain that given the track record of recent U.S. presidents—long before the current incumbent—that we need to have a real, and searching, set of reforms to address how to move toward a more perfect presidency.

That extends to the need for utter transparency and promptness in releasing presidential records. In her most recent post, Anderson views those of us who want to make records available more quickly as engaging in mere special pleading. Curiously, she fails to grasp that scholars do not want these records just for their own sake but as a part of holding power to account. Walter Bagehot once praised the reserve and mystery of the British monarchy on the grounds that reverence under ignorance was essential to that institution: “Above all things our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it…Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic.” Less frequently quoted is another line from the same passage: “Every power in a popular government ought to be known.… But [the public] cannot judge if it is to be kept in ignorance; it cannot interpose if it does not know.”

Transparency, along with other measures to deflate the importance of presidents, will help to bring a healthier degree of sunlight and skepticism to presidential politics. And lest one object, as Anderson does, that presidents do not care about their records or legacies, we should remember that rulers in a democratic republic are, almost by definition, incredibly driven for validation by the public. Why else would formers take such care to oversee the writing of ponderous, self-serving memoirs, or to create shrines displaying their time in office in the most positive light?

Here, I think that Andrew Rudalevige has the better part of the argument in how fame motivates presidents (and makes good points about reforms to the presidential library system)—although I think he buys into far too conventional and laudatory a view of Ford’s pardon of Nixon, and is too laudatory about the current status of the presidential library system.

Where I depart from Rudalevige is in the assumption that fame alone can save us. In a polarized system, there is no guarantee that public opinion will accurately and soberly check presidential excesses. The debates in 2015 and 2016 over the Clinton Foundation eventually settled into tired old partisan lines, rather than a genuinely impartial assessment of what it means that formers can raise billions of dollars for a combination of charitable and self-serving purposes. One expects that the forthcoming Trump post-presidency will see the same dynamics play out. All that means, of course, that sterner stuff than hoping for “history to judge” is needed.

Again, this has been an enjoyable discussion—and an enlightening one. I appreciate the opportunity to have this exchange and to clarify my own thinking on these matters.


[1] Larry J Sabato, “A More Perfect Constitution,” Walker & Company, New York, 2007.

[2] Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus, 1967, 1–21.

[3] Kel McClanahan, “Trump and the Demise of the Presidential Records Honor System,” Just Security, March 22, 2019,….

[4] Constitutional amendments aren’t a dead letter but they are next to impossible under current political circumstances. There has only been one constitutional amendment in my lifetime, the mostly harmless 27th amendment, which, having been proposed in 1789, is something of an oddity. The last constitutional amendment to be adopted through a recognizably normal process was the 26th Amendment, which was proposed and ratified in 1971.

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.