About this Issue

The United States usually has several living former presidents. Rarely do they cause the country much trouble. But when we turn to other polities, we find that ex-presidents can often be a source of instability and corruption. 

The reasons are simple: Former presidents have strong name recognition, wide networks of personal loyalty, and a hands-on knowledge of how their political systems work in practice. They are therefore well-situated to either help or harm the polity. In extreme cases, they may even seek to retake power extraconstitutionally.

Should former presidents take an active role in politics? Is it possible that they might become too active? What ethical lines should they be made to observe? And what other rules and incentives can be set up so that former presidents keep working toward a government that is stable, constitutional, and free?

This month we’ve invited four political scientists with a variety of perspectives to discuss the important questions surrounding ex-presidents and their role in the life of the republic: Prof. Paul Musgrave of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has written our lead essay; responding to him this month will be Prof. Lori Cox Han of Chapman University, Prof. Lisa Anderson of Columbia University, and Prof. Andrew Rudalevige of Bowdoin College. Comments are open for the duration as well; we hope you will join us for a thoughtful and timely discussion.

Lead Essay

Past Presidents, Presidential Legacies, and the Future of the United States

What should be done with a former president of the United States? The question is not trivial. The problem of what to do with a former president has much to do with how we want an incumbent president to act. Given the wide panoply of powers available to an American president, the question of how to structure that office and the social roles that a president (and future ex-president) will inhabit is an urgent one. Abusing the presidency’s powers—or failing to use them properly—carries not only national but international consequences. If there is good reason to believe that the conditions of a post-presidency affect the quality of presidential decisionmaking, then we need to consider how to structure the post-presidency in order to promote the best governance possible.

In this opening essay, I contend that we need both formal changes and normative pressures to change the former presidency to ensure that incumbent presidents remain on their best behavior. I review how expectations of what a post-presidency should be have changed, from one of discreet retirement to potentially energetic continued political engagement to an increasing emphasis on accumulating wealth and prestige. I also review what can be learned—and what I think cannot be learned—from U.S. history and more recent developments internationally.

My conclusion—that we need a mix of generous carrots and harsh sticks to incentivize good presidential behavior—may not satisfy everyone. At the very least, however, I hope that this essay, and the larger discussion, can frame the tensions and identify the specific questions that most require answering. We benefit both from a wave of new research into how leaders exit office, and what makes their exit smooth, and also from the urgency of watching longstanding norms about post-presidential decorum erode to the point of collapse—a problem that predates Donald Trump.

History and Development

“President emeritus” may not be an official job, but it is now—without the title—almost inescapably part of the U.S. constitutional design since the ratification of the Twenty-Second Amendment permanently limited presidential terms. Even though similar term limits in other countries have proven malleable, the difficulty of changing the U.S. constitution means that the U.S. restriction is unlikely to be lifted.[1]

This was not what the Framers of the Constitution intended. In Federalist 72, Alexander Hamilton argued that limiting the president’s eligibility for re-election would “deter him from the undertaking” of “extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit, requiring considerable time to mature and perfect them.” Worse, Hamilton wrote, term limits might tempt presidents “to peculation, and, in some cases, to usurpation.” Any “avaricious man, who might happen to fill the office” would be tempted “to make the best use of the opportunity he enjoyed while it lasted.” And an “ambitious man” who found himself “seated on the summit of his country’s honors” would be “more violently tempted” to try to prolong his power if the alternative were to give up all of the powers of the presidency. As Hamilton melodramatically concluded, “Would it promote the peace of the community, or the stability of the government to have half a dozen men who had had credit enough to be raised to the seat of the supreme magistracy, wandering among the people like discontented ghosts, and sighing for a place which they were destined never more to possess?”

Hamilton’s answer was transparently that presidents should simply continue to serve in office under good behavior—that former presidents should retire, rather than be forced to leave. In such a case, no special provision would be necessary for former presidents. Yet two other reasons likely explained why the Framers believed that they required no special provision for ex-presidents. First, they assumed that Congress would be eager to keep watch over the president and punish any misdeeds. (Gouverneur Morris, for one, thought that Congress would be so keen to use the impeachment power to check the president that the executive would become overly dependent on the legislature.[2]) Second, as the historian Joanne Freeman writes, the Framers’ generation operated in a culture of politics shaped by considerations of honor to a degree almost unrecognizable to later generations.[3] Publius voiced these sentiments in passing: “Every consideration that can influence the human mind, such as honor, oaths, reputations, conscience, the love of country, and family affections and attachments, afford security for their fidelity.”

For Washington and his immediate successors, this provided a neat solution to how to treat former presidents: they would retire to the fiction of being private citizens while retaining a position in society enhanced by their public service. The evolution of sharper, more democratic politics in the 1830s shattered this cozy arrangement. Presidents who had come of age in a less genteel era proved less willing to withdraw from public life after they had left the presidential chair. After losing to Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams threw himself back into politics as a spirited member of the House of Representatives, even dying in the Capitol building after casting a dramatic vote against a Mexican War resolution. Jackson himself remained a kingmaker in Democratic factional politics for a decade after leaving office. Martin Van Buren and Millard Fillmore actively participated in national politics, including by mounting separate (and disastrous) third-party bids. Even the impeached Andrew Johnson won re-election to the Senate. In the era of disunion and reconstruction, it made sense that being an ex-president carried neither an expectation that presidents would be reticent to engage in public affairs nor that they should expect any deference should they choose to do so.

Eventually, re-entering public life became the exception rather than the rule. William Howard Taft might serve as Chief Justice and Herbert Hoover might lend his administrative genius to government reorganization, but these unelected and narrow roles were far cries from the raucous nineteenth century precedents. The last former president to even try to re-enter political life was Gerald Ford, who considered accepting an offer from Ronald Reagan to become a vice-presidential candidate in 1980. Partly this was because the Twenty-Second Amendment barred many from seeking a third term. But many presidents, like Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush, did not seek another election despite being eligible. And with the minor exception of Ford, none have tried to seek another elective office.

Instead, former presidents have long turned away from the public arena and toward tending their legacy—and bank accounts. For a lawyer like Grover Cleveland, that meant the possibility of heftier fees. Others followed a trail to riches blazed out of desperation by a nearly bankrupt Grant: the writing of a post-presidential memoir. Eventually, cashing in on the presidency became normalized. Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford accumulated decent fortunes, but more recent formers may have even earned dynastic wealth. Bill Clinton earned more than $100 million from speaking fees alone between 2001 and 2013. Reports indicate that Barack and Michelle Obama earned at least $60 million in a multi-book deal—an amount that, in combination with other ventures, made Vanity Fair estimate their post-presidential net worth at “super rich.”[4] American presidents may not have to appear in Pizza Hut commercials to fund their post-presidency, as Mikhail Gorbachev eventually chose to, but that is because they cater to a more elite—and lucrative—market.[5]

Incentives and Design

Today, the former presidency is institutionalized to a remarkable degree. Franklin Roosevelt’s donation of his papers (and model ship collection) to a presidential library launched a new post-presidential norm—that every president would have an institution dedicated to their legacy.[6] Presidential foundations grew alongside these institutions, originally to support them but eventually to supplant them. The William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock is a fine building, but the Clinton Global Initiative was the soul of the 42nd president’s life after the White House.[7] Such presidential foundations were controversial long before the 2016 campaign. George W. Bush’s foundation attracted scrutiny for its lack of transparency about its donors even while Bush 43 was still in office, for example. And under the Former Presidents Act, former presidents receive a federal pension, travel benefits, office space and expenses, and clerical support—benefits prompted by Harry Truman’s post-presidential financial difficulties, but which have continued to accrue despite former presidents’ apparent ease at providing for themselves.

The modern post-presidency, then, constitutes a role almost entirely opposite that of what the Framers envisioned when they drafted the Constitution. Not only has the culture of honor disappeared, but personal enrichment is now a taken-for-granted outcome for a former president. It’s worth considering what incentives such developments have provided contemporary presidents.

As one looks at the donor walls of a presidential library, featuring the names of prominent corporations, wealthy individuals, and foreign governments, one cannot help but think of Hamilton’s warnings about what an avaricious man might do as president. It also brings to mind the inadequacy of the standard political-science assumption that politicians are “single-minded seekers of re-election.”[8] As an analytic shorthand, that assumption does useful theoretical work. It enables theories in which ambition for office would lead candidates to curb their excesses, adopt policies that appeal to wide audiences, and subject politicians to the stern discipline of public attention, lest they be caught out by an ambitious rival pursuing the same goal.

That assumption is probably too strong, however, as legislators frequently pursue other goals than those directly related to their electoral fortunes.[9] Those other goals may be public-minded, but they can also be self-interested, including furthering a legislator’s own career, perhaps by cultivating good relations with an interest group or other constituency to maximize earnings after they leave office. As presidents think about how to provide for a legacy project—and a retinue—they will note that current practice not only tolerates but practically encourages raising giant sums from donors, including foreign governments, for such projects. And if it is hard to imagine your favorite recent president shying away from an appointment of a particular agency head or signing a particular executive order based on how it would affect a multi-million dollar gift from a donor, then let the blame fall on a chief of staff or aide or some other actor who might make such decisions without consulting the president in the misguided belief that they are just doing what the boss wants. The effect is the same—or, to be as generous as possible, the suspicion of the effect is the same.

The incentives provided by the contemporary system, then, conform more closely to Hamilton’s fears than to Hamilton’s designs. Furthermore, political scientists frequently contrast this sort of explanation based upon the behavior of a self-interested actor with explanations rooted in how politicians behave while seeking to maintain their good standing with the norms and customs of their society. Such considerations might make certain kinds of behavior that a rational actor might consider all but unthinkable simply because they are socially proscribed or stigmatized.

In that regard, it’s worth considering not only how personal post-presidential enrichment has become acceptable but specifically how Congress and other actors refuse to place even social opprobrium on fundraising for post-presidential activities. Critics like the Center for Responsive Politics and the Project on Government Oversight have repeatedly raised grave concerns about the potentially corrupting practice of fundraising for presidential libraries. Yet even their preferred reforms—requiring disclosure of donations—would fall far short of what is needed, as Anthony Clark has argued, because the problem is not necessarily the money itself but the acceptance that this is a normal, unexceptional part of the post-presidency.

Yet the most glaring problems with the modern post-presidency have little to do with money, and more to do with justice. When Richard Nixon resigned the presidency ahead of impeachment and certain removal by the Senate, he slunk back to California in disgrace. Yet over the next twenty years, he managed to both amass a tidy fortune and—something he valued even more highly—a strange new respect from D.C. insiders and other elites. As public understanding of his abuses of government power gradually faded, and “Watergate” became synonymous with the June 1974 break-in of the Democratic National Committee and the subsequent cover-up, Nixon became better regarded for his insights into world politics. In doing so, Nixon not only rehabilitated himself but also helped improve the image of his successor, Gerald Ford, who had pardoned him for any offenses against the United States that he had committed.[10]

Elite approbation of Ford’s pardon as an act of statesmanship helped cement the norm that former presidents would not be held formally accountable for any abuses of power they may have committed. Neither the Iran-Contra affair nor the 2003 Iraq war nor the use of torture nor the use of drone strikes nor any other controversy over the past four decades has led to formal sanctions on any former president—with the possible exception of Bill Clinton’s suspension of his law license as a result of his perjury in the Paula Jones case. Indeed, during the early years of the Trump administration, even many Democrats and liberals openly yearned for the Bush 43 administration as preferable to Trump. If Hamilton feared that a president might misuse his office for profit, remember that he also feared that he might misuse his office to prolong his hold on power—and a lack of post-presidential accountability cannot be the right prescription for that disease.

It’s hard to see how either a rationalist creating institutions to deter wrongdoing or a society seeking to provide norms to inhibit abuse of power would have settled on either these institutions or these norms as a way of constituting an ex-presidency if their objectives were to promote good behavior during a presidency.

Comparative Experience

As a scholar of international relations, I’m often wary of accounts of political behavior that draw only on one country’s experience. Over the past century, many other countries have developed democracies—many of which, some measures of democratic quality suggest, are as or more robust, free, and liberal than that of the United States. It seems reasonable to believe that the United States can learn from such countries and their experiences, as indeed other contributors to this symposium and I myself have argued.[11]

In particular, we should value experiences from other democracies because they can offer evidence that the U.S. case does not. The question of “what should we do with ex-presidents?” is a normative, value-laden one, to be sure. But it entails questions of “what happens if ex-presidents are prosecuted?” or “what career options are open for former leaders?” that can help us navigate the trade-offs that different options pose in the U.S. case.

Large statistical analyses reveal patterns that might reassure those who believe that former leaders should not be immune from prosecution or investigation for wrongdoing during office. The investigation of former democratic leaders is a relatively commonplace practice. Over a third of such leaders who left office between 1970 and 2011 faced investigation, and that presidential systems and governments with relatively less independent judiciaries are more likely to engage in such practices.[12] On the one hand, these factors suggest that such investigations may be politicized. Yet the fact that having an “insider witness” makes such investigations more likely also suggests that real abuses are being uncovered. Moreover, even an inquiry may be a significant event, as demonstrated by the suicide of South Korea’s former president Roh Moo Hyun following being questioned about accepting bribes.

Other studies similarly capture analysts’ intuitions that the range of options open to former leaders is wider than that which the eight postwar former U.S. presidents have engaged in. It is useful to know that half of democratic leaders continue in politics after leaving office, while one in three retires altogether and the balance are divided between work in nonprofit, business, public servant, and international organization occupations.[13]

Alas, the utility of such cross-national investigations is currently limited. Scholars are usually too quick to say that “more research is needed,” but I think it is fair to argue that we really do need more research to establish the general patterns and important exceptions about how leaders behave after leaving office. Although it seems fair to generalize that democracies can do with more post-office scrutiny of their leaders’ behavior in office than the United States does, prominent examples of politicized prosecutions, like that of Lula da Silva in Brazil, also demonstrate how such investigations can go awry.

Furthermore, finding general patterns in post-presidential contexts may not help us very much in understanding the U.S. case. As reluctant as I am to endorse most forms of U.S. exceptionalism, a former American president—especially in the postwar era—probably does constitute a unique kind of “former.” Almost all of the world leaders who have wielded powers in domestic and international spheres that are comparable to those of a postwar U.S. president are autocratic, like Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, or most Soviet leaders. These offer little usable precedents for specific guidance about how the U.S. should arrange its political culture.

By the same token, American presidents do not—and should not—have post-presidential career options like those in other democracies. In most economically developed democracies, the head of government is weaker in formal or actual terms, and is often an office separated from the role of head of state that the U.S. president also performs. None of them command the same level of military or economic sway over their own countries and others that the U.S. has. To take just one example among many, even just the secrets available to the president as the intelligence community’s chief customer could be of inestimable commercial value should a former president choose to engage in a commercial enterprise, like John Major or Gerhard Schroeder. At the same time, few other leaders would be so valuable for domestic or foreign interests to win over with donations or outright bribes.

Finally, it should be mentioned that these factors make it all but unthinkable that a U.S. president would become head of a major international organization, a path followed by many democratic leaders—like NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, a former prime minister of Norway. No international organization could credibly commit to treating all of its members equally were a former U.S. head of state holding the reins.

What Is to Be Done?

So we have a clear sense of the stakes, a good grasp of how current post-presidential institutions and norms pose real problems for U.S. governance, and some glimmers of specific policies that could address some of these issues. Yet we do not seem to have any easy answers to our original question: what should be done with a former president of the United States?

Yet clarifying the questions as we have done so leaves us, I believe, in a much better place to offer some concrete solutions. As I hope my discussion has demonstrated, an answer to that question must address both an institutional and a normative aspect, and they must both be aimed at reducing the temptation for a president to use their position selfishly. As Jacob Levy has recently argued, in fact, the social sanctions may be, in the long run, almost as effective as formal institutional ones.[14]

One way to achieve workable informal sanctions would be to intentionally and systematically reduce the symbolic size of presidents—and especially former presidents—in our political culture. Presidential libraries are not the only official symbols of the institutionalization of the cult of the presidency. The current vogue for naming capital ships of the U.S. Navy after presidents is not entirely new but has greatly accelerated relative to historical trends. Such practices should end, both to provide opportunities to honor other Americans or, as was long traditional, individual states of the Union, but also to simply reduce the prominence of individual presidents.

Separately, presidential foundations should be much more strictly controlled. This would go beyond requiring disclosure and would much more likely involve separately defining presidential foundations in the tax code, while placing strict limits on how their funds can be raised and spent. This might well mean that a Trump or Biden presidential library—either in or out of the federal system—would be the last, since such organizations might not be able to afford the grandiose buildings that these institutions have come to require. Yet that would not be a tragedy. The original problem that presidential libraries were meant to solve, the fear that presidential papers would be destroyed, sold, or otherwise lost, has been solved by the Presidential Records Act, and administrations’ records can be simply kept by the National Archives (where they would be, it should be mentioned, much more convenient for researchers). With presidential foundations greatly reduced, presidents would have much less reason to fundraise for their legacies. They might even decide to direct their efforts, and their donor lists, to established charities, universities, or other nonprofits, helping to build the sorts of intermediary institutions that Tocqueville among others believed strengthened democracies.

A more ambitious option would be to create post-presidential truth commissions for every president. At present, the official institutions of the post-presidency exist only to support and burnish the reputations of former presidents. Yet a strong democracy should be interested in uncovering a nonpartisan and common set of facts. Ordinarily, however, we only get inquiries aimed at this sort of fact-finding in the aftermath of disasters like the Challenger explosion or the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Establishing a standing protocol—with funding, staff support, privileged access to classified records, and so on—by which official histories of presidents could be compiled on that same basis regardless of how popular or disgraced a president was upon leaving office would be a welcome step toward normalizing presidents not as demi-gods but as public servants. This commission could also be staffed with lawyers and investigators to determine if criminal misconduct has taken place—another step toward normalizing accountability for former presidents and their administrations.

A final option would go even further in formalizing the office of the former presidency, which, in honor of the pope emeritus, we might call this the “Benedict Option.” That would be to eliminate the current post-presidential perks—the pension, the office space, the franking—and instead create a bench of Presidents Emeriti. These would be actual federal positions to which only former presidents would be eligible. They would have a lifetime tenure on good behavior, a lavish (and inflation-adjusted) salary (several multiples of the presidential salary) along with provisions for their survivors, and a set of reasonable duties, such as chairing blue-ribbon commissions, appearances at ceremonial functions, representing the United States abroad, and so on. The only catch would be that presidents emeriti would be barred from accepting any further salary, gift, or benefit from any other source, as well as endorsing any candidate in any future election.

As a domestic, publicly funded, and elective version of the Mo Ibrahim Prize, such an office would balance the reality that a former president of the United States cannot just “return to their farm” à la Cincinnatus with the public’s interest in ensuring that conflicts of interest did not affect their public judgment. The aim would be not only to dissuade presidents from any decision that might further their personal enrichment but also to create a position so attractive that declining it would trigger an automatic social stigma as well.


Presidents’ views of the future structure their choices in the present. Often that is for the good, as when a historically minded president shies away from a rash course of action because of fears about how such an action might look to posterity. Yet the evolving nature of the post-presidency in the contemporary United States poses challenges. The norms and practices that promote responsible behavior have, I believe, been steadily weakening over the past several decades. Even before the Trump administration, the growing acceptability of post-presidential behaviors that would have scandalized not only the Framers but even public opinion from more recent eras has contributed to an atmosphere ripe for abuse.

Such abuses may have taken place, or we may have dodged those bullets as of yet. But the time to act is not after we find that systematic distortions of policy have transpired. Rather, we should act in anticipation of such problems in order to avoid them altogether. I look forward to a discussion with the other participants in this forum to see if we can improve on them—or at least advance the debate on this timely and important subject.


[1] “Breaking Presidential Term Limits in Russia and Beyond | Wilson Center,” accessed November 6, 2020, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/breaking-presidential-term-limit….

[2] Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, vol. II (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1911), 53.

[3] Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (Yale University Press, 2002).

[4] Joe Pompeo, “‘It’s Got the Democratic Halo, but There’s This Bourgeois Element’: Meet the Obamoguls,” Vanity Fair, accessed November 6, 2020, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2020/01/meet-the-obamoguls.

[5] Paul Musgrave, “Mikhail Gorbachev’s Pizza Hut Thanksgiving Miracle,” Foreign Policy (blog), accessed November 6, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/11/28/mikhail-gorbachev-pizza-hut-ad-tha….

[6] Benjamin Hufbauer, Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory (Univ Pr of Kansas, 2005).

[7] David A. Fahrenthold, Tom Hamburger, and Rosalind S. Helderman, “The inside Story of How the Clintons Built a $2 Billion Global Empire,” Washington Post, June 2, 2015, sec. Politics, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/the-inside-story-of-how-the-cli….

[8] David R. Mayhew, Congress: The Electoral Connection, vol. 26 (Yale University Press, 2004).

[9] Barry C. Burden, Personal Roots of Representation (Princeton University Press, 2007); John Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (Boston: Little, Brown, 1984); Lisa Hager, “Are Members of Congress Simply ‘Single-Minded Seekers of Reelection’? An Examination of Legislative Behavior in the 114th Congress,” PS: Political Science & Politics 51, no. 1 (2018): 115–18.

[10] Paul Musgrave, “America Needs to Prosecute Its Presidents,” Foreign Policy (blog), accessed November 6, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/09/29/america-prosecute-presidents-pardo….

[11] Lisa Anderson, “The Ex-Presidents,” Journal of Democracy 21, no. 2 (2010): 64–78; Musgrave, “America Needs to Prosecute Its Presidents.”

[12] Donna Bahry and Young Hun Kim, “Executive Turnover and the Investigation of Former Leaders in New Democracies,” Political Research Quarterly, 2020, 1065912920905640.

[13] Alexander Baturo, “Democracy, Development, and Career Trajectories of Former Political Leaders,” Comparative Political Studies 50, no. 8 (2017): 1023–54.

[14] “Honoring The Dishonorable, Part 2: The Dishonorable Living,” Niskanen Center, September 9, 2020, https://www.niskanencenter.org/honoring-the-dishonorable-part-2-the-dis….

Response Essays

Formalizing Our Post-Presidential Norms

When Abraham Lincoln became president in 1861, there were five living former presidents—Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan. This unusual political occurrence would not happen again until 1993, when Bill Clinton became president, with Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush comprising the membership of the ex-president’s club. Since then, having a robust membership in this exclusive club has become more commonplace upon the inauguration of each new president—five when George W. Bush became president in 2001, four for Barack Obama in 2009, five for Donald Trump in 2017, and there will be five when Joe Biden is inaugurated on January 20, 2021. As Paul Musgrave correctly states, what to do with a former president is no trivial matter, especially when there are so many of them hanging around.

My interest in the question of what to do with ex-presidents began early in my career. I am a presidential library enthusiast, and each research visit to one of these venues is always a stark reminder of just how important legacy building during the post-presidential years has become. Also, when George W. Bush took office in January 2001, I was curious to see if the scandal narrative that dominated the Clinton years would continue when he left office and how that might set the tone for his post-presidency. Clinton also seemed reluctant to leave center stage, promising a crowd of supporters just hours after Bush took the oath of office that “I’m not going anywhere.” Indeed, those early months in 2001 found many in the news media unwilling to kick their Clinton scandal addiction, with ongoing stories about Clinton-related controversies such as the Mark Rich pardon.[1]

Beyond precedent and tradition, there are no guidelines, constitutional or otherwise, for how former presidents should spend their time. In a perfect world, most would gracefully step back from the national spotlight and keep busy by serving as elder statesmen (when asked), engaging in philanthropic efforts, writing their memoirs, and building their presidential libraries. The tawdry concern of politics would be behind them forever as they worked to shape their legacy and secure their place in history. In addition, the need to make money (as in, giving speeches for exorbitant fees or securing a record-breaking book deal) would not be a priority as they would live comfortably on some sort of government pension befitting the former leader of the free world. In reality, as Musgrave outlines, ex-presidents during the past century have passed their time in myriad ways after leaving the White House. All since Herbert Hoover have a presidential library as well as a foundation or other nonprofit support organization. All have published memoirs. Most have been engaged with philanthropic efforts of some sort, though not all have served as elder statesmen and not all have disengaged from politics.

Perhaps the elder and younger Bush offer the best models of how to conduct a post-presidential life. George H. W. Bush maintained a somewhat low profile as a former president and was “deeply ambivalent about trying to shape his own legacy”[2] due in part to the fact that he lost his reelection bid in 1992. Nonetheless, Bush participated in the usual activities of former presidents, including speeches, publishing books, and philanthropic efforts. The latter included national and international relief efforts following natural disasters in which he partnered with Bill Clinton, with whom he developed a close personal relationship. Otherwise, Bush remained mostly off the national stage, stating that “we only have one president at a time,” particularly after the election of his son as president in 2000.

When George W. Bush left office in 2009, he did so with a low approval rating and his party out of power in Congress as well as the White House. Opinions vary greatly on Bush’s expansion of presidential powers while waging the War on Terrorism after 9/11, and his post–White House strategy seems to acknowledge the consequential yet controversial actions of his time in office. Like his father, his post-presidential years have been relatively low-key, focusing on occasional private speeches, public health efforts to fight AIDS in Africa, and his new hobby of painting, including numerous portraits of veterans. Both mostly stayed clear of politics, even when Jeb Bush ran for president in 2016. But there is one important caveat to using these examples as the blueprint—the Bush family did not need to accumulate wealth in the post-presidential years. Several presidents did not come from wealth and privilege and for a variety of reasons sought the opportunity to make money once out of the White House. Truman’s lack of wealth contributed to passage of the Former Presidents Act, and as Musgrave correctly points out, cashing in on one’s presidency has become normalized.

The idea of creating some sort of council comprised of former presidents is not new, nor is the criticism of how these men have spent their time and/or the government’s money. As early as 1925, historian Winthrop Dudley Sheldon pondered the public value of ex-presidents: “Will he retire into quiet seclusion, to occupy himself with his favorite pursuits, or, perchance, to write memoirs of his times and of his part in them? … Will he continue to be a national figure, gracing many a public occasion with high thinking and eloquent speech, or will he pass into the twilight zone of the “Has-beens,” who have had their day and no longer attract followers?”[3] During the Reagan years, with three former presidents (Nixon, Ford, and Carter) forging different paths to their post–White House years, scholars seemed interested in discussing what role former presidents could or should play in the operation of the federal government, since “the men who have served as our presidents are significant enough political figures for us to be concerned with them after they have left office.”[4] By the early 1990s, some members of Congress had begun to criticize the federal funds appropriated to former presidents as an “extravagant retirement, complete with Secret Service protection for widows and children, ‘fat’ book deals, handsome offices, and bloated staffs as well as presidential libraries that more nearly resemble monuments than research institutions.”[5]

Not many subscribed to an official role for former presidents then, and 30 years later, it is unlikely that such a plan would receive wide support. However, since the early 1990s, in addition to the Bush post-presidencies, we have also witnessed the Clinton and Obama examples. The Clinton Foundation, which includes the Clinton Global Initiative, has raised hundreds of millions of dollars over the years, though some of those activities (including lucrative speaking fees) have come under scrutiny, especially during Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign as the Clintons faced accusations of influence peddling. The Obamas are now considered “super rich” thanks to their estimated $65 million book deal in 2017. Though not controversial (although critics scoffed at the amount), it does offer a stark contrast to how candidate Obama used to tell voters in 2008 that he and his wife had only recently paid off their student loans. What has been different with Obama has been his willingness to engage in harsh political rhetoric about his successor in the White House, which began during the 2016 presidential campaign and has continued to this day. The Trump campaign and presidency seemed to create an “all bets are off” posture for Obama as he broke with precedent in his detailed criticisms of Trump and his policies.

And that brings us to the impending post-presidency of Donald Trump. As with many other aspects of presidential campaigns and the presidency itself, Trump plays by his own rules. Public decorum and so-called “presidential” behavior have been rare for Trump from the moment he announced his campaign in June 2015. Hoping that will change once he leaves office would be a fool’s errand. Trump is nothing if not anti-establishment, and that is what his most ardent supporters appreciate most about him. Once Trump leaves the White House, several important questions loom. Perhaps the most important is, will he run again in 2024? Relatedly, what will happen to the Trump political movement, and will the former president serve as a kingmaker within the Republican Party? Unlike his predecessors, Trump has a large business portfolio to return to, and possibly several legal matters to attend to as well. While a library and/or memoirs do not seem high on the priority list at this moment, it would be hard to imagine Trump passing up those established branding opportunities for his legacy. The many things that made Trump unique as a candidate and president (the first with no prior political or military experience) are exactly the things that will drive his post-presidential years. He is perhaps more connected to a political movement than any previous president, and the fact that he is leaving office after only one term leaves the possibility for him to run again. Given Trump’s ability to rile up the political classes on both sides of the aisle, we may yet see broad public support for formal measures to rein in the activities of former presidents, as normative pressures will most likely be lost on Trump.


[1] See Lori Cox Han and Matthew J. Krov, “Out of Office and In the News: Early Projections of the Clinton Legacy,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, Volume 33, Number 4 (2003): 925-933; and Han and Krov, “Life After the White House: The Public Post-Presidency and the Development of Presidential Legacies,” in In the Public Domain: Presidents and the Challenge of Public Leadership, eds. Lori Cox Han and Diane J. Heith, State University of New York Press, 2005.

[2] Ann McDaniel, “Bush’s Legacy Thing,” Newsweek, 10 November 1997, p. 50.

[3] Winthrop Dudley Sheldon, The Ex-presidents of the United States: How Each Played the Role, (Philadelphia, 1925), 3.

[4] Alan Evan Schenker, “Former Presidents: Suggestions for the Study of an Often Neglected Resource,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, Volume 12, Number 4 (1982): 545-551.

[5] See Richard Norton Smith and Timothy Walch, Introduction to Farewell to the Chief: Former Presidents in American Public Life (Worland, WY: High Plains Publishing, 1990).

Ex-Presidencies of Laws, Not Men

In order to establish what should be done with ex-presidents, we need to identify the problem we want to solve. There seem to be three possibilities. In the first instance, we may worry that we are wasting valuable wisdom and experience. Robert Hardesty, an aide to President Lyndon Johnson, argued that former presidents in the United States are “a squandered national resource” and lamented that “in a single day’s time we turn our backs on a lifetime of training and knowledge and experience and public esteem and political know-how.”[i] Obviously Hardesty, and presumably his erstwhile boss, thought there is, or should be, a productive role for former presidents.

A second possible problem was identified some years earlier when, addressing the same question, former president William Howard Taft wryly proposed “a dose of chloroform” as a means to protect his countrymen “from the troublesome fear that the occupant [of the nation’s highest office] could ever come back.” Moreover, he pointed out, this would also relieve the former president himself of “the burden of thinking how he is to support himself and his family, fix his place in history, and enable the public to pass on to new men and new measures.”[ii] Taft evidently thought former presidents were as much a liability as an asset, to both their families and the public.

Finally, we may not care about the former presidents themselves at all: what we are concerned about is the office they just vacated. The Former Presidents Act of 1958, which for the first time provided a pension and other expenses for erstwhile occupants of the White House, was enacted to “maintain the dignity” of the Office of the President. The previous year, the Senate committee that recommended underwriting these costs opined that “we expect a former President to engage in no business or occupation which would demean the office he has held or capitalize upon it in any improper way.”[iii] This seems to be the problem Jeffrey Paul Musgrave is principally concerned to address. He wants his ex-presidents to “be on their best behavior” because the “current post-presidential institutions and norms post real problems for U.S. governance.”

I think Musgrave is correct in this focus. Sympathetic as I am with Hardesty’s view of the talents of most American presidents, in general their estimates of their contributions after they leave office are exaggerated. George Washington may have been the first, but he was certainly not the last former president to be dragged into unbecoming partisan politics after he left office, and the opportunities for mischief seem quite high. Whatever you may think of the merits of his efforts, Jimmy Carter’s “freelance diplomacy” in in Korea, Iraq, and elsewhere irritated both Presidents Bush as well as President Clinton.[iv] At the same time, Taft may have been a bit alarmist about the dangers former presidents pose; after all, chloroform would have deprived us of both his service as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court after he left the White House and Herbert Hoover’s able post-war administration of several commissions for Harry Truman after World War II.

This combination of admiration and trepidation with which we view former presidents has been expressed in repeated proposals to create an institutionalized role that would simultaneously honor and shackle them. William Jennings Bryan suggested that all former presidents become ex-officio members of the Senate, to which Taft himself responded, “if I must go and disappear into oblivion, I prefer to go by the chloroform…method. Its pleasanter and less drawn out.”[v] Nonetheless, proposals to designate former presidents in the United States as honorary members of Congress go back at least to 1916 when a bill was introduced to create permanent House seat for former presidents. Beginning in 1944 and for the next nineteen years in succession, members of both the House and the Senate each year introduced similar legislation, and even Truman thought a non-voting seat might be a good idea.[vi] In 1988, the historian Daniel Boorstin suggested that “our living former presidents could provide a core of a new national council, a House of Experience.” Musgrave’s proposal that there be a “bench of Presidents Emeriti” echoes that proposal, providing generous benefits in return for surrendering opportunities to indulge in further politics or commerce. Gerald Ford was more diplomatic than Taft in dismissing Boorstin’s scheme, asking “What should former presidents do? It is my personal opinion that we cannot and should not define a rigid role for former presidents. We are all different and I think that will be the case in the future.” [vii]

Ford was obviously correct about the variety of his counterparts, as his successors bear out, and I think Musgrave’s proposal does not represent such an improvement over Boorstin’s that it merits a different fate. While some might have been content with membership in a “House of Experience” or “bench of Presidents Emeriti,” given what young-ish former presidents can make over a lifetime in lecture fees, book advances and consulting deals, it is hard to imagine the American taxpayer being willing to underwrite emoluments sufficient to compensate for the loss of those opportunities. Moreover, the possibility of chairing blue- ribbon commissions or ceremonially representing the United States abroad hardly seems adequate compensation for giving up the chance to insult or undermine one’s successor, a time-honored American tradition.

So perhaps the question should not be a matter of how to promote or restrict ex-presidents after they have left office—almost inevitably our efforts to create general rules would be contaminated by recent examples—but how to preserve the dignity of the Office of the President itself. After all, institutions rather than people—or as the founders put it, a government of laws, not of men[viii]—are the cornerstone of democracy. Like the designers of the Former Presidents Act, we should focus on incentives for kinds of behavior we wish to discourage in the occupants of the office.

From this vantage point, Musgrave’s proposal that we abolish, or at least substantially reduce, the presidential library and foundation system seems very well-taken; fund-raising to preserve a legacy while still in office (when, presumably, the legacy in question is still under construction) is indeed unseemly, and potentially corrupting—and preserving the papers and artifacts of presidents does seem like a suitable obligation for American taxpayers.

What other provisions might shore up an office that seems to need an infusion of the dignity that, as Musgrave persuasively argues, its founders brought to it naturally? An ex post facto truth commission, while providing sensational grist for American presidential historians, seems unlikely to add gravitas to the office. Since, pace my civics schoolbooks, all American presidents seem to have been human, I am not sure revelation of otherwise hidden peccadillos, mistakes, or shortcomings should be routinized so quickly into our assessment of the choices we have made of people to lead us. Obviously, criminal wrong-doing should be established and revealed when and where it exists, but there seem to be adequate mechanisms in the existing legal arrangements.

It might, however, make sense to establish new thresholds for those who seek the office—a sort of preemptory dignity check. Perhaps all candidates should be required, as opposed to expected, to reveal their tax returns. Perhaps they should be obliged to make public the results of a thorough medical examination by a team of non-partisan physicians. Moreover, with two-earner and multigenerational households becoming the norm, social media proliferating, and wealthy businessmen increasingly “crossing over” into political careers, perhaps additional detail about the terms and conditions of the Office of the President would be worthwhile. The scope of the emoluments clauses could be updated[ix]; the terms and conditions governing use of private email, Twitter, and other social media accounts clarified; the rights and obligations of the president’s immediate family members specified.

After all, the character of our ex-presidents will never be better than the quality of our presidents. Those of us concerned with the roles and responsibilities of ex-presidents should pay attention to our “raw material”—the presidents themselves—as well as to the circumstances in which they might thrive, and we might benefit, when they leave office. And we should keep in mind that it is preservation of the strength and dignity of the office itself that matters most.


[i] Robert, L. Hardesty “With Lyndon Johnson in Texas: A Memoir of the Post-presidential Years,” in Richard Norton Smith and Timothy Walch, Farewell to the Chief: Former Presidents in American Public Life, Worland, Wyoming: High Plains Publishing CO., 1990), 95

[ii] Richard Norton Smith and Timothy Walch, eds. “Introduction,” Farewell to the Chief: Former Presidents in American Public Life, Worland, Wyoming: High Plains Publishing CO., 1990), p. xi

[iii] John Whiteclay Chambers, “Presidents Emeritus,” American Heritage, June/July 1979, 30:4https://www.americanheritage.com/presidents-emeritus/page/6; “Former Presidents: Pensions, Office Allowances, and Other Federal Benefits,” August 22, 2008 – March 16, 2016


[iv] Douglas Brinkley, “Clintons and Carters Don’t Mix,” The New York Times Aug. 28, 1996,

https://www.nytimes.com/1996/08/28/opinion/clintons-and-carters-don-t-mix.html; “Rice criticizes Carter for having met Hamas.” The New York Times, April 22, 2008.https://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/22/world/africa/22iht-mideast.4.12240861.html; Frank Gaffney, Jr, “Presidency: Ex-Presidents Who Don’t Know When to Shut Up,” 2002 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/730

[v] Smith and Walch, 1990, op. cit., xi

[vi] Walch, Timothy, Walch, “Former Presidents in American Public Life: A Guide to Further Reading and Research;” Lewis Gould, Lewis, “’Big Bill’ and ‘Silent Cal:’ William Howard Taft and Calvin Coolidge as Former Presidents;” and McCoy, Donald R. “’Be Yourself:’ Harry S. Truman as a Former President,” in Richard Norton Smith and Timothy Walch, Farewell to the Chief: Former Presidents in American Public Life, op. cit., 16, 56, 191

[vii] Daniel J. Boorstin, “Saving a National Resource: An Address on the Role of Former Presidents in American Public Life; ”and Gerald R. Ford, “Personal Reflections on My Experiences as a Former President, in Smith and Walch op. cit, 143, 149, 173

[viii] C. Bradley Thompson, ed., The Revolutionary Writings of John Adams, “Novanglus; or, A History of the Dispute with America, from Its Origin, in 1754, to the Present Time” (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000)

[ix] “The Emoluments Clauses and the Presidency: Background and Recent Developments,” November 5, 2019


“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.

The Conversation

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.


[1] https://www.cnbc.com/2017/06/28/presidents-arent-allowed-to-drive.html

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, https://www.justsecurity.org/63348/trump-and-the-demise-of-the-presiden….

[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.

The Importance of Presidential Archives to the Citizens of a Republic

I too appreciate the chance to both think about these issues and to engage with those who have far better thoughts! In a post-pandemic time I hope the conversation will continue over some age-appropriate beverages. Discussions of the Ford pardon of Richard Nixon, a text presumably under renewed study in the Trump White House for its preemptive magic, almost demand appropriate liquid refreshment (Billy Beer, anyone? Cutty Sark and soda, in a Styrofoam cup?) For now I’d just reframe the old line about Nixon – just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you – by noting that just because the wisdom is conventional doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Along the lines of strengthening the Presidential Records Act (PRA), I wanted to pass along a relevant recent episode of NPR’s “1A” featuring the National Security Archive’s Tom Blanton. Blanton notes the problem of allowing presidents to serve as judges in their own case when it comes to enforcing the PRA to preserve records. He suggests the National Archives be given the power to “prowl about” the White House, conducting audits of how assiduously sitting presidents are following the PRA’s mandates, as well as giving outside groups clearer standing in bringing court challenges against PRA violations.

I’m not sure I agree that urging earlier and enhanced access to government records is a case of “special pleading” for professional scholars. My work and others’ would surely benefit from unearthing additional documents. And archival work is simultaneously an invaluable and undervalued mode of research in political science. (Far easier to “scrape” the Public Papers of the Presidents than to head to Independence, MO, to read the seventeen drafts that came before the version uttered. But if you don’t go to Independence, you don’t get a Big Biscuit.)

That said, the point is not to serve the members of APSA’s Presidents and Executive Politics section – or even the thousands of journalists, students, and armchair historians who also frequent the National Archives and presidential library system. Rather, it is to establish standards for transparency that enforce accountability. In 1885, Woodrow Wilson wrote of the “informing function of Congress” and the need for that body to “have and use every means of acquainting itself with the act and the disposition of the administrative agents of the government.” If it did not, “the country must…remain in embarrassing, crippling ignorance of the very affairs which it is most important that it should understand and direct.”

The fundamental aim, after all, was not legislative “gotcha” moments but the empowerment of the people – since “the only really self-governing people is that people which discusses and interrogates its administration.” More open access to federal records through a well-funded and impartially run archival system could help us do just that.

Paul Musgrave is correct that my proposals for a free market in “fame” (in the Hamiltonian, even Machiavellian sense) are both more optimistic and more expensive than his more formal institutions. It’s true that I am rather more hopeful than others about the power of posterity to compel present behavior. The good news is that we are talking about a targeted audience here, a (small) population for whom public approbation has long-guided their life decisions – as Richard Ben Cramer’s 1051 pages of collective case study of just the 1988 crop of presidential aspirants helped document. Even the current incumbent’s refusal to let electoral reality overcome fictional fraudulence is presumably grounded in his desire to maintain his public (and thus self-) image. But in the end I can hardly deny there may be need to guide the invisible hand.

Apropos of Cramer, I was glad to see that my thoughts on giving thought to the front end of the process as well as the aftermath were echoed in Lisa Anderson’s post as well. After all, the presidents we pick will become the ex-presidents we endure. I like the idea of the “preemptory dignity check” she suggests – I suspect it can only be administered by newly empowered political parties that benefit from dignity rather than simply from discord. Achieving that might well be the topic of another long conversation.

Toward a More Realistic View of the Presidents

I second Andrew Rudalevige’s suggestion of continuing this conversation in a post-COVID environment, and I have no doubt that the Trump post-presidency, as it unfolds in the coming months, may very well bring into sharper focus some of the points discussed in this forum. Since writing my first contribution, as I have continued to think about this important topic, I keep going back to one particular line from Paul Musgrave’s opening essay: “One way to achieve workable informal sanctions would be to intentionally and systematically reduce the symbolic size of presidents—and especially former presidents—in our political culture.”

In recent weeks, it has been hard to miss the fact that news coverage has been crowded with stories on several presidents. In addition to the expected coverage devoted to President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet picks, we have also watched President Donald Trump refuse to concede the election and continue to push forward with lawsuits challenging the results in several states. News about former presidents has also been prominent. Barack Obama is seemingly everywhere while on his book tour to sell copies of his new memoir, and even Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are making headlines with their promise, along with Obama, to get the COVID-19 vaccine in public to encourage others to do so (Jimmy Carter has also given his full support behind the vaccine effort).

The point here is that presidents, whether past, present, or future, are dominant players within political news coverage. Not only does leaving office not diminish the news value of former presidents, but it continues to showcase the powerful role that media play in shaping all things “presidential” within our political environment. From telling voters which candidates are viable in the earliest days of the pre-nomination period to shaping a president’s legacy once they leave office, the news media in recent decades has helped to elevate presidents and their families to mega-celebrity status (a trend well underway before we elected a former reality television star as president in 2016). Former presidents have star power within our culture, and it feeds into the cult of personality that now dominates presidential politics.

For several years, during conversations with students enrolled in my presidency course, I have found myself advocating for American citizens to bring presidents, both current and former, down from the pedestal on which they have been placed. Hero worship of presidents, no matter from what era of American history or which political party each has represented, does not further good government, and it falls short of the framer’s ideals on the topic of executive leadership (regardless of one’s opinion on how to interpret the U.S. Constitution and the role of the executive).

However, the theoretical views of what makes a good president and the role such a figure can play within the American political, cultural, and social milieu stand in stark contrast from the many flawed individuals (some more than others) who have held the office. Our expectations of presidents—who they are as individuals and what they can accomplish while governing—are too high right from the start. The skills that presidential candidates display, despite our excitement during the campaign, are not necessarily the ones that will help them govern effectively once elected. Transformational leadership may be what voters are seeking, but it is often an unrealistic expectation, and one that certainly does not take into effect the harsh partisan environment that all politicians must navigate. My views on this subject may sound pessimistic, but I hope they are seen as pragmatic, which is the spirit in which they are intended.

The bottom line—a more realistic view of presidents and their role within our constitutional system of government, one that is not driven by media’s obsession with personality and style, would go a long way in reducing the oversized symbolic space that presidential candidates, presidents, and former presidents occupy. If we have three co-equal branches of government, if “we the people” are sovereign, and if we are a nation of laws and not of men, then behaving as if presidents are at the center of the political universe misses the mark for those whose goal is good government.

My musings on this topic, which come at the end of the semester and in the middle of a presidential transition, may pose more questions than answers for the discussion at hand. I do, however, support the idea of the Musgrave “either/or” proposal for former presidents—either take the official government compensation package or pursue post-White House wealth through speeches, books, et cetera. While it may never come to fruition, it seems fair to the American taxpayer and may help to normalize post-presidential norms a bit. I also support the idea of the federal government (presumably NARA) having a more pro-active role in preserving White House documents during a current administration. My own bias as a presidency scholar who relies on archival research notwithstanding, transparency of government and making documents readily available to the public in the post-presidential years (perhaps even sooner than the current timeline allows) is always preferable.

Finally, regarding the 22nd Amendment, there is a strong argument to be made for its repeal though I realize that will probably never happen. I am not the first political scientist, nor will I be the last, to point out that voting can and should be the equivalent of term limits. The lame duck status looms large throughout a president’s second term and can work against effective leadership in many areas. It also forces presidents and their staffs to focus attention on post-presidential matters (like where to locate the library and setting up a foundation) for several years while still in office. A potential third term for some recent presidents may not have been viable and could have worked against the downsizing of presidential symbolism, but keeping the option open might shift a president’s focus away from their legacy in some small way in order to keep them focused more on the task at hand, which is governing within a system dominated by checks and balances and separation of powers.