U.S. Presidents have different plans after that final exit from the White House. For some, a quiet life of golf and writing memoirs, for others it means speeches and staying in the public eye. The presidential memoir is a lucrative endeavor and also an opportunity to “set the record straight” so to speak.
Each president follows a different path, but nothing can match the world stage and pressure cooker of the job left behind. A few presidents tried for the White House again, several ran for seats in Congress seats and one ended up on the Supreme Court.
Presidents, who do not come from money, find ways to purchase large homes after they leave office. Part of the reason is a enough living space and grounds for Secret Service agents, and to maintain their privacy. This is where negotiating book deals and speaking engagements help fill their bank accounts enough to live in style. Not everyone returns to the frugal, downhome style of Jimmy Carter. Presidential pensions, even with perks, do not stretch very far, especially if a spouse survives a former president.
Aside from monetary opportunities, a former president has a unique position, not exactly a public person and not a private one. Each former president uses their “powers” differently and when they speak, people generally listen. Being a president-emeritus provides a voice, but what each does with it is entirely up to them. Most of the former presidents mentioned below, promoted causes, raised money and used their power to unite as an unofficial ambassador of goodwill. Such actions usually reached across party lines and left behind old battles and scars. Even in retirement, we still expect former presidents to be leaders.
Lyndon Johnson was the first former president that I recall. The White House years aged him and no doubt speeded up his health issues. He spent his later years back in Texas, at his beloved ranch, with Lady Bird and family. Johnson had been in Washington for decades and always sought solace at his ranch.
When he passed away, Johnson had been out of the public eye, and seemed a footnote in history. There is a scene in the documentary about Apollo 11, where Johnson is shown at the launch, sitting in the bleachers like a normal person, not someone who had just been the most powerful individual on Earth.
Had Johnson been healthier, and not worn down by his years in Congress and battles as president, most notably Vietnam, he might have continued to wield his influence along with his persuasive personality in a number of high profile ways.
Richard Nixon, well, he worked at resurrecting his reputation and influencing how he wanted history to remember him. Nixon was the king of rationalization, he could justify his actions and make himself the victim.
Nixon supported himself as an author, and with those David Frost interviews. He was in dire need of money for legal expenses. Foreign policy was his focus and he sought to establish himself as a senior statesman, available for consultation. Nixon was focused on Nixon, and it was a full-time job.
Gerald R. Ford
Gerald Ford really never had a chance. Between taking the hit for pardoning Nixon and dealing with oil shortages and high inflation, it was all over before Ford could clearly establish a beachhead of his own policies. After losing the White House to Jimmy Carter, Ford could have retired and just played golf, but Ford was not done with public life as he steered his energies into government efficiency and public policy efforts.
After flirting with a 1980 run for president, and then a possible place on Ronald Reagan’s ticket, Ford shifted his focus. He did the usual former president stuff with the memoir, library and teaching center, and served on a few boards. He also turned his attention to supporting his wife Betty’s advocacy projects for substance abuse treatment and women’s health issues.
Jimmy Carter is an enigma. One term and out, Carter was a Washington outsider, so he had a challenge to find his place as a former president. He also had to find an honorable way to support himself. Many former presidents found easy, lucrative gigs to cash in after leaving office. Carter was not a man of means, so he became an author. Not only did he publish his memoirs, but he wrote on his faith, his White House dairies, poetry, global affairs and many other subjects. He established The Carter Center, separate from his library and museum, as a learning center focused on human rights and quality of life issues.
Carter has been active in promoting human rights, eradicating diseases, fair elections in other countries and building affordable housing in the United States. He received the Nobel Peace Prize for his peace efforts, and has promoted human rights even by criticizing other presidents. Carter has led a Bible studies class at his church in Plains, GA even into his 90s, in addition to his hands-on work with Habitat for Humanity.
Ronald Reagan’s post White House life was mostly condensed into the five-year time period after leaving office, before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Prior to withdrawing from public view, Reagan was active in giving speeches, both at Republican events, and highly profitable corporate functions, something that would serve as supplemental income for numerous former public officials. Reagan was also busy with his presidential library and memoirs, and spending as much time on his ranch as possible.
More than any recent president, Reagan’s greatest influence may have been after his death. Alignment and jockeying for position with Reaganism has until recently, been the aim of many Republicans. Commentators would count the number of times Reagan’s name was mentioned in a political speech, moving that candidate closer to the finish line.
George H. W. Bush
George Bush did not write his memoirs, though he did co-author a book with Brent Scowcroft on foreign policy. He was not known to sit on corporate boards, although like other high-profile former officials, he had an association with The Carlyle Group, a private equity firm.
Bush had a long career in public service and was quick to interrupt his retirement when he could be of assistance. He development a friendship with Bill Clinton and the two of them led fundraising efforts for victims of Hurricane Katrina and the Sumatra–Andaman earthquake.
Bush was also busy supporting the political campaigns of sons George and Jeb. As a former president, having his son George W. in the White House, may have caused Bush Sr. to be more careful to stay out of the presidential crosshairs and keep a lower profile.
Bill Clinton has been one of the busiest former presidents. Forming the Clinton Foundation to work on humanitarian and global issues, the foundation was been criticized for its fundraising practices. He was named a special envoy to Haiti and joined with Bush senior, to raise money for Haitian earthquake relief.
Clinton has authored several non-fiction and fiction books. Clinton’s pace only slowed to address some health issues. Of course, he has been active in politics and supporting Hillary Clinton’s campaigns. Character issues follow Bill Clinton, but more than any other former president, Clinton can work a room and his skill in connecting with people helps explain his ability to raise money.
George W. Bush
George Bush has maintained a relatively low-key private life, though he has spoken out on a few political events and tragedies. Bush authored his memoirs and several other books including one on his father. Bush has partnered with Clinton and other former presidents to raise money for disaster relief. He has also donated his time to fundraising for wounded veterans and awareness for cervical cancer.
Bush has channeled some of his time into painting. Bush and Michelle Obama have struck up a friendship as they have appeared together funerals and other gatherings of former presidents.
Barack Obama established the Obama Foundation for philanthropic work, and authored several books including part one of his memoirs. He joined with other former presidents to raise money for hurricane relief.
The Obamas partnered with Netflix to produce films, one of them, American Factory, was awarded an Academy Award. Obama and Bruce Springsteen have recently created a podcast where they discuss their backgrounds and visions for America.
Obama was only 54 when he left the White House, so there is much more to be written.
Donald J. Trump
In the almost year since Donald Trump returned to private life, he’s really continued to do what he did in public life: comment of people and events, appear at rallies and play golf. He gives the impression of another White House run, so I doubt he’ll be building houses, serving up Thanksgiving dinners or working to improve world health. Just a guess.