Measured against the span of a human lifetime, the term of a president of the United States is brief. For four years, maybe eight, he is the most powerful person in the world, helps shape his nation’s destiny, dominates media coverage, and then, regardless of track record, he becomes the subject of multiple biographies.

Yet, as far-sighted as the Founders were, they made no provisions or plans for former presidents. Until recently, there weren’t accommodations for staff, or even a pension for former presidents. This raises a question: After being at the pinnacle of the planet, what should presidents do next? This is the question at the heart of Life After Power, the lively new book by former State Department official Jared Cohen.

Cohen profiles seven former presidents who secured accomplishments after leaving office: Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Grover Cleveland, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush. Jefferson created the University of Virginia. It was, Cohen tells us, the first American university to hire a Jewish professor, the British mathematician J. J. Sylvester, in 1841.

Three of Cohen’s subjects had more government service in them—and it’s telling that all three had lost their bids for reelection. After leaving the White House, John Quincy Adams became a congressman from Massachusetts and an influential voice for the abolition of slavery. Among his contributions, as moviegoers know, was his success in winning the Amistad case in 1841, which returned 34 kidnapped Africans to their home country. And he defeated the “gag rule” by which Southern congressmen prevented discussion of slavery in the House.

Grover Cleveland was the first and as yet only president to win a revenge election, defeating Benjamin Harrison, who had unseated him four years earlier. Unfortunately for Cleveland, he discovered that second terms, even nonconsecutive ones, tend to be more challenging. Perhaps the happiest return to government for an ex-president was by Taft, who had never wanted to be president in the first place. His greatest desire was to be chief justice of the Supreme Court—and he finally attained it, serving in the role from 1921 to 1930.

Another three of Cohen’s subjects left office in bad odor and sought redemption afterwards. Hoover was such a pariah after leaving office that the 1933 hit song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” was, according to Cohen, an allegory about Hoover. Hoover tried his hand at being a Roosevelt critic but did better as an informal adviser to Harry Truman and later Richard Nixon, whom he convinced in 1960 to meet with John F. Kennedy after Nixon’s electoral defeat. 

Cohen’s most recent two presidents are perhaps the most interesting. The conventional wisdom on Jimmy Carter has long been that Carter was a terrible president but one of our best ex-presidents. It’s hard to maintain that view after reading Cohen’s chapter on him. There’s no doubt that Carter was a terrible president; it’s the reputation of his post-presidential life that deserves more scrutiny. The former president seems to have thought he still had a role in public life and often annoyed his successors in the process. Ronald Reagan sent Carter to the funeral of assassinated Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat. According to Carter, he had “never had a better and closer personal friend than Anwar Sadat.” (No wonder Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin felt teamed up on by the two men at Camp David.)

After the funeral, Reagan invited Carter to the White House and Carter rudely attacked Reagan, calling his presidency “an aberration on the political scene.” Still, a gracious Reagan extended an invitation to Carter on other occasions and even went to Atlanta for the opening of the Carter Center. Carter also undermined George H.W. Bush during the Gulf War, undercut Bill Clinton on North Korea, and openly criticized George W. Bush about the Global War on Terror. In almost every case, he wasn’t just complicating things for his successors. He was showing the same poor judgment that had cost him the presidency. There was also an unseemly bitterness, which he was none too shy about sharing. He said letting Reagan become president was his worst mistake, despite the fact that Carter had many far worse mistakes to choose from.

According to Cohen, George W. Bush is the “anti-Carter.” In Cohen’s telling, Bush is consistently charming where Carter was charmless. The American people noticed, and Bush’s approval went from 34 percent upon his departure to 60 percent as a former president. Bush did events with the loquacious Bill Clinton and told him that he, Bush, got paid more for them. Clinton said no, they got paid the same. Bush responded, “Not per word.”

In 2012, Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis told Bush: “You should take up painting. This is what Churchill did when he was out of power.” The cheeky Bush told his wife, Laura, “If Churchill can do it, I can do it.” Bush knew nothing of painting and little of art, but he pursued it with the same discipline that he brought to politics. His first showing of portraits of world leaders was mediocre, but his later showings of wounded warriors and then immigrants demonstrated consistent improvement in both skill and technique.

Cohen’s own eye for detail makes Bush one of his most interesting subjects. He writes that Bush paints in a room he calls “Studio 43,” where he listens to ’70s and ’80s classic rock such as John Fogerty. He is humble and never self-aggrandizing. He described his biggest legacy to Cohen: “I didn’t lie, cheat, or steal…. My girls call me Dad, and my family still loves me.”

As for the future, Bush said, “I don’t plan for decades out. I plan for the next day. The only thing you plan for decades out is where you are going to be buried.” Carter would have benefited from learning from Bush, as would all other former presidents, current and future as well.

Photo: AP Photo/LM Otero

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