Thursday, May 24, 2007


The recent attention paid to Jimmy Carter's attacks on George W. Bush, to the friendship between George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and the role that Bill may play in Hillary's campaign has had me thinking about ex-presidents.

Bill Clinton is the first ex-president since Teddy Roosevelt to have left office:
(1) relatively popular
(2) under 70
(3) in good mental, emotional and physical health.

George H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter are both elderly men who left the White House against their own wishes, but their post-presidential profiles couldn't be more different -- could you imagine the spouse of a prominent Republican (still active in politics -- Gerald Ford doesn't count) sharing the stage with Carter?

So here's my typology of ex-presidents:

The Rejected Ones: Taft, Hoover, Truman, Nixon, Carter. All were defeated for re-election or exited under fire. As they departed, they were often portrayed as epitome of discredited ideology or party. They also usually had hostile relationships with immediate successors: Hoover & FDR, Truman & Ike, Nixon & Carter, Carter & Reagan. More so than other ex-presidents, they sought to vindicate their time in office. Their rehabilitation succeeded more than a decade after leaving office, and by avoiding contemporary partisan politics. Nixon and Carter became foreign-policy authorities. After being long dismissed as a failed president and anti-New Deal crank. Herbert Hoover regained his stature through his work in post-WWII reconstruction and by chairing two commissions on administrative reform. Taft accomplished his rehabilitation on the Supreme Court. Harry Truman lacked the intellectual capacity or physical vitality to accomplish own rehabilitation, which had to await his death and widespread disatisfaction with less straight-talking presidents such as Nixon.

The Retired Ones: Ford, George H. W. Bush. Exceedingly affable, inoffensive men who lost presidential elections without alienating the American public. Not suffering the opprobrium experienced by, say, Nixon or Carter, both men eased into comfortable, undemanding, lucrative retirements.

The Dejected Ones: Wilson, Coolidge, LBJ. All three men left office physically or mentally unwell, broken by demands of office. (Coolidge suffered from depression after his son died in 1924). Within five years of leaving the White House, all of them were dead.

The Old Ones: Ike, Reagan. Both men left office elderly and popular after living full lives. (Ike was 70, Reagan was 77 when they retired). They experienced comfortable, undemanding ex-presidencies as “elder statesmen.” But their poor health led to quick exits from public life.

The Young Ones: TR, Clinton. Both left office young and popular. (TR was 50, Clinton 54). Both experienced restless, high-profile ex-presidencies and endured tensions with their designated successors. Both sought to return to the White House -- TR through running again himself (as a Progressive in 1912, and as the likely Republican nominee in 1920 if he had lived) -- Clinton through his wife.


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Anonymous said...

Jimmy Carter was 57 when he left office.

Richard Skinner said...

Yes, Carter was under 70. He was also one of our least popular presidents -- his approval rating was scarcely over 30% when he left office.

jjv said...

This is a great grouping and new way of looking at x-presidents.