Citizen-in-Chief: The Second Lives of the American Presidents


Despite their colossal achievements as founding fathers, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all ended their lives impoverished and in debt.

Ulysses S. Grant saved his family from a life of penury by finishing his bestselling memoirs on the very eve of his death.

Having failed to address HIV-AIDS effectively as president, Bill Clinton directed groundbreaking efforts after leaving office to make life-saving AIDS ...

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Citizen-in-Chief: The Second Lives of the American Presidents

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Despite their colossal achievements as founding fathers, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all ended their lives impoverished and in debt.

Ulysses S. Grant saved his family from a life of penury by finishing his bestselling memoirs on the very eve of his death.

Having failed to address HIV-AIDS effectively as president, Bill Clinton directed groundbreaking efforts after leaving office to make life-saving AIDS drugs affordable.

In Citizen-in-Chief, Leonard Benardo and Jennifer Weiss examine the dramatic, little-known, sometimes inspiring, and often heartrending post-presidential lives of former Oval Office occupants. From the high-profile humanitarianism of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to the quiet achievements of Rutherford B. Hayes and Herbert Hoover, Citizen-in-Chief reveals that the true stories of great leaders are rarely complete once they leave the White House.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Eight presidents died in office, leaving 34 whose subsequent careers make up this remarkably revealing history. Journalists Benardo and Weiss (coauthors of Brooklyn by Name) point out that America's founders believed pensions smacked of royal privilege, so ex-presidents were on their own. Some have handled the transition more gracefully than others. The invariably sensible George Washington remained solvent, while Jefferson, Madison and Monroe accumulated mountains of debt and died penniless. After the Civil War, entering business became acceptable, but in Grant's case, poor judgment led to disaster. Only when Truman, uninterested in exploiting his name, moved in with his mother-in-law did Congress vote pensions in 1958. Soon after, riches awaited those willing to speak and write memoirs. The authors dub John Quincy Adams and Jimmy Carter our leading postpresidents. Adams served 17 years in the House, a leading antislavery advocate. Carter's diplomatic and humanitarian activities won him a 2002 Nobel Prize. Even without a formal post, say the authors, "just a handful of former presidents have withdrawn into anonymity," and this well-researched, opinionated account does a fine job of filling a surprisingly empty historical niche. (Feb. 10)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

George W. Bush should find some consolation in this book, since one lesson it teaches is that no matter how unpopular a President was when he left office, he found a way to rehabilitate his image and recover at least some of his popularity. Benardo and Weiss (Brooklyn by Name) explore the post-presidential lives of all former presidents through Bill Clinton and give the reader plenty of well-documented information along the way. The opening segment, "Getting Solvent," shows how former presidents made their livings before Congress authorized a pension for them in 1958, while "War, Conflict and the Ex-Presidency" shows the complications ex-Presidents have caused their successors during times of international crisis. For example, John Tyler went on to serve in the Confederate Congress during the Civil War, and Herbert Hoover preached isolationism until Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. In "On the Road Again" and "Return to Politics," the authors describe how a number of former Presidents continued to be active in government and politics after they left the White House. In the final section, "The Greater Good," former Presidents' philanthropic and diplomatic endeavors are detailed, especially those of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. The authors offer critical analysis where appropriate, and they relate many entertaining personal anecdotes. Recommended for public and academic libraries.
—Jill Ortner

Kirkus Reviews
Lively yet overly detailed chronicle of the different paths various presidents have taken once they left the White House. New York Times contributors Benardo and Weiss (co-authors: Brooklyn by Name, 2006) describe how different chief executives found ways to serve their country-and bank accounts-after their tenure in the nation's top job. Timed to coincide with the addition of George W. Bush to the Former Presidents' Club, the book's narrative style makes it appealing to both general readers and history geeks. While some stories of recent vintage are well known, such as Jimmy Carter's humanitarian efforts and election monitoring or Bill Clinton's foundation and lucrative speaking career, the authors shed much light on earlier presidents. They deal at great length with Herbert Hoover's work as chairman of a commission on government reorganization and John Quincy Adams's efforts as an abolitionist congressman and defender of the enslaved Africans who mutinied on the Amistad. Benardo and Weiss rarely break new ground, but they admirably synthesize information from disparate sources. Extensively discussing Clinton's outspoken and sometimes controversial efforts on behalf of his wife during the 2008 Democratic primaries, they clearly think that his actions besmirched the prestige of the presidency. The authors also spend a great deal of time discussing the history and workings of presidential libraries. These efforts by presidents to help shape their legacies have evolved into elaborate public-private ventures. Benardo and Weiss argue that there should be more rigorous scholarship when administering the libraries and more disclosure about donors. "Transparency in such library contributionswould help citizens assess whether corporate donations or sovereign governments' gifts influence a president's policies," they write. "A detailed federal budget exists for what taxpayers are providing to presidential libraries across America. Why not demand the same for private contributions?"Readable approach to a significant aspect of presidential history that doesn't always receive the treatment it deserves.
Strobe Talbott
“A lively, insightful, and illuminating examination of an underexamined yet influential American institution: the postpresidency. Benardo and Weiss show how our chief executives’ ‘second lives’ are as diverse—and as rich in uplifting tales and cautionary ones—as their time at the pinnacle of power.”
Richard Cohen
“The afterlife of a president, a dimming of the spotlight and a final chance at buffing the reputation, can sometimes be more interesting than the presidency itself—at least it is in this engrossing book. Benardo and Weiss tell a fascinating tale.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781616835316
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/10/2009
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Leonard Benardo and Jennifer Weiss are husband and wife and the coauthors of Brooklyn by Name. Their writing has been published in The New York Review of Books, New York Times, Washington Post, International Herald Tribune, and elsewhere. They live in Brooklyn, New York, with their son and daughter.

Leonard Benardo and Jennifer Weiss are husband and wife and the coauthors of Brooklyn by Name. Their writing has been published in The New York Review of Books, New York Times, Washington Post, International Herald Tribune, and elsewhere. They live in Brooklyn, New York, with their son and daughter.

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Read an Excerpt

The Second Lives of the American Presidents

Chapter One

Getting Solvent

The Financial Journey of Past Presidents

It is a national disgrace that our Presidents . . . should be cast adrift, and perhaps be compelled to keep a corner grocery for subsistence. . . . We elect a man to the Presidency, expect him to be honest, to give up a lucrative profession, perhaps, and after we [are] done with him we let him go into seclusion and perhaps poverty.
Millard Fillmore

I never had a nickel to my name until I got out of the White House, and now I'm a millionaire, the most favored person for the Washington Republicans. I get a tax cut every year, no matter what our needs are.
Bill Clinton

[Gerald Ford] has become the presidential equivalent of Joe Louis, who ended his days as a greeter for a Las Vegas hotel.
Richard Cohen, The Washington Post . . . . . .

Returning by train on his own dime and moving into his mother-in-law's house, Harry Truman found his January 1953 exit from the White House a sobering experience. With no Air Force One to guarantee a soft landing, no million-dollar transition fund to help him segue into private life, no plush office awaiting administrative staff, the former president confronted a subdued and humbling homecoming.

Nearly half a century later, Bill Clinton's departure could not have been more different. Forsaking Little Rock and removing to New York, Clinton left office blessed with a rich array of perks and a wide-open opportunity to capitalize on his fame. Waiting in the wings were a host of record-setting bookdeals for him and his wife, unprecedented speaking fees (over $9 million his first year alone), and an eight-thousand-square-foot office space in Harlem that would become headquarters for his worldwide fund-raising operations. The ex-presidency, once a burden to bear, now had the marks of la dolce vita.

Compensation for presidents and ex-presidents alike has long been a contested question. The opening salvo in the debate occurred during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when Benjamin Franklin proposed that a president receive no recompense whatsoever. Franklin wanted to diminish what he believed was human nature's overriding passion: avarice. Two stays in England before the Revolution convinced him that corruption was inherent to English political life, and helped seed his "Utopian Idea" of a nonsalaried chief magistrate in America. "That we can never find men to serve us in the Executive department, without paying them well for their services," he declared, was a false premise and one that risked creating institutional birth defects.

Franklin's advice went unheeded. The convention decided to grant the commander-in-chief a twenty-five-thousand-dollar salary and a rent-free mansion. Yet what appeared to be a generous offer was not generous enough. Although Congress occasionally allocated separate funds, presidents were generally expected to use their personal income to finance the standard accoutrements of White House life—public receptions, banquets, furnishings, and staff. Many ended up saving nothing during their tenure, and most left the office deep in debt. Thomas Jefferson found himself eight thousand dollars in the hole simply from the invoices accrued during his final year in power.

Compounding the pain of debt, once out of power most presidents were loath to engage in the kinds of commercial pursuits that might have restored them financially. Republican ideas of virtue, nurtured and fostered by the Founding Fathers, held that commerce was a stain on the reputation of the presidency and something to be shunned. For decades, most departing presidents felt compelled to uphold an informal obligation to refrain from exploiting the symbolic power of their former position.

Not until after the Civil War were the financial restraints on former presidents finally adjusted. The new capitalist ethic altered the playing field: generating income from commercial transactions was no longer perceived as antithetical to the country's value system. The ruthless accessories of capitalism's forward march—graft, acquisitiveness, and inequality—benefited the ex-presidential class. According to historian Henry Graff, "Puritan America was trying to find moral justification for the relatively easier accumulation of money," and singled out robber barons, corrupt bosses, and rapacious industrialists as villainous exceptions to the rule. For the rest of America, there was no shame in turning a legitimate business profit—and former presidents were hardly blamed for pursuing a decent living after leaving office, whether in law, business, writing, or speaking for pay.

Surpluses and Deficits of the Virginia Founders

In the beginning, George Washington acknowledged his kismet. The only one of the early Virginia presidents not to be enveloped by the tyranny of arrears, Washington wrote in 1799 that "Were it not for occasional supplies of money in payment for lands sold within the last four or five years to the amount of upwards of $50,000," he too would have been mired "in debt and difficulties."

Washington's good fortune was a product of diligence and foresight. Having acquired his first piece of land in western Virginia's Shenandoah Valley before turning twenty, and educated himself on Pennsylvania investments during the French and Indian War, Washington was seasoned in the burgeoning business of land speculation. (He also bore witness to the regrettable circumstances of others who gambled poorly and landed in debtors' prison—friends like Henry Lee and Robert Morris, the latter who, before meeting such a fate, had been celebrated as the "Financier of the Revolution.")

Out of office, Washington ventured conservatively and forswore borrowing on assets purchased with loans, pledging "never [to] undertake anything without perceiving a door to the accomplishment in a reasonable amount of time with my own resources." His prudence paid off. Moreover, Washington was rarely beset by the challenge of managing distant lands; there was never a shortage of people eager to assist the retired general-president in administering his real estate. Reluctant to use his position for financial gain when in power, once out of office he became "shameless, asking government officials and private individuals to assess the value of tracts, see to surveying and improvements, advise him as to the reliability of respective buyers, [and] collect sums due to him."

The Second Lives of the American Presidents
. Copyright © by Leonard Benardo. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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  • Posted May 30, 2009

    American History that we Missed

    This book is a very easy read that should be required for everyone who thinks our Presidents have a easy job....does a good job of revealing what happens once they leave office, and the challenges they faced. You end up understanding that a President has a formiable job of returning to normal society and life after the time served. This book presents information that makes you have new impressions of our past Presidents.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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