Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House

Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House

by Mark Updegrove

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, "There are no second acts in American lives", but more and more, our former presidents are proving him wrong. No longer fading into the background upon leaving the highest office in the land, ex-presidents perform valuable services as elder statesmen and international emissaries - and by pursuing their own agendas. From Eisenhower


F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, "There are no second acts in American lives", but more and more, our former presidents are proving him wrong. No longer fading into the background upon leaving the highest office in the land, ex-presidents perform valuable services as elder statesmen and international emissaries - and by pursuing their own agendas. From Eisenhower taking Kennedy to the woodshed (literally) on the Bay of Pigs crisis, to Carter earning the Nobel Peace Prize, to Bush Sr. and Clinton joining forces in an unlikely partnership for tsunami and Hurricane Katrina relief, the author examines the increasingly important roles that former presidents assume in our nation and throughout the world. Through interviews with former presidents, first ladies, family members, friends, and staffers, the author also delves into the very human stories that play out as the modern ex-presidents - from Truman to Clinton - adjust to life after the White House and attempt to shape their historical legacies. In this, the first narrative history of the modern post-presidency, Mark K. Updegrove makes a refreshingly unique contribution to literature on the American presidents.

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Ex-presidents from Truman to Clinton: how they coped and carried on, and where they stand today. Updegrove, a former publisher of Newsweek and president of Time Canada, credits late Time White House correspondent Hugh Sidey for guidance on framing his study of former U.S. presidents in the postwar era. His introduction effectively instills the historical mood: Initially, a national leader's stepping aside voluntarily in the bloom of health was an unnatural act, simply without precedent or rules, until George Washington set the general hands-off tone for White House retirees. Not long after, however, the once-ineffective John Quincy Adams was essentially drafted back to Washington by congressional voters in his Massachusetts district, served nine successive terms and was an abolitionist force at the time of his death, in 1848. In Quincy Adams, the author sources the thread of "second act" redemption that resonates with the likes of the disgraced Richard Nixon, the undistinguished (in office) Jimmy Carter and even Bill Clinton, who despite leaving with the highest performance rating (65%, besting Ronald Reagan's 64%) of any postwar president, felt and showed he had a lot of explaining to do. Both Carter, the only ex-president to have been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, and Nixon, Updegrove observes, "Were able to successfully pursue foreign-policy goals left unfinished." But there is poignancy as well, for example, in LBJ's dissipative relapse with cigarettes and booze that contributed to his death at 64-exactly when a computer model had predicted he would die based on family health history; or in Nancy Reagan's dashed hopes for an Edmund Morris biography that ultimately portrayed herthen-failing husband not as a Mt. Rushmore figure but the familiar yet enigmatic "Dutch." In one priceless vignette, Harry Truman, harried by Bess to mow the lawn, intentionally does it on Sunday morning, to her deep chagrin as passing churchgoers take reproving notice. No bombshells, but revealing in detail and context.

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Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
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From the Introduction... After arriving back in his native Independence, Missouri, upon leaving the White House, Truman was asked by a member of the press what he was going to do first. Truman replied humbly, “Take the grips up to the attic,”[R1] a remark that set the tone for the modest post-presidential chapter he had begun. There is little doubt that what came after he stowed his bags securely away was as uncertain to him as it was to anyone wondering what a man does after descending from the pinnacle of power. But the evolution of the post-presidency since Truman left office over a half a century ago has been as dramatic as America’s rise in the world. In contrast to their predecessors, “formers” since Truman’s day are living longer, doing more, and in a position to wield greater influence on U.S. policy, effect change in the U.S. and abroad, accumulate wealth, and shape their legacies. In effect, the post-White House years have become a new phase of presidential privilege. The stories of Presidents Truman through Clinton in their post-presidential years are revealing not only of the character of those men, but of the growing importance and influence of ex-presidents in the U.S. and abroad in an increasingly small world. Indeed, since the middle of the last century, the magnitude of the post-presidency has grown in tandem with the presidency itself.Like the American population at large, former presidents are leading longer, healthier lives and remaining active in their “retirement” years. Before Truman, the longevity of a president out of office averaged 11 years. From Truman to Clinton, the average has increased to 15 and counting, with four formers still alive. Gerald Ford, active into his nineties, could easily break Herbert Hoover’s record of living the longest – 31 years — after his term in office. Jimmy Carter, 81 and still swinging hammers for Habitat for Humanity, could outdistance Hoover and Ford, and Bill Clinton, at 59, threatens to overtake them all. Prior to Ronald Reagan’s passing at 93, there were as many former presidents living as when Lincoln took office in March 1961 and, for just under a year, a record five ex-presidents were alive – Martin Van Buren, Jon Tyler, Franklin Peirce, Millard Filmore, and James Buchanan — following a long string of single-term presidencies. Just days into his second term in office, Richard Nixon became the only living president after the passing of Lyndon Johnson. Before Nixon’s death in 1994, he was one of five former presidents who consecutively preceded the incumbent, Bill Clinton. In the past quarter century, ex-presidents have been used collectively to lend symbolism to significant occasions or causes. In 1981, Nixon, Ford and Carter represented the U.S. at the state funeral of the assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, when the climate in Egypt was deemed “too dangerous” for President Ronald Reagan or Vice President George Bush to attend. Sending a delegation Secretary of State Alexander Haig called “the presidential hat trick” prevented a major breech of protocol on the part of the U.S. as the world’s reigning leaders descended on Cairo for the proceedings. Ford, Carter and Bush stood shoulder to shoulder with President Clinton at the White House in 1994, to show their support of the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement, forming a united presidential front. More recently, in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001, they reunited with former president Clinton and President George W. Bush in Washington, for the memorial service at Washington’s National Cathedral, symbols of American endurance and continuity. In 2005, after a tragic Tsunami swept over coastal areas of Southeast Asia, leaving untold thousands victimized in it path, Bush dispatched his father and Clinton on a fundraising and humanitarian mission as a sign of America’s generosity and compassion, and tapped them once again to generate relief for the victims of Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans and other parts of the deep South. Those gatherings and others, including reunions around presidential library openings and funerals, have brought the fraternity of presidents closer than ever — and the bonds they share as members of “the world’s most exclusive trade union” have led to unlikely friendships. Overcoming the election of 1976 in which they were bitter rivals, Ford and Carter have formed not only an intimate friendship, which Carter has described as “almost like brothers,” but on occasion, an effective bi-partisan alliance. (JC MKU) Through the years they have co-chaired conferences at each other’s libraries, monitored the 1989 national election in Panama, and offered joint statements advocating, among other things, free trade, Israel’s recognition of the Palestinian leadership, and a congressional censure of Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal in lieu of impeachment. Bush and Clinton, who squared off as opponents in the 1992 election, have also become close, traveling the world together in the name of Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina relief and for the funeral of Pope John Paul II like a mismatched pair in a buddy movie. The friendship was manifest in Bush’s invitation to Clinton to visit his family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, in the summer of 2005 for a summer weekend of golf and power boating. While formers relinquish power, they have always retained influence. In the past, the influence of an ex-president – unless he went back into public service like John Quincy Adams or Taft — came primarily in the form of playing the role of elder statesman, acting as counselor, mediator or ambassador for those in power or seeking it. James Polk was greatly influenced by the aging Andrew Johnson in his handling of the Mexican War, and in America’s standoff with England over the Oregon Territory. When John Kennedy dealt with the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs fiasco early in his term, he turned to his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, for advice. The oldest president to be elected to office to that point and the youngest met at Camp David, as Ike publicly supported his successor and privately took him to task for his mistakes in the matter, counseling him on how to go forward. Until recent years, the ability of a former president to make a direct impact on the nation and the world was largely contingent on his relationship with the incumbent president. Before Truman tapped Hoover to help feed Western Europe after World War II, Franklin Roosevelt’s advisors suggested that he call Hoover into service in anticipation of the war’s end. FDR’s reply, “I am not Jesus Christ, I do not wake the dead,” all but assured that Hoover would remain on the sidelines despite his desperate desire to make a contribution. Truman’s magnanimous gesture in bringing Hoover back into service effectively resurrected him. Like Hoover, Truman would have liked to avail himself to those in power after leaving office, but an acrimonious relationship his own successor, Eisenhower, meant that his role would be limited largely to that of partisan critic.Today formers are still called upon by the sitting president and others in power to play the traditional role of elder statesman, but they now often have their own agendas and aggressively pursue them independent of those in power. With the advent of globalization in a world dominated by the U.S., the opportunity for formers to make their marks has increased significantly. Ex-presidents are international celebrities, sought out in all parts of the world, where they can readily have an effect on policy by acting as American ambassadors, emissaries and conduits to the current U.S. administration — or by pursuing their own agendas. Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter are not the first ex-presidents to actively seek to influence American foreign policy based on their own deeply formed views. Theodore Roosevelt harangued Woodrow Wilson for his reluctance to get the U.S. involved in the First World War, and was able to hold sway largely because of his enormous popularity and credibility — neither of which Nixon or Carter had in abundance after their presidencies. But by drawing on the relationships they established with foreign leaders while in office or by virtue of their status as former presidents, both Nixon and Carter were able to successfully pursue foreign policy goals left unfinished when they were driven from office. Nixon traveled throughout the world meeting with heads of state and other leaders, shooting off memos to the State Department, writing books on foreign policy, and sharing his perspectives on world affairs with the media. Despite his tarnished image when he left office, he became a respected, sought-after foreign policy advisor to Ronald Reagan and George Bush, and even formed a surprising alliance with Bill Clinton. Ultimately, through his activist agenda to improve America’s position in the world, he was rehabilitated in the public’s eye. Carter has actively practiced “track-two diplomacy,” establishing and maintaining dialogues with high-level contacts in foreign governments decidedly outside formal “track-one” diplomatic channels. (TUP 90) Though he has often worked at odds with incumbent administrations to push his own agenda, Carter has nonetheless been called upon by the White House to intercede on its behalf on several occasions due to the influence he holds. In 1994, when leadership of a military dictatorship in Haiti refused to cede power to its first democratically elected president, the exiled Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Carter, worked out an agreement with the leaders to step down. Though Clinton was wary of involving the freelancing Carter, he bit his lip and allowed him to broker a settlement as a last resort to avert military action. Carter’s self-appointed role as a world peacemaker has prompted criticism from those who see him as a reckless would-be secretary of state — and has helped earn him a Nobel Peace Prize, making him only the third U.S. president to be so honored along with Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and the first to win it as a former president. Globalization and the America’s position as the world’s lone superpower make it easier for former presidents to make their mark on foreign policy than it would have been for say, Grover Cleveland or Calvin Coolidge.George H.W. Bush is, of course, a direct link to the incumbent president and his influence is indisputable. While he has claimed that he keeps himself at arm’s length with his son on matters of state, he is most certainly his most trusted advisor and knows that as the patriarch of the “Bush Dynasty,” the legacies of Bush “41” and Bush “43” are intertwined. Clinton has used Carter’s activist post-presidency as a model for his own and has ambitious aims, in partnership with Nelson Mandela, to relieve sub-Saharan Africa of the AIDS epidemic that has gone largely unchecked in the region. His relative youth, popularity, ambition and political ties make it likely that he will have ample time and opportunity to leave a deep impression in his post-White House years. In the wake of Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush, Clinton continued to be an asset to the Democratic Party, helping define its principals at a time when it was in a state of ideological disarray. Like his friend the elder Bush, he has a chance to extend his legacy through a member of his family as his wife, New York Senator Hillary Clinton, emerges as a presidential frontrunner, aided by her husband and the family brand name. Mrs. Clinton is not the only former first lady to make her mark after leaving the White House. Like their husbands, former first ladies have also successfully used their prominent positions to bring attention to causes and issues. Betty Ford, in dealing candidly with her own struggles with addiction to pain medication and alcohol, has raised awareness about addiction while lessening its stigma. The Betty Ford Center, in Rancho Mirage, California, which she co-founded and served as chairman, has treated almost 70,000 patients for drug and alcohol dependence since she cut its ribbon in 1982. (Parade 6/10/05 12, 14 (66.000)) Rosalynn Carter has been a full partner to her husband in his efforts through The Carter Center and has become an acknowledged expert in issues relating to mental health, an area she has championed since 1971 when she began as first lady of Georgia. And Nancy Reagan has been a powerful advocate for the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, which offers the prospect of a cure for a number of deadly diseases including Alzheimer’s, the illness that tragically afflicted her husband.Another aspect of the post-presidency that has changed markedly since the days when Jefferson and Grant worried about mounting debt in their retirement, is the ability for former presidents to make money after their time in the Oval Office. In 1958, Congress enacted a law that, for the first time, provided a pension and other entitlements for outgoing presidents. After Truman left office in 1953, his only income was a World War I veteran’s pension of $110 a month. The government offered no financial assistance for his transition, no administrative aides, no office space, and no Secret Service protection. The financial well being of Truman and his predecessors was primarily a function of their means prior to running for public office. Now ex-presidents are well taken care of through congressional provisions that have escalated disproportionately through the years. But given the abundant opportunities they have to make money after their presidencies, those emoluments are a mere pittance. In fact, the current crop of ex-presidents has aroused criticism for their willingness to trade in on their years in office for ready cash. The “anything goes” behavior of several recent former presidents stands in contrast to their deceased predecessors, the bulk of whom simply didn’t have the opportunity to use the office to make money or consciously chose not to commercialize the presidency. Truman even refused to use expensive brand name pens at book signings because it could be construed as his endorsement of the company. The writing of White House memoirs, autobiographies and other literary endeaors has been a long accepted form of making money from the presidency. Every former president since Hoover, and many who went before him, have drawn substantial paychecks for presidential tomes. Truman, Nixon and Carter, like U.S. Grant, all used book contracts to stave off debt. The sums they earned however, pale in comparison to the reported $12 million Clinton recently earned for penning his memoir. In addition, Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford all struck lucrative TV deals to tell their stories through another medium.Likewise, the practice of giving speeches in exchange for hefty honoraria is nothing new – in addition to making money from his prolific efforts as an author, Theodore Roosevelt commanded handsome sums for his speaking engagements — but now opportunities to generate income at home and abroad abound. There is no shortage of offers from U.S. and foreign corporations willing to pay big money to have an ex-president behind their podium. Ford became a regular on the lucrative “mash potato circuit,” making $15,000 to $50,000 per engagement, followed by Reagan, who pulled down a whopping $2 million for an eight-day trip to Japan sponsored by a Tokyo-based communications company that required only a few appearances, speeches and interviews. Supplementing his huge literary payday, Clinton has made up for a career of collecting paltry checks as a public servant by raking in six-figure speaking fees for appearances that require no more than a few hours of his time. Additionally, Ford unapologetically sat on well over a dozen corporate boards, including American Express and Twentieth Century Fox, claiming it was his right as a private citizen. Since Ford’s departure from the White House, cashing in on the presidency has become standard practice for ex-presidents, allowing them to amass considerable wealth and live far less modestly than many of their predecessors.The eponymous presidential libraries and museums for every president since Hoover allow modern presidents to play an active role in shaping their own legacies. Maintained by the National Archives under the provisions of the Presidential Libraries Act, they give former presidents a lens through which they would like history, and current and future generations, to view them and their accomplishments. The only catch is that the former presidents themselves, through the foundations they establish, are on the hook to raise the necessary funds needed to build the institutions, a burden that Ford confided to Carter was “the most difficult task” of his life. (JC MKU) Truman built most of his post-presidential life around his library in Independence, going there almost every day he was in town to tend to his correspondence, lead tours and lecture visiting high school students on the office he once proudly held. Plans for Carter’s library led to The Carter Center, which, in partnership with Emory University, is “committed to advancing human rights and alleviating unnecessary human suffering.” (TCC lit 3/04) Among the center’s remarkable accomplishments are the monitoring of over 50 democratic elections worldwide, and the eradication of River Blindness and the Giunnea Worm, diseases that afflicted impoverished parts of Africa, Asia and South America.More importantly, the deeds of an ex-president provide an opportunity to burnish their most important contributions in the presidency. Nixon’s tireless efforts to influence American policy abroad helped in dimming Watergate and spotlighting foreign policy as the focal point of his presidential tenure. And, if not for his active post-presidency, Carter would likely be remembered simply as a failed one-term president. His contributions as a humanitarian and peacemaker in his post-presidency, most of which have been made through auspices of The Carter Center, are an important addendum to his legacy and give his presidency greater legitimacy. As it stands, he may be the first president since John Quincy Adams – or perhaps William Howard Taft — to be of greater historical significance as a former president than for his tenure in the White House. Should Clinton’s activities as an ex-president resonate, they may help lessen the stain of impeachment and scandal that currently blight his presidential record.With all that is available to and possible for a former president, the notion of retreating quietly and uneventfully into retirement seems as foreign today as that of living succession might have been to Henry VIII. One wonders what Washington would think of Carter’s global peacekeeping agenda, occasionally in opposition to the White House, or of Nixon’s tenacious attempts to affect U.S. foreign policy. How would he react to the six figure speaking fees former chief executives earn for an hour or so behind a podium, or to the score of corporate board appointments accepted by Ford? And,[R2] what would he make of Clinton’s confessionary memoir and the $12 million he earned to pen it? Would he pass judgment on the interloping, avarice and lack of dignity of his latter day successors, or would he accept these things as part of the evolution of the post-presidency in relation to America and the world? A natural leader among men, Washington would probably have sympathized with their transitions back to private life, despite his own ostensible eagerness to leave politics for the “more rational pursuits of cultivating the earth.” (RNS X) [R3] It may have been easier for him. He, like few others, left the presidency on his own terms. A third term could have been his for the asking, and he had largely achieved the things he set out to do as president. Some weren’t so lucky. Ford, Carter and Bush left office dejectedly after hard fought elections to remain in power. Nixon was compelled to resign the presidency in the face of scandal, and Johnson opted against running for a second full term rather than risk almost certain defeat. All left the White House with unfinished agendas and faced the prospect of an unwelcome life. While it may have been easier for Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton, who left knowingly in accordance with the 22nd Amendment, giving up the most powerful position in the world was not without its challenges. Post-presidential lives are still, as in Truman’s day, rife with uncertainty – though they hold more promise and potential than ever before.In one of the 19 letters Jefferson sent in his winter years to Adams in far-off Quincy, the Sage of Monticello wrote, “I believe in the dreams of the future more than the history of the past.” Almost two hundred years later, despite the uncertainty he faces, a former president more than ever before has the opportunity to shape the future – his own and that of America and other countries — and, in so doing, enhance his legacy in the eyes of history. There are indeed second acts in American lives. [R1]I’m not sure I know what grips means here? Does it need an explanation—or am I just too young?[R2]I like to avoid commas after conjunctions (and, or, but).[R3]Just make sure to go through and fill in the “x”s. Also, you’ll want to convert the parenthetical notes to end notes. (House style avoids the parenthetical style…they look too much like a term paper, is one reason, I think.)

Meet the Author

Author Mark K. Updegrove was born outside of Philadelphia in 1961. He attended high school in Newtown, PA and received a BA in Economics from the University of Maryland. Updegrove started his career as a marketing associate for the Book of the Month Club in New York. From there he began working for Time, Inc where he worked for twelve years, the last ten of which were spent at TIME magazine.During his tenure at Time, Inc., Updegrove served as the Los Angeles manager of TIME magazine, and president of TIME Canada. While at TIME, Updegrove conceived “TIME and the Presidency,” a traveling exhibit consisting of photographs of all the U.S. presidents from FDR to Clinton, as well as reflections on each of the men by TIME’s legendary senior editor, Hugh Sidey. The exhibit was featured at a number of the presidential libraries and included opening night events with Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, and James Baker. Updegrove also has had the pleasure of hosting dinners for Mikhail and Riasa Gorbachev, on the occasion of Gorbachev’s 68th birthday; Gerald Ford, celebrating the 23rd anniversary of his inauguration as president; and Ronald Reagan, celebrating the 19th anniversary of his election as president. In 2001 Updegrove accepted the position of publisher at Newsweek in New York, where he remained until 2002. He currently is an executive at Yahoo! based in Toronto. Updegrove married his wife, Evelyn, in 1993 and they have two children, Charlie and Sallie. They currently live in Rye, NY and plan to move to Toronto this summer.

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