Commentary Magazine


Topic: ex-presidents

Can Mitt Be Our Favorite Ex-Non-President?

There is no better job in the world than being an ex-president. We build museums and libraries to honor them like ancient Egyptians built pyramids for dead pharaohs and they live on the government tab for the rest of their lives, free to play golf as well as doing good works that burnish their reputations and make occasional side trips into partisan activity to help friends and allies.

There is no worse job than being a failed presidential candidate. While your opponent gets to hear “Hail to the Chief” every time he walks into a room, November’s loser must slink off into obscurity, generally despised even more by members of his own party (who will never forgive their candidate for losing) than even their opponents.

But judging from the latest reports about Mitt Romney’s plans, he sounds as if he’s trying to combine the two jobs. As the Wall Street Journal writes today, Romney’s plans to “rejoin the national dialogue” seem to be based on the idea that he still has the potential to do his country and his party some good. While Republicans desperately need to turn the page from his failed 2012 campaign and put new faces in front of the voters, Romney may be on to something.

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There is no better job in the world than being an ex-president. We build museums and libraries to honor them like ancient Egyptians built pyramids for dead pharaohs and they live on the government tab for the rest of their lives, free to play golf as well as doing good works that burnish their reputations and make occasional side trips into partisan activity to help friends and allies.

There is no worse job than being a failed presidential candidate. While your opponent gets to hear “Hail to the Chief” every time he walks into a room, November’s loser must slink off into obscurity, generally despised even more by members of his own party (who will never forgive their candidate for losing) than even their opponents.

But judging from the latest reports about Mitt Romney’s plans, he sounds as if he’s trying to combine the two jobs. As the Wall Street Journal writes today, Romney’s plans to “rejoin the national dialogue” seem to be based on the idea that he still has the potential to do his country and his party some good. While Republicans desperately need to turn the page from his failed 2012 campaign and put new faces in front of the voters, Romney may be on to something.

According to the Journal:

As a first step, the former Republican presidential nominee plans to welcome 200 friends and supporters to a three-day summit next week that he will host at a Utah mountain resort. He is considering writing a book and a series of opinion pieces, and has plans to campaign for 2014 candidates.

The “Experts and Enthusiasts” summit is apparently more than just a GOP gabfest. It will center on philanthropic and business issues as well as political ones and even includes an appearance from former top Democratic strategist David Axelrod. Which makes it sound like something that we’d expect to be run by a popular ex-president like Bill Clinton, who has helped build his brand by combining advocacy with charity work in his foundation.

The point is Romney doesn’t want to go away and hide, though that is precisely what a lot of conservative Republicans may want him to do. In his characteristic technocratic can-do style, he still wants to help brainstorm solutions to the country’s problems while also keeping his hand in politics and doing good works.

There are good reasons for him to worry about becoming too prominent, and according to the Journal he’s sensitive to those concerns. Romney is a favorite whipping boy of the left and liberal media outlets and there’s little doubt they will take every opportunity to pour on the abuse. The deep bench of GOP presidential prospects for 2016 also provides a variety of views that makes it unnecessary for Romney to become too visible. The party needs to avoid doing anything that makes it seem as if a rejected politician like Romney is its de facto leader. His image as a plutocrat that was reinforced by a year’s worth of Democratic attack ads, gaffes as well as his views on issues like immigration are not the sort of things that can help Republicans win in 2014 or 2016.

But there is plenty of room for Romney to play a role as an elder statesman who is no longer out for his own personal advancement while still seeking to help America. That’s the sort of perch usually reserved for ex-presidents, not mere failed politicians who either return to the political fray in some other guise (like John Kerry or John McCain) or just fade from view other than the occasional television commercial like Bob Dole.

Republicans need a completely different style of candidate in 2016. One more in touch with common concerns—something the remote Romney never could master—as well as someone who isn’t filthy rich would be a good place to start. But there is a place in our national discussion for a figure that can be both a political voice and a wealthy do-gooder with the stature to bring out attention to issues when he deems it vital to do so.

Mitt Romney might have made a good president, but he was a terrible politician, so we’ll never get to know just how well he might have done if he had been given the chance to sit in the Oval Office. But he can skip the four- or eight-year waiting period and jump right into the business of being an ex-president, using his prestige, wealth and ability to speak out to do as much to aid needy causes or highlight issues as the two Bushes or Clinton can while also avoiding the vitriol and ill will toward Israel that has ruined Jimmy Carter’s ex-presidency.

If Mitt sticks with it, he may turn out to be our best and most beloved ex-non-president in history. While it’s not as good as being president, it’s nothing to snicker at either.

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Presidential Pyramids and Democracy

The ceremony opening George W. Bush’s presidential library and museum today in Dallas is the kind of thing that seems to bring out the best in all of current and former leaders. The gracious speeches praising the 43rd president from former presidents Carter and Clinton as well as from President Obama were in the best tradition of patriotism and bipartisanship. The institution they are dedicating today is, by all accounts, a magnificent achievement and will make a genuine contribution to our understanding of his time in office and to American history.

Just as important, the library’s opening seems to herald the beginning of a sea change in public opinion about Bush. He was badly treated by the media and, along with Vice President Cheney, became a piñata for both the chattering classes and popular culture and it may be that this day is the start of a reassessment of his presidency.

Yet there is also something slightly off-putting about the creation of what can only be described as yet another presidential pyramid. If at the beginning of the history of our republic, it was understood our presidents would, like the Roman hero Cincinnatus go home to their plows and resume life as an ordinary citizen of the republic, we now treat former commanders-in-chief as if they were dowager monarchs, each entitled to their own private court. The creation of the presidential library system, which started as an appropriate and necessary method for storing the papers of each administration, has become an excuse for the building of great monuments to each chief executive.

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The ceremony opening George W. Bush’s presidential library and museum today in Dallas is the kind of thing that seems to bring out the best in all of current and former leaders. The gracious speeches praising the 43rd president from former presidents Carter and Clinton as well as from President Obama were in the best tradition of patriotism and bipartisanship. The institution they are dedicating today is, by all accounts, a magnificent achievement and will make a genuine contribution to our understanding of his time in office and to American history.

Just as important, the library’s opening seems to herald the beginning of a sea change in public opinion about Bush. He was badly treated by the media and, along with Vice President Cheney, became a piñata for both the chattering classes and popular culture and it may be that this day is the start of a reassessment of his presidency.

Yet there is also something slightly off-putting about the creation of what can only be described as yet another presidential pyramid. If at the beginning of the history of our republic, it was understood our presidents would, like the Roman hero Cincinnatus go home to their plows and resume life as an ordinary citizen of the republic, we now treat former commanders-in-chief as if they were dowager monarchs, each entitled to their own private court. The creation of the presidential library system, which started as an appropriate and necessary method for storing the papers of each administration, has become an excuse for the building of great monuments to each chief executive.

Like the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, each successive president undertakes the building of their political mausoleums in order to ensure their memory is preserved. Even more importantly, it allows them to begin, as President Clinton noted today at the Bush ceremony, the task of “rewriting history” in order to burnish their reputations.

That there is no going back from this recently acquired tradition is certain. But it is worthwhile at such a moment to ponder just how recently this change went into effect. Prior to the mid-20th century, ex-presidents actually did go back to being ordinary citizens without Secret Service details or staffs paid for by the taxpayers. As Matthew Algeo noted in his 2011 book Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip, it was possible as last as 1953 for an ex-president and his wife to actually jump in their car and drive around the country on their own.

Theodore Roosevelt was the exception to the rule of citizen ex-presidents. His celebrity after leaving the White House—as well as his status as a central figure in our politics until his death ten years later—was, however, unique. But it would be decades before another ex-president would be as big a deal as him.

The creation of what a previous generation called the “imperial presidency” changed not only the way our leaders govern but also the way they were regarded after their terms ended. As the size and power of the federal government grew after the Great Depression and World War II, the presidency grew with it, gradually making it impossible for his predecessors to even think about emulating Truman’s road trip.

Parallel to this was the way their libraries grew from document repositories to vast museums. Where the first presidential libraries were modest affairs, they have now become mammoth institutions that go along with the large lifestyles that are part and parcel of being an ex-president. If, as Bush noted today, Alexander Hamilton feared ex-presidents would be ghosts that would haunt our politics, they are today exalted pensioners more akin to royalty than anything else.

Though they were almost all members of society’s elite in one way or another, this is something the Founders never intended to happen in the republic they created. The notion of a permanent political ruling class of this sort is not just antithetical to democracy in principle but inspires the sort of resentment of politicians that leads to the cynicism with which so many Americans view those involved in public service.

It is a given that these libraries will only get bigger and bigger with each passing president. If the Bush 43 library dwarfs some of the early presidential libraries, one can only imagine the humongous edifice that will be erected to gratify the ego and the hubris of his successor by his adoring followers.

The only possible antidote to this trend is the spirit of humility with which George W. Bush opened his library today. He rightly called it a tribute to the people of the United States more than to those that served them. If we can truly make these libraries temples of democracy rather than merely tributes to the presidents then perhaps we can hold onto some vestige of the founders’ ideas. If, as the saying goes, any American can grow up to be president, then perhaps we can also return to the concept that ex-presidents are just Americans and not retired kings or queens.  

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W’s Self-Imposed GOP Exile

Friday’s announcement that former President George W. Bush would not attend the Republican National Convention came as no surprise to political observers. Less than four years after leaving the White House, the second President Bush remains unpopular and is widely considered a political liability to his party. But the decision is about more than the fact that his presence at the convention might have been considered an unneeded distraction by the Romney campaign even if they would never say so publicly. As much as moving on from Bush is thought to be necessary for a GOP victory this fall, it also reflects a certain distaste for contemporary politics on the part of the former president.

In an interview on National Review Online’s “Uncommon Knowledge” program, Bush said: “I crawled out of the swamp, and I’m not crawling back in.” While his decision to remain aloof from partisanship is praiseworthy in that it shows his respect for the office he held and a belief that interference from past presidents is usually unhelpful, I think Bush’s self-imposed exile isn’t healthy for American political culture.

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Friday’s announcement that former President George W. Bush would not attend the Republican National Convention came as no surprise to political observers. Less than four years after leaving the White House, the second President Bush remains unpopular and is widely considered a political liability to his party. But the decision is about more than the fact that his presence at the convention might have been considered an unneeded distraction by the Romney campaign even if they would never say so publicly. As much as moving on from Bush is thought to be necessary for a GOP victory this fall, it also reflects a certain distaste for contemporary politics on the part of the former president.

In an interview on National Review Online’s “Uncommon Knowledge” program, Bush said: “I crawled out of the swamp, and I’m not crawling back in.” While his decision to remain aloof from partisanship is praiseworthy in that it shows his respect for the office he held and a belief that interference from past presidents is usually unhelpful, I think Bush’s self-imposed exile isn’t healthy for American political culture.

It is true that the last thing Republicans need is to give their opponents a chance to tie Mitt Romney to George W. Bush. Four years after succeeding W, President Obama is still blaming the 43rd president for all of his and the country’s problems. Bush’s second term was a perfect storm of problems that ranged from Hurricane Katrina to the Iraq War and left him politically crippled. It should also be admitted that some of his policies on spending and the expansion of entitlements are deeply unpopular with most Republicans these days.

But the idea that the immediate past president cannot show up at his party’s convention — a distinction he will now share with modern Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon — is unfortunate for Bush, Republicans and the country.

For all of the mistakes made during his eight years in the White House, Bush remained to the end a moral voice who reflected the decency and faith of most Americans. It also bears pointing out that the man who entered the presidency vowing to differentiate himself in every conceivable manner from Bush wound up continuing the policies on fighting terrorism that he decried while campaigning in 2008. All this points to what will be Bush’s inevitable rehabilitation in another generation or two, once the hate-filled invective directed at him fades from memory and his achievements can be viewed through a prism that is not distorted by second-guessing about the invasion of Iraq.

Bush isn’t staying completely quiet. He has authored a serious book about policy and recently visited Africa to follow up on the AIDS initiatives and other efforts to help there that he began in the White House (and for which he has not received a fraction of the credit he deserves).

But he’s wrong if he thinks he has nothing to contribute to the political debates of the day. The idea that ex-presidents should, like the Roman hero Cincinnatus, simply go home and resume life as private citizens is noble, but only to a point. Just as no one believes there is anything wrong with Bill Clinton speaking up about issues, the American people would benefit from W’s perspective. He has good reason to think he is well out of the swamp, but like it or not, that is where the nation is governed and where political ideas must be debated.

It was inevitable that Bush would decline to attend the Tampa convention and will probably remain out of sight during the campaign. He’s right when he says Romney can win without him. But let’s hope this is the last presidential election during which W will think it is the better part of valor to go to ground. We would all be better off if his voice was heard more often in the future.

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