Ex-Presidents Form an Exclusive Club; Nation's Former Leaders Use Experience, Prestige to Push Issues Dear to Their Hearts

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON * In the first 200 years of the republic, just three presidents survived more than two decades after leaving office: John Adams, Martin Van Buren and Herbert Hoover. The odds for ex- presidents have improved considerably since then.

Jimmy Carter, who raised the bar for active post-presidential years, is 88 now, and 32 years out of office. No one has survived longer after leaving the White House. George Bush, 89, passed the two-decade mark this year. The two most recent former presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, are going strong. Gerald Ford lived nearly 30 years after leaving office.

There's a lot happening in the ex-presidents club these days thanks to increasing longevity, the personalities of the current members and expanding opportunities for influence.

After a relatively quiet start to his post-presidency, George W. Bush in recent weeks has made headlines by speaking out for immigration reform and popping up in Africa at a wreath-laying with President Barack Obama to remember victims of terrorism. Clinton, with his philanthropic work and a wife who's a potential presidential candidate, is never far from the news.

The elder Bush, although frail, was at the White House last week (in jaunty red-and-white striped socks) for a ceremony promoting the volunteerism program he started as president. And Carter, noted for his years of globe-trotting work to advance human rights, spoke out last week against "legal bribery of candidates" at home in the form of unchecked political contributions by outside groups.

Is all this activity the new model for ex-presidents? It turns out they've got plenty of examples to draw on from earlier centuries.

"There's a whole class of people who leave the White House and continue to take a hyperactive role in American life," says presidential historian Douglas Brinkley of Rice University. He points to Andrew Johnson, who was elected to the Senate after a presidency that included impeachment; William Howard Taft, who became a Supreme Court justice; John Quincy Adams, who was an outspoken opponent of slavery as a member of the House; Theodore Roosevelt, who created the Bull Moose Party and tried to regain the presidency, and many more.

"There is no rule of thumb," says Brinkley. "Each man is just different."

For all their differences, though, recent chief executives have tended to start their post-presidential years relatively quietly, taking time to regroup, to heal in some cases, and give the new guy space to operate. They focus on raising money for their presidential libraries and centers. They write memoirs. Their poll numbers improve as time passes and memories of hard-fought presidential battles soften.

Call that phase one.

The younger Bush, whose presidential center in Dallas was dedicated in April and whose 2010 memoir, "Decision Points," was a best-seller, has seen his poll numbers rebound, and he seems to be entering phase two: He says he wants to make a difference in the world, but steer clear of politics and avoid meddling in Obama's business.

His recent activities have demonstrated the possibilities and limitations of an ex-president's influence. …