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