Monday, January 08, 2007

Returning to His Plow

The recent death of Gerald Ford has caused me to reflect on the awkwardness of presidential retirement in the United States. Monarchies, or nations whose chiefs of state serve for life, don't have to consider how they will treat former chief executives. Other republics (like ancient Rome or modern Chile) provided ex-consuls or ex-presidents with lifetime appointment to their senate, thus giving them a place of honor and influence commensurate with their former power. Americans, however, expect their presidents to go home and die quietly after they finish their terms of office.

This is largely the fault of George Washington, who, following the example of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (fl. 5th century BCE), voluntarily relinquished supreme command not once but twice. In 1783 General Washington, then commander-in-chief of a victorious revolutionary army, surrendered his sword to the Continental Congress - then a rather scruffy and fugitive assembly - and retired to his plantation in Virginia. This first retirement so impressed American electors that they unanimously chose Washington to be the first president of the national government, knowing he could be trusted to walk away from power. Moreover, as president Washington refused to serve more than two terms, even though he could have served as many as he wanted (the Constitution did not impose presidential term limits prior to the 22nd Amendment). He thereby established a precedent that only a few of his successors had the nerve to try to break.

Washington retired from the presidency in 1797, went back to Mount Vernon, and died less than three years later. His successors, however, were only rarely able to contrive so fitting an end to their public service. Of 41 past American presidents, 8 died in office (W.H. Harrison, Taylor, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, F.D. Roosevelt, and Kennedy) and 6 lived less than five years after retiring (Washington, Polk, Arthur, Wilson, Coolidge, and L.B. Johnson). The remaining 27 lived for an embarrassingly long time, which most spent writing their very dull memoirs and making money.

Has anyone had a memorable post-presidential career in the United States? Only a few examples come to mind:

* Thomas Jefferson, who helped found the University of Virginia;
* John Quincy Adams, who served in the House of Representatives for 17 years, fought against slavery, and played a major role in the founding of the Smithsonian Institution;
* William Howard Taft, who served as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1921-30), the only position in the federal government co-equal to the presidency;
* Herbert Hoover, who served as a government commissioner in Germany after World War Two and helped set up emergency food programs there;
* Jimmy Carter, who served as an international election monitor, helped (and still helps) raise millions of dollars to fight tropical diseases, and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Ford, by contrast, appears to have done approximately nothing in retirement, except make money, go to church, and play golf. In his defense, one can merely say that he was following Washington's example, in his own humble way. And one can also say that Ford's retirement years were not an embarrassment to the nation - unlike those of Franklin Pierce, who after leaving the White House became a supporter of the Confederacy, ran over an old woman with his carriage, and purportedly said "there's nothing left to do but get drunk."

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