Until the late 1900's presidents largely returned to their former private life after leaving office. There were a very few exceptions along the way; John Quincy Adams became a member of the House of Representatives; Andrew Johnson became a Senator; William H. Taft became a member of the U.S. Supreme Court. But most, like President George Washington, returned to their farms and businesses, careful to remain out of the public eye and disengaged from national level discourse.
President Harry S. Truman left office in January, 1953 penniless. He went to the train station in Washington D.C. and returned home to Missouri. There was no presidential pension, no secret service detail, and no presidential library. His term ended, his perceived duty was to return to private life and allow those who followed in the office the opportunity to govern. His honor and integrity disallowed any action “that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency.”
The Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 and the Former Presidents Act of 1958 fundamentally changed the way in which the government treated former presidents.
The Former Presidents Act was in large part a response to Truman’s meager means when he left office. It established and funded a pension ($201,000 in 2014), a transition office, ongoing staff needs, health benefits, and life time Secret Service protection. The Act was fitting and appropriate. Its mechanisms and compensation were adequate for the protection and compensation of former presidents in private life.
By the 1970s, as the culture of “me” took hold, the effort to ensure former presidents had a respectable lifestyle befitting their service proved inadequate for some. Gerald Ford began the trend of cashing in on the office of the presidency through speech making, book deals and other methods. Ford, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush proved capable in the effort by earning a few million dollars each, but President William Jefferson Clinton was in a class by himself.
Former President Clinton and his wife Hillary Clinton contended they were without substantive assets when they left the White House. With their combined personal net worth now estimated to be in excess of $100 million the Clintons have set a very high bar for future former presidents wishing to cash in on the prestige of the presidency.
The Presidential Libraries Act of 1955, a well intended law, was to create a mechanism by which the personal papers, documents and communications of presidents could be properly archived for posterity. The “presidential foundation” is the organizational structure by which presidents build the private funds for their library and convey the archives of their presidency to government.
The modern day “presidential foundation” has morphed far beyond establishing an archival presidential library. These foundations state lofty goals. The recently formed Obama foundation is to “inspire active citizenship, expand economic opportunity, and promote peace and justice throughout the world." Richard Nixon used his foundation to successfully alter the public’s perception of him. The Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, with assets of approximately $300 million, sets a new bar in expanding the purpose of these foundations.
Ostensibly established for high minded values, one cannot help but wonder if these foundations are more intended to shape post-presidency perceptions, preserve and expand power while out of office, and provide for personal enrichment. Might the country be better served by old presidents just fading away?
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