IS THERE LIFE after the White House? As lame duck Bill Clinton studies his options, two unique fates beckon. He could be the first ex-president married to a United States Senator if wife Hillary wins her election battle in New York. Or he could be the first former chief executive ever to have his law license revoked if his Arkansas enemies have their way.
For so self-absorbed a politician, either prospect must be somewhat of a distraction. His speculations have wended elsewhere -- to multi-million-dollar book contracts to pay off his legal debts, to construction of a presidential library in Arkansas, to media mogulship and high-fee political speechifying, even to running for Congress in the grand tradition of John Quincy Adams.
Whatever transpires, Clinton faces a post-presidential future that has been available to only 32 Americans -- all white males -- since the founding of the republic more than two centuries ago. Four of the 40 presidents preceding Clinton were assassinated (Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John Kennedy) and four died in office (William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Warren Harding and Franklin Roosevelt). They had no post-presidencies.
For those who survived their White House years, life came in all varieties -- triumph and tragedy, rehabilitation and rejection, fulfillment and frustration, robust creativity and careworn decline. But all experienced what lesser mortals can only imagine: instant transformation from the most powerful office in the land to the status of just plain citizen. Such a precipitous loss of privilege and authority was bound to have profound personal consequences. "I can scarcely realize my situation," lamented John Quincy Adams as he contemplated how to maintain his "engagedness."
For years, historians have had fun rating the presidents. Abraham Lincoln and George Washington are always at or near the top; Harding and James Buchanan at or near the bottom. Some reputations wax (Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower), some wane (Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson). Now, with Bill Clinton in countdown, it is time for another game: rating ex-presidents. The rules are simple. How well or how poorly a president did in office is not a criterion; what matters is what transpired after the White House. Every history buff is entitled to draw up a list. Here is one entry: Most successful ex-presidents: John Quincy Adams, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Jimmy Carter, Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon.
Adams was the only son of a president ever to restore his family to the White House, a feat Texas Gov. George W. Bush hopes to emulate this year. After two years of near-clinical despondency following his loss after only one term to Andrew Jackson, Adams was elected to Congress from his Massachusetts district. He served for 17 years, emerging as the most passionate voice in the House against slavery and the gag rule Southern "slavemongers" used to throttle debate. Known as "Old Man Eloquent," he was respected even by legislators he flayed. At age 80, Adams collapsed on the floor of Congress while fighting the annexation of Texas as a slave state, then died two days later in the speaker's private chamber. His blue-ribbon post-presidential reputation reached new heights as an anti-slavery hero in the recent prize-winning motion picture, "Amistad."
Cleveland gets in the winners' circle for the simple reason that he was the only ex-president ever to win re-election to the White House. Others flirted with the idea, not least that most vigorous of ex-presidents, Theodore Roosevelt. After big-game hunting in Africa, he re-entered the political arena against his hand-chosen successor, William Howard Taft. Denied the Republican nomination, he broke from the GOP, organized an ill-fated Bull Moose run for the presidency in 1912, insured the election of despised Democrat Woodrow Wilson and died in 1919. William Howard Taft makes this list not just because he was the only former president ever to serve as chief justice of the United States but because this post enabled him to steer the Supreme Court along a conservative path that would surely have enraged TR.
Of living former presidents, Carter easily is in the forefront for his prodigious efforts as a battler for human rights, social welfare and international conflict resolution. He builds houses for Habitat for Humanity, monitors Third World elections, stands ever ready to take on free-lance diplomatic assignments and transforms his presidential library into a center for creative ideas. Carter thus has had the satisfaction of enhancing a reputation that was at low ebb when he left the White House. But this has come at the cost of the condescending cliche that he is a better ex-president than president.
Two others who successfully used their post-White House years in quest of rehabilitation were Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon. Blamed hugely for the Great Depression that began on his watch, Hoover suffered 12 years of ostracism during the Roosevelt New Deal era. Then Harry Truman generously brought him back to public service first to fight famine in post-war Europe and later to head the first "Hoover Commission" on reorganization of the executive branch. Dwight Eisenhower renewed this mandate a few years later. Hoover's was the longest post-presidency on record (31 years, 7 months), a stretch that enabled him to die with honor rather than obloquy.
Richard Nixon's was a more difficult task, one with only mixed success. As the only chief executive ever to resign in disgrace, he embarked on a crusade of image enhancement by churning out eight best-seller books(including an excellent memoir) and seizing myriad opportunities to speak and offer advice on politics and foreign policy. Considering the depths from which he climbed, he was able to brazen his way to semi-respectability.
Compared to the seven post-presidencies listed above, the remaining 25 had lives after the White House that were not often the stuff of headlines. Some adhered to the Cincinnatus syndrome favored by George Washington: returning home to a relatively quiet and sometimes bucolic existence. In that category are the founding-father presidents -- Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. Others who qualify are Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Rutherford Hayes, Grover Cleveland(after his second term), Benjamin Harrison, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and George Bush. (Andrew Johnson became the only former president to serve in the U.S. Senate by action of the Tennessee legislature. He died five months after his arrival back on the Washington scene.)
Among the unhappiest of former chief executives were Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, Northerners both, whose Southern sympathies brought them the contumely of their own constituents and much of the nation.
"After the White House," said Pierce, lapsing into alcoholism, "what is there to do but drink?" Buchanan's portrait was removed from the Capitol Rotunda, lest it be defaced.
John Tyler, a Virginian who sided with the South, was elected to the Confederate Congress, thus becoming the only U.S. president to oppose the government he once led. His constituents loved him. Martin Van Burden ran for president on a third-party ticket in 1848, as did Millard Fillmore in 1856. Both lost but Fillmore, at least, carried the state of Maryland.
Ex-presidents for whom retirement was physical misery included Woodrow Wilson, a semi-invalid whose League of Nations dreams were in ashes; James Polk, who died three months and 11 days after a single term given scant credit for expanding the Union to the Rio Grande and the Pacific; Ronald Reagan, sunk in the abyss of Alzheimer's and Chester Arthur, afflicted by Bright's disease.
That leaves a few troubling enigmas. How to rate Ulysses S. Grant, who rallied from bankruptcy to complete a splendid Civil War memoir a few days before his death? Or Rutherford Hayes, identified with a notorious deal to end Reconstruction in the South, who went home to be a Jimmy Carter-precursor doing good works? Or, just for fun, Dwight D. Eisenhower, an avid golfer who shot a hole-in-one at the age of 77?
There are no patents on this game of Life after the White House. As Bill Clinton prepares for his traumatic plunge from the glories and burdens of presidential office, the ratings business can begin anew.
Joseph R. L. Sterne is a Senior Fellow at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies, and was The Sun's editorial page editor from 1972 to 1997.