On April 25, 2013, former president George W. Bush stood alongside three other former presidents and current president Barack Obama to celebrate and remember his eight years as the commander in chief. These hallmark dignitaries were brought together for the opening ceremony of Bush’s presidential library and museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
Though some would argue Bush’s time in office was tumultuous and chaotic, those gathered sat all that aside (from No Child Left Behind to immigration to the Iraq War) to admire and appreciate one of the nation’s former leaders who will be remembered as the man who protected us all after 9/11. Bush said in his address, “In democracy, the purpose of public office is not to fulfill personal ambition. Elected officials must serve a cause greater than themselves. The political winds blow left and right, polls rise and fall, supporters come and go. But in the end leaders are defined by the convictions that they hold. And my deepest conviction, the guiding principle of the administration, is that the United States of America must strive to expand the reach of freedom.”
Since leaving office in 2008, Bush has “laid low” and hid in the background, patiently sitting in silence. And now we see him reemerge to join other former presidents as symbolic, non-partisan figures.
This leads me to a few questions. First, what do former presidents actually do? And second, why is it that we view them as non-partisan, influential figures (who once caused so much debate) when they no longer hold the highest office in the country?
Former president Bill Clinton once said, “When you leave the presidency you lose your power, but not your influence.” But is this influence correlated to the reputation former presidents had in office? Max Skidmore argued in his book, “After the White House: Former Presidents as Private Citizens,” that the kinds of influence former presidents are likely to wield will prove at best to be only suggested- not determined- by their performance in office.”
Skidmore’s argument could prove to play in George W. Bush’s favor. When he left office in 2009, his approval rating was 29%, the lowest approval rating for any out-going president since Gallup polls began 70 years earlier. Perhaps the opening of his presidential library will create positive buzz and mark Bush’s transition from a controversial figure to a beloved, symbolic one. In fact, the Fiscal Times reported on April 23 that Bush’s current approval rating is 47%, which is very close to President Obama’s.
Moving on to my question of what former presidents actually do, Skidmore answers by diving former presidents into four broad categories:
1) Those who attempt to run for president again (but this no longer occurs because of the 22nd amendment).
2) Those who secure another political office, appointive or elective.
3) Those who make contributions to education and public understanding.
4) Those who become activists for humanitarian causes.
Throughout Skidmore’s book, he aims to go through the presidents (from Washington to Clinton), examine their post-president lives and divide them up into these four groups. Focusing on the former presidents from our generation, we see Carter in humanitarian causes and the first Bush and Clinton making contributions to education and the public good. With the opening of the presidential library, we see how the second Bush is making an attempt to contribute to education and the public good.
Mark Updegrove also believes that former presidents retain influence. In his book, “Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House,” he claimed that, “At the very least, former presidents provide institutional memory and are powerful symbols, if not of fertility, then of American unity and continuity.”
Updegrove also argues that a former president has so many more options than just “the notion of retreating quietly and uneventfully into retirement.” Updegrove believes the post-presidency has evolved from quiet retirement to a new phase of presidential privilege, which includes writing memoirs, giving speeches, opening presidential libraries, traveling to other countries as symbolic figures, and participating in philanthropic causes.
We have seen many former presidents already practice many of these acts. Most all have written books and memoirs, and opened their own presidential library and museum. Clinton even sent Carter to Haiti in 1994 to use his leverage to make an agreement with Haiti rebels to turn over the government.
When it comes to George W. Bush, he has written his memoir titled, “Decision Points,” but other than that he has tucked himself away in retirement. Perhaps the opening of the presidential library will serve as Bush’s transformation as an influential symbolic figure. Skidmore and Updegrove both believe that former presidents can leave their reputation in the past and transition into the role of the respected statesman. We will just have to see wait and see what Bush chooses to do from here.
Max Skidmore, “After the White House: Former Presidents as Private Citizens.” Palgrave McMillan. July 2004. http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=XT48zgmaVDYC&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=former+presidents&ots=oBqj-7g7ch&sig=eqfPexkinx9C6aEvAiKF7pr8gC8#v=snippet&q=influence&f=false
Mark Updegrove, “Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House.” The Lyons Press. 2006. http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=IpgkDy7OqUEC&oi=fnd&pg=PR9&dq=presidential+legacies&ots=FKi9oqTB7-&sig=8qThn1vqurXJ8wGTblFEojikmF4#v=onepage&q&f=false