“We the people elevate a politician to the most prestigious and highest office in the land and then more often than not dump him on the trash heap of politics,” says Alan Evan Schenker in his article for Presidential Studies Quarterly. “Once he has in fact left both the presidency and the realm of aspiration for the presidency, we have no particular place for him.”
However, Schenker’s argument isn’t entirely true – for years, former presidents have gone on to play a role in public life in some form or another. As Schenker himself points out, John Quincy Adams served in the House of Representatives for 17 years after he left the White House, and Martin Van Buren even ran for president again in 1844 and 1848 after his original term. More recently, according to an article by Alastair Gale in The Wall Street Journal, “former U.S. presidents have traveled to North Korea to secure the release of detained American citizens.” The article points to American citizen Kenneth Bae, who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea for “unspecified hostile acts” last week, and says that former President Jimmy Carter is seeking a visit to North Korea in an effort to bring Bae back to the U.S. Gale also offers the example of former President Bill Clinton, who traveled to Pyongyang to retrieve American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee in 2009.
So perhaps the best question to ask is not are former presidents engaged in the public sphere after their presidencies conclude, but when is it appropriate or most effective for them to reenter the public arena, and in what capacity? I would argue that former presidents find the most success reentering the public sphere not directly following their presidencies, but rather once several years have passed and the policies or actions they took while president no longer have as much relevance to the American people. For example, according to an article by Daniel Schorn for CBS News, last year former President Bill Clinton “who was never rich before he left the White House, made $850,000 in speaking fees. Then he wrote a book that made him another $10 million.”
In this capacity and as a speaker for Obama on the campaign trail for the 2012 campaign, Clinton has found success once again in the public sphere, in part due to the fact that he and the public are now far removed from both the policies that bolstered his presidency and the scandal that tarnished it. Looking at Clinton, I would also argue that his personality plays into his ability to be successful in the public arena as a former president. As Schenker notes, a “former president striving to remain active in politics ordinarily exhibits a publicly oriented personality.” Clinton, who arguably has striven to remain active in politics in part to revive his public image following the Monica Lewinsky scandal, can employ his already-charismatic and publicly oriented personality to achieve success in the public sphere.
Yet Clinton’s new role in politics after his tenure in the White House was not immediate. When his former vice president Al Gore ran for office in 2000, Clinton did not take part in the campaign, reportedly at the request of Gore. In an article for Presidential Studies Quarterly, Martin Wattenberg writes that in Gore’s view, “the president had become a liability as a result of the Lewinsky scandal. Had it not been for the scandal, Gore purportedly felt that he would have won with some margin to spare. He therefore felt wholly justified in keeping the president under wraps during the campaign.” Thus, while immediately jumping back into the political arena during Gore’s presidential campaign would have created a negative attitude toward both Clinton and Gore, Clinton could later find a niche in the public sphere in his own capacity and find success after time had passed since his indiscretions in office.
Arguably though, it’s not just Clinton who would have been unsuccessful by taking part in his former vice president’s presidential campaign, but really any former president. As John Murphy and Mary Stuckey write in their article for Presidential Studies Quarterly, “the typical strategies used by the president, however well intentioned, tend to impede the campaign of the vice president. In their rhetoric, presidents almost invariably cast vice presidents as subordinates, diminishing the perceived presidential capacity of these ‘partners’.” Therefore, I would argue that not only will former presidents negatively impact their vice president’s campaign, but they also negatively impact their own image in the eyes of the public, who are likely to recognize that the former president is a weight rather than a bolster to the vice president’s campaign and will therefore create negative associations surrounding both the former vice president and former president.
In conclusion, there is a place for former presidents in public life once they have left office, whether as speakers, as international liaisons, etc. However, the variables of time and public perception of the capacity in which they reenter public life will play an important role in determining whether or not former presidents can be successful in their post-presidential activities in the public sphere. Furthermore, these variables will make all the difference when determining a former president’s legacy in the history books.