In 1997 I was in a car with three other elementary school teachers on the way to a workshop in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We came to a traffic slowdown with lots of police cars and flashing lights, but there was no accident, so we figured someone important must be in town. They were. Later that night, we saw on the news that five living presidents: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush had come to celebrate a building expansion of the Ford Museum. Had I known, I probably would have ditched the morning session of the workshop and gone to catch a glimpse of history.
What do presidents do after leaving office?
George Washington, once a farmer, was always a farmer. In his brief retirement he daily inspected his land on horseback: crops including wheat and corn, and hemp for repairing fish nets. He had an impressive whiskey distillery which produced 11,000 gallons in 1799. Visitors to Mount Vernon from all over the world sought his advice on matters of state.
“There is nothing more pathetic in life than a former president,” John Quincy Adams once bluntly stated, but in his case we beg to differ. The second Adams president was elected to nine terms in the House of Representatives after he left office. He fought for years to repeal the gag rule for discussing slavery in Congress, finally succeeding in 1844. Four years later the “Old Man Eloquent” collapsed on the floor of the House and died shortly afterwards.
Theodore Roosevelt was not only a candidate four years after he left the presidency, but for the same office with a new party. In 1912 political bosses were successful in keeping him from the Republican nomination, so his follwers created the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party. He got more votes than the Republican incumbent William Howard Taft, but less than professor Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Wilson went on to institute much of TR’s platform under his own titles.
Taft had never wanted the presidency, anyway. One term was enough for him. “I don’t remember that I was ever president,” he once said, relishing his last years as a Supreme Court Justice of the United States.
“Sllent Cal,” President Calvin Coolidge, who often answered questions with just a few words, probably wrote more in print than he ever said aloud. He had a syndicated newspaper column after he held the office.
Herbert Hoover was an unlikely advisor to President Harry Truman, who asked him to reorganize the executive offices for better efficiency. Ronald Reagan was knighted by Queen Elizabeth – many Americans thought the title appropriate – and Barack Obama has turned to filmmaking in a wide variety of topics for Netflix.
No one can argue that the post-presidential work of Jimmy Carter has not been far-reaching and long-lived, whatever you may think of him as chief executive. He has written 32 books, approaching Theodore Roosevelt’s record. The Carter Center is involved in conflict mediation with other countries. He and his wife, Rosalyn, volunteer one week a year with Habitat for Humanity, enabling poor families to own their own homes.
Fifteen years ago as I faced a small reading group around a U-shaped table, we read a short biography of Jimmy Carter, the children pretty amazed at what he was doing. They wrote to him (another lesson in writing), and he sent a letter back, answering their questions and encouraging them to be good citizens.
Who knows what Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy might have done in later years. We remember their monumental efforts in office. But many of those before and after lived up to the faith Americans had in their collective character.