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.

Bush Sr., Reagan, Carter, Ford and Nixon at the opening of the Reagan Library in 1991. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

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.

Supreme Court Justice Taft. (National Park Service)

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.

At this writing President Carter is 97 years old. (Carter Center)

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.



Humor in Rough Rider’s Uniform

“Nobody ever had as good a time as I did as president,” Theodore Roosevelt reflected in 1909.  His serious side, which included negotiating peace between Russia and Japan, breaking apart trusts, and preserving the wilderness for generations of Americans, was balanced with pillow fights and outdoor adventures with his children — and boxing matches and Japanese wrestling with friends in the White House.  He often drew funny cartoons in letters he wrote to his family.

TR loved to tell stories and laugh at them.  He said, “When they call roll in the Senate, the senators don’t know whether to answer, ‘Present,’ or ‘Not guilty.'”  His eldest child was notorious for living it up, to which he responded, “I can be president of the United States or I can control Alice.  I cannot possibly do both.”

Those who served as chief of the executive branch before and after him could let their sense of humor show, too.

George Washington: When a junior officer boasted he could break a spirited horse and was thrown off head over heels, Washington was so “convulsed with laughter tears ran down his cheeks.”  He also wrote in a letter about a duel:  “They say Jones fired at his opponent and cut off a piece of his nose.  How could he miss it?  You know Mr. Livingstone’s nose and what a capitol target it is.”

John Adams: “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm and three or more is a congress.”

Abraham Lincoln: “If I were two faced, would I be wearing this one?”  Lincoln’s stories were legendary — it was not always what he said but how he said it.  He was an expert mimic.  During the horrible days of the Civil War he often got relief by listening his two secretaries with knee-slapping laughter.  “Tell it again, John!” he said to young John Hay.

Calvin Coolidge: After a hostess said she’d made a bet she could get more than two words out of him, he replied, “You lose.”  He said in 1929 he didn’t want to run for president again.  There was no chance for advancement.

Franklin Roosevelt: “Twenty-two minutes,” he said, when asked what the next Fireside Chat was to be about.

 Harry Truman: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

Lyndon Johnson made some famous analogies but that doesn’t mean they should be repeated.

Jimmy Carter: “It’s nice now that when people wave at me, they use all their fingers.”

Ronald Reagan, a natural storyteller, was the only president with a prior career in entertainment.  He poked fun at himself: “Just to show you how youthful I am, I intend to campaign in all thirteen states.”   When horseback riding with Queen Elizabeth, her mount passed a substantial amount of gas.  She apologized: “I’m sorry.”  Reagan shot back, “Why, Your Majesty,  I thought it was the horse.”

George W. Bush: “These stories about my intellectual capacity really get under my skin.  For awhile, I even thought my staff believed it.  There on my schedule first thing every morning it said, “Intelligence Briefing.”

Barack Obama: At an observance of International Woman’s Day he said, “I salute heroic women from those on the Mayflower to the one I’m blessed to call my wife, who looked across the dinner table and thought, ‘I’m smarter than that guy.'”

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