- Historic Sites
The ex-Presidency now carries perquisites and powers that would have amazed all but the last few who have held that office
June/July 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 4
The incumbent, Ulysses S. Grant, paid little heed to this, however, and the disaster that befell him probably reinforced the belief that ex-Presidents should avoid direct involvement in the commercial marketplace. Grant and his son joined a Wall Street investment banking house with an unscrupulous speculator who swindled the gullible hero out of his money and his reputation. When Grant & Ward went bankrupt in 1884, the savings of thousands of people were destroyed. Nevertheless, the penniless old soldier went on to become the first ex-President to make money out of his memoirs, which he finished only three days before he died of cancer. They earned his family nearly $450,000.
The ex-Presidents who followed Grant saved money from their salary, which was raised to $75,000 in 1909, and while avoiding positions in business, they did supplement their incomes through the practice of law. Benjamin Harrison argued cases before a Supreme Court partially filled with his own appointees. Cleveland declined to appear in court, but wrote briefs and served as a court-appointed arbiter. Accepting a law professorship at Yale, Taft described it as “a dignified retirement … and one which would approve itself to the general propriety of the country.”
In 1912 steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, a man who dabbled in both politics and pension programs, tried to provide pensions for ex-Presidents. To embarrass Congress into giving a regular allowance to future ex-Presidents and their widows, Carnegie offered them pensions of $25,000 a year until the government provided for them. The public, however, seemed to disapprove of a millionaire paying former heads of state, and Taft rejected the offer.
Perhaps the principle of avoiding exploitation of the private earning ability of ex-Presidents was most pithily stated by the taciturn New Englander, Calvin Coolidge. Turning down several lucrative business offers, he asserted that “these people are trying to hire not Calvin Coolidge, but a former president of the United States. I cannot do anything that might take away from the presidency any of its dignity, or any of the faith the people have in it.” Later, Truman and Eisenhower quoted Coolidge’s remarks as a guideline for ex-Presidents. Meanwhile, Hoover had no difficulty in maintaining dignity, which was natural to him, or a high income, which came from an engineering and mining fortune he had established before entering public service.
Harry Truman, on the other hand, was never really a wealthy man. Since he rejected half a dozen corporate offers when he left office in 1953, his income stemmed primarily from the sale of his father’s farm, the publication of his memoirs, and his appearance in 1958 on Edward R. Morrow’s “See It Now” program. This was the first television portrait of a former President speaking informally and at length before a vast audience, and Truman received a substantial fee, although this was not publicized at the time.
When the Democrats returned to power in the 1960’s, they honored Truman as an elder statesman. Kennedy held a White House dinner for him; Johnson sent him to Greece to represent the United States at the funeral of King Paul. When Truman died in 1972, his peppery forthrightness was being hailed in a reaction against presidential manipulation and deceit.
Eisenhower, too, fared well as an ex-President. The income from the sale of his wartime and presidential recollections and the substantial fees for his television memoirs in 1961 and 1964 enabled him to live comfortably on his Gettysburg farm. Despite the turmoil at the end of his term, Eisenhower remained extremely popular. He cultivated the image of a kindly grandfather dispensing advice to his posterity. Congressional committees solicited his testimony, and Democratic Presidents sought his support for their foreign policy.
But despite Ike’s paternal image, many noticed an anomaly. The man who had seemed almost apolitical in the White House appeared a vigorous partisan in retirement. Within four months after leaving Washington, he opened an attack upon the Democrats’ domestic policies which he maintained until he died in 1969.
With Hoover, Truman, and Eisenhower, the shared prestige of living ex-Presidents may have reached a kind of zenith. The three sat bare-headed together at Kennedy’s funeral, a powerful image of solidarity and continuity at a time when the nation felt the need for reassurance. But public support for exPresidents sank to the nadir in the early 1970’s. Both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were forced into political retirement and seclusion.