- 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
Deeply embittered by what he considered a misunderstanding of his policies, Johnson returned to Texas and immersed himself in ensuring his memorials. All bore his brand: the LBJ Ranch, the Johnson Birthplace and Homestead, the Johnson School of Public Affairs, and the Johnson Presidential Library at the University of Texas. Money posed no problem for the richest ex-President in American history. With ranches, banks, radio and television stations, and a sizable trust fund, he and his wife controlled a fortune estimated at between $15,000,000 and $20,000,000. Furthermore, Johnson received around $1,000,000 for his memoirs and $300,000 for exclusive contractual rights to television interviews. Even though he turned the proceeds over to the Johnson Library and School of Public Affairs, his television deal raised public questions, for the first time, about the propriety of an ex-President granting such a media monopoly.
In August, 1974, Richard Nixon fled the White House under threat of impeachment. Sick, depressed, and near financial ruin, he later recalled that his life then became nearly a “life without purpose,” an “almost unbearable” existence. Gradually, however, he began to recover physically, emotionally, and financially. In a surprise visit to Communist China, he was feted as a visiting dignitary. In 1978 he went to England and France and was treated with some respect. Nevertheless, although he wished to remain active within the GOP, Republican leaders believed that his actions and the controversial pardon by President Ford had hurt the party. Nixon’s search for a useful purpose thus proved unavailing, but he did find economic security. During the first three years of his retirement, he augmented nearly $800,000 in federal funds with more than $1,000,000 from exclusive television interviews with David Frost.
As an ex-President, Gerald Ford has maintained an active life of speech making and politicking, remaining one of the major spokesmen of the Republican party. He is also on his way to becoming a multimillionaire. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funds he and his staff receive, Ford personally will earn nearly $500,000 a year during the first five years of his ex-Presidency from lucrative part-time commitments, and from fulfillment of his network contract for television appearances, including commentary on current events. Ford’s rapid rise to affluence as an ex-President has led to significant questioning of what one journalist called the “huckstering and hustling and merchandising of the presidency.” “I have to earn a living,” Ford explained in a TV interview.
The most significant development in the last three decades, however, has not been the activities of the former Presidents, but rather the rapid emergence of the ex-Presidency as a form of public office. This has not been a result of any coherent, deliberate policy; developments have often been fortuitously related to other events. Nevertheless, more codification has occurred in the last 30 years than in the first 150 years of the Republic.
One of the most important aspects of the office concerned the extension of the doctrine of executive privilege to ex-Presidents. In 1953 Harry Truman, even though at that time a private citizen, successfully resisted a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee, which wanted him to provide information about the promotion of an alleged Communist in government. Truman claimed he could not be forced to testify about his actions in an office which had been protected by executive privilege and separation of powers. Although constitutional authorities differed, public sympathy for Truman’s claim of Republican harassment led the committee to drop the matter.
Citing this precedent nearly twenty-five years later in 1977, Richard Nixon refused to testify before a House subcommittee investigating earlier negotiations with North Vietnam. When Nixon eventually agreed to talk informally on the phone with a few selected committee members, a confrontation was avoided. However, the two cases suggest de facto recognition that exPresidents continue to maintain some aspects of the executive power.
The first federal appropriation regarding the ex-Presidency came in 1955 with the congressional decision to maintain presidential libraries and museums. Franklin D. Roosevelt had begun the practice of deeding his presidential papers to the public and placing them in a special depository, but he did not live to see the Roosevelt Library open at Hyde Park, New York, in 1948. Encouraged by those planning the Truman and Eisenhower libraries, Congress recognized the new practice. In the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 it authorized federal funds for staffing and maintaining these institutions, which were built with privately raised contributions, and which, incidentally, each included a replica of the Oval Office where a former Chief Executive could spend his last working years, like a living Cheops in his pyramid.