Presidents Emeritus

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Several other measures in the 1960’s added to the perquisites and privileges of the ex-Presidency. The Presidential Transition Act of 1963 substituted federal for private funds to cover the cost of changing administrations. Although the incoming President received the bulk of the money, the outgoing Executive was allotted $300,000 during the six months after he left the Presidency. In 1976 this was raised to $1,000,000.

With the expansion of security measures after President Kennedy’s assassination, Congress provided Secret Service agents to protect former Presidents and their families.

President Johnson’s own flamboyant style led him to put Air Force jets and helicopters, complete with crews and stewards, at the disposal of Hoover, Truman, and Eisenhower; and this privilege has been continued.

In 1969 a Victorian townhouse across from the White House was designated the official Former Presidents’ Residence to accommodate the former heads of state whenever they visited the nation’s capital. Eight years later Gerald Ford became the first to use it.

Watergate and the resignation of President Nixon in 1974 led to questioning of some of the privileges and prerogatives and, for the first time, to restrictions on the exPresidency. When it was disclosed that nearly $10,000,000 had been spent by the government to make the estates of President Nixon at Key Biscayne and San Clémente more secure and comfortable for him and his staff, some challenged such expenditures on property that would remain private after he became an ex-President.

Extending the doctrine of accountability, a federal court ruled in 1976 that an ex-President would be accountable for personal misconduct while President. The judge held former President Nixon personally liable for damages because he had initiated and overseen a wiretap program without setting specific limits on it. (While asserting the moral principle, in a suit initiated by former National Security Staff member Morton Halperin, the judge reduced its effectiveness by assessing only a token fine of one dollar.)

In the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974, Congress deprived Nixon of control over his papers and tapes because of the Watergate investigation. Four years later, the lawmakers passed the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which made an outgoing President’s papers public property. However, it permitted a former President to restrict access to some of his public materials for up to twelve years.

Finally, an important shaping force in the evolution of the exPresidency has been the growth of the Presidency itself, for the ex-Presidency is always a shadow of the larger institution. The increased power and codification of the Presidency in the postwar era encouraged similar developments in the ex-Presidency. Conversely, the ex-Presidency may be facing greater responsibility and accountability as the Imperial Presidency is dismantled. Limitation of ownership and control over White House materials may be only the first step. Congress may one day establish governmental restrictions upon the sources and amount of outside income, or reconsider the definition of eligibility. Under the Former Presidents Act, for instance, anyone who has held the office of the President—and has not been removed by impeachment and conviction—qualifies; a person who was President for even a day might qualify for lifetime allowances. Whatever future regulations may be imposed on the office of the ex-Presidency, however, one thing seems certain. It will remain a position of security, privilege, and even power that would have astonished at least the first twenty-four of the twenty-nine men who outlived their own Presidencies.