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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
What should be done with ex-Presidents? William Howard Taft once remarked that perhaps the best way to handle a former President was to chloroform and ceremonially cremate him when he left office, in order to “fix his place in history and enable the public to pass on to new men and new measures.” Taft did not insist on this ritual for himself, however, accepting instead a professorship at the Yale Law School when he finished his presidential term, and later serving as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. These occupations were dignified and moderately remunerative. Taft thus chose a course of ex-presidential behavior midway between that of Jefferson, for example, who retired to his plantation and died heavily in debt, and Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, both of whom hired theatrical agents, signed a number of exclusive contracts, and began earning millions of dollars for television and publishing commitments.
The evolution of the ex-Presidency has been, until recently, rather haphazard. For most of its history the nation has left the former Presidents to fend for themselves and to work out their own post-Executive careers. But in the last thirty years, the quasi-public “Office of the Ex-President” has emerged with quite well-defined perquisites, and some of the trappings of power.
Yet despite the growth of the office and of the sums of public funds spent on his maintenance, a former Chief Executive is under virtually no obligation to do, or not to do, anything at all. Until the last few years—since the ex-Presidency of Richard Nixon—no federal rules or guidelines existed to direct or restrict him.
As in almost everything else, George Washington set precedents as the first presidential retiree. Perhaps the most important decision ever made concerning an ex-President was Washington’s decision to become one. Conceivably, he might have stayed in office until he died, establishing a far different tradition than the voluntary relinquishing of power.
Returning to his plantation, Washington tried not to interfere unduly with his successor, John Adams. The old hero retained enormous popularity, however, and when the nation faced the possibility of war with France in 1798, Adams found himself forced into appointing Washington as Commander-in-Chief of the Armies, a title constitutionally reserved for the President. Adams’ successor, Jefferson, did not have to confront such a powerful figure. Washington died in 1799, and the unpopular Adams became the first expresidential “exile,” banished into political inactivity.
Although a number of former Chief Executives in the ensuing century and a half remained important figures in their parties, not many achieved new elective office. Only Cleveland proved able to recapture the Presidency after a hiatus, a testimony to his ability to unite the Democratic party. The others who tried—Van Buren, Fillmore, and Theodore Roosevelt—failed at the head of so-called third parties. Three former Presidents won re-election to lesser offices—John Quincy Adams to the House of Representatives, John Tyler to the Confederate Congress, and the impeached Andrew Johnson to the U.S. Senate. They showed that a President who lost his national majority could sometimes retain a power base in his home constituency.
More common, especially in the twentieth century, has been the use of former Chief Executives in nonpartisan public service. Cleveland accepted an offer from Theodore Roosevelt to head a study commission during the coal strike of 1902. Taft co-chaired the War Labor Board in 1918 and later, as noted, became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Hoover headed a committee on relief of famine in Europe after World War II, and in 1947 was appointed by Truman to lead a commission to study the executive branch of the government.
Ex-Presidents also had to maintain themselves and their families economically, and until 1958 there was no government pension for them. They pursued a variety of post-White House careers, but a consensus soon developed that these should be consistent with maintaining the dignity of the Presidency. Neither the public nor most ex-Presidents have wanted to see former heads of state become hucksters or financial speculators, and genteel poverty plagued many former Chief Executives. Except for Washington, who was a good businessman, most of the Presidents of the Virginia dynasty who retired to their plantations soon discovered they were deeply in debt. Madison and Monroe, like their friend Jefferson, died virtually penniless.
To help avoid this specter, Congress doubled the President’s salary in 1873 to $50,000. At the same time, legislators recognized the old tension between dignity and earning potential, for they justified the increase so that “the President could save enough money to retire [after leaving office] from all active or at least from all money-making pursuits.”
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.
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.
Still, there was no presidential pension. One was enacted as part of the congressional pension program in 1942, but the whole program was quickly repealed in the wake of a vehement public outcry against congressional avarice during a period of wartime sacrifice. After the war, Congress enacted its own pension program, but the presidential pension was not adopted for another dozen years. Instead the legislature increased the presidential salary to $100,000 in 1949. Recently it has been increased to $250,000.
In considering the proposal for a stipend for ex-Presidents in 1957, Congress addressed the old dilemma between earning potential and the need to maintain decorum. As a Senate committee asserted in recommending federal funding: “We expect a former President to engage in no business or occupation which would demean the office he has held or capitalize upon it in any improper way. There are many ways in which a former President can earn a large income, but ought not to.”
With the Former Presidents Act of 1958, Congress essentially established an office of the ex-President. It declared that each former Chief Executive was entitled to receive “a monetary allowance” of $25,000 a year. (Since this represented a kind of salary rather than a contributory pension, the Internal Revenue Service later determined that it was taxable, like the President’s salary.)
Congress also authorized a staff to assist the ex-President. The former Chief Executive could select, without regard to the Civil Service and classification laws, assistants and secretaries who would then become federal employees. They would be responsible solely to him in the performance of their duties. The staff allowance paid by the government was not to exceed that of the senator from the least populous state, which in 1958 meant $50,000 a year. The ex-President also received office space, furnishings, and equipment at a place in the United States determined by him. He was also given free mailing privileges. Like the comparable allowances for a President in office, these allowances for the ex-President were considered by Internal Revenue to be tax free.
Finally, Congress provided a pension of $10,000 a year for presidential widows. Previously they had been given federal assistance only upon petition, and then by special acts of Congress.
The Former Presidents Act stemmed most immediately from the plight of Harry Truman. He found his resources drained by the $30,000 he said it cost him each year just to answer his mail and fulfill requests for speeches and public appearances. He had to have federal assistance, he told House Speaker Sam Rayburn, in order “to keep ahead of the hounds.”
Seeking passage of the bill, congressional leaders emphasized that a Chief Executive remained an important public figure for the rest of his life. “The American people,” declared Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, “still look to an ex-President for advice, for counsel, and for inspiration in their moments of trial.”
Nevertheless, dissatisfied Republicans in the House delayed action for two years. Publicly they warned that the bill gave ex-Presidents official standing, and that in the future they might use the governmental services to mount a campaign for public office at the taxpayers’ expense. Privately they complained that they were being asked to subsidize Truman’s attacks upon their party. Overwhelming support for the bill, however, came from the mass media and from the public, and it became law in 1958.
Since then the ex-presidential allowances have been increased to counter the erosion of inflation. In 1970 Congress adopted an escalator clause, making the stipend for former Presidents equal to the annual salary of Cabinet officers, an amount that rose from $60,000 in 1970 to $66,000 in 1976.
Former Presidents also have obtained the prerogative of addressing the U.S. Senate, a modification of the proposal championed by Harry Truman to make them lifetime, nonvoting members of the Upper Chamber. This was not a new idea. President Hayes had rejected it, declaring that representation in the Senate was already inequitable. President Taft said there was already too much discussion in the Senate. Hoping to encourage Franklin D. Roosevelt not to run for re-election, Thomas E. Dewey revived the idea during World War II, but had no luck.
In the postwar era, Congress considered several such bills, but failed to adopt any. Yet, in deference to Truman’s wishes, the Senate modified its rules in 1963 to give former Chief Executives the right to use it as a forum whenever they wished. The following year, on his eightieth birthday, Truman became the first ex-President to address the Senate in formal session.
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.