May/June 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 4
Seven days into his Presidency George Bush held a quick, almost spur-of-the-moment news Conference in the White House press room, something like a student voluntarily subjecting himself to what once upon a time was known as a snap quiz. He earned, in my judgment, only a C in history—with an answer misleadingly half-right, but one that opened windows on a larger subject.
Ronald Reagan had just reportedly signed agreements to write his memoirs, deliver lectures, and edit collections of his writings, all for a sum estimated as somewhere between three and five million dollars. A reporter asked Bush if he didn’t think his predecessor was “cashing in” on the Presidency. Bush replied: “I don’t know that I’d call it ‘cashing in.’ I expect every President has written his memoirs and received money for it… Grant got half a million bucks. That’s when half a million really meant something.”
“Every President” is an exaggeration. No President before Theodore Roosevelt published an autobiography while living. Grant himself was dead when his deservedly classic Personal Memoirs appeared. The story of his desperate effort to make money is actually a mixture of the dubious, the pathetic, and the heroic. Needing security, the hero of Appomattox actually had tried to “cash in” on his name by associating himself, in 1882, with a Wall Street brokerage house, Grant and Ward. Two of the partners illegally mismanaged the funds and dragged the firm into bankruptcy, which ruined a number of their clients—and Grant.
Destitute, Grant then signed a contract to do his memoirs and almost at the same time learned that he had a fatal cancer growing in his throat. The sixty-two-year-old general was determined not to leave his widow in poverty. So he wrote steadily and doggedly through eight months of torment, to complete a manuscript that yielded two fat volumes. He was racing with the death angel, and he won. Grant submitted his last corrected proof sometime around July 16, 1885, and died on the twenty-third.
The Memoirs were an instant best seller. Julia Dent Grant ultimately got between $425,000 and $450,000 in royalties, $200,000 of it in a single check on February 27, 1886.
Grant’s fatal venture into the world of stock sales illustrates a general problem of what is and is not proper for an ex-President to undertake after he leaves office. Congress stated the dilemma very succinctly when it got around, in its deliberate way, to dealing with the subject in 1958, after thirty-three Presidencies covering 170 years had elapsed. Its report said: “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…. We believe that a former President should take very seriously his obligation to maintain the dignity of that office … for the remainder of his life.”
Except for Grant’s misjudgment, no ex-President had, as of that date, done anything to make a living that would seriously compromise the dignity of the office. Two (John Quincy Adams and Andrew Johnson) had returned to serve in the Congress itself; four (Tyler, Fillmore, Van Buren, and Theodore Roosevelt) had run unsuccessfully for reelection as President on third-party tickets; two (Benjamin Harrison and Cleveland) had returned to law practice; and one (Taft) had ended up as Chief Justice of the United States. Coolidge had written a newspaper column for a time. Hoover lived well off previous investments.
But many “exes” who had no private means struggled to keep the wolf from the door, several died in debt, and it was clearly a strain to maintain a lofty public position while under heavy selfimposed restraints on earning power. One of the triggers to the 1958 legislation was the complaint of ex-President Truman to his friend Sam Rayburn that he spent thirty thousand dollars a year simply keeping up with requests for unpaid speeches, interviews, and letters. Ultimately the lawmakers concluded that if an ex-President must remain on a pedestal, it “follows that there is an obligation upon the government to see that it is financially possible for him to do so without hardship to himself and his family.”
Congress then proceeded to do the handsome thing: it provided for an annual salary of twenty-five thousand dollars for former Chief Executives, plus a fifty-thousand-dollar yearly allowance for clerical assistance, suitable free office space on federal property, free mailing privileges, and ten-thousand-dollar-a-year pensions to ex-presidential widows.
As is so often the case, legislation lagged behind a changing reality. For just at this time two things began to happen. The fierce media focus on the White House made every ex-President, for a time at least, a celebrity whose mere appearance on a publisher’s list or on the television screen was worth millions. Moreover, the office of the Presidency itself became imperial in scope, and Congress, perhaps making up for past neglect, hurried to enlarge the perks of those who formerly occupied the Oval Office.
First, the record of private gain: President Eisenhower profited handsomely from his memoirs, and left an estate of one million dollars on his death in 1969. Lyndon Johnson was already comfortably wealthy from Texas business interests—his estate was valued somewhere between fifteen and twenty million dollars in 1973—but he also received a million-dollar advance for his memoirs and signed a contract that gave him three hundred thousand dollars for exclusive interviews with a television network. Richard Nixon, an involuntary White House retiree, was paid a million dollars for four television interviews with David Frost. Not to mention the advance on his memoirs.
Gerald Ford received an undisclosed sum for his memoir, A Time to Heal , served on the board of directors of at least a dozen corporations, and got eighteen to twenty thousand dollars per appearance on the lecture circuit. As he put it, “Once a man has been President he becomes an object of curiosity.” Jimmy Carter, not previously known as a writer, has published three books since 1981. So Ronald Reagan, indeed, is following a precedent of “cashing in” on the office, but it is a relatively recent one.
Meanwhile, Congress was enlarging its provisions for the taxpayer-supported comfort and safety of ex-Chiefs. In 1963 a Presidential Transition Act allowed a departing President $300,000 in tax-free expense money for his readjustment to normality. In short, he receives Treasury help in compiling the memoir for which he will receive a sturdy publisher’s advance. Subsequently the allowance was raised to a million dollars. In 1970 it was decreed that the ex-President’s salary should be equal to that of an officer of the cabinet—$99,500 at the start of 1989, and likely to rise soon. The figure for staff support has gone to a nontaxable $150,000.
Since 1968 ex-Presidents and their wives or widows get Secret Service protection for life—or until the widows remarry. Their minor children are guarded until age sixteen. In addition to all this, since 1955 the federal government has been staffing and maintaining the special libraries that have housed the papers of each outgoing President since Hoover. The buildings themselves are put up with private funds, and while they are admittedly useful research centers, each is also a museum and de facto memorial—a paper pyramid—to a particular ex-President.
In addition to the monetary benefits, ex-Presidents now have a kind of quasi-official status as national representatives. They may address the Senate (though only Harry Truman has done so, in 1964), and they are sometimes sent abroad for state solemnities. At the funeral of Anwar Sadat in 1981, all three living “exes,” Nixon, Carter, and Ford, were in attendance.
Since we now have four living ex-Presidents, we all may expect to bear a considerable burden for sustaining the dignity of the office in the future. As the national life-span increases, there will be more ex-Presidents, living longer—although the record number is five. (The year was 1861, when Van Buren, Tyler, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan all were alive.)
All of this is connected to the accelerating tendency to make the President a kind of symbolic democratic monarch.
The Founding Fathers gave the matter some inconclusive thought, never being quite certain themselves of what limits they wanted to set on presidential power and privilege. At the Constitutional Convention, when the question of how many terms a President might serve was under discussion, some wondered aloud and nervously about how ambitious ex-Presidents would handle the return to ordinariness. George Mason thought it would be a very good thing for them. The rights and interests of the people were his “pole star,” he said, and he held it “as an essential point, as the very palladium of Civil liberty, that the great officers of State, and particularly the Executive should at fixed periods return to that mass from which they were at first taken, in order that they may feel & respect those rights & interests.”
Benjamin Franklin suggested to worriers that it was not a comedown after all: “In free Governments the rulers are the servants, and the people their superiors & sovereigns. For the former therefore to return among the latter was not to degrade but to promote them.”
Gouverneur Morris, the convention ironist, observed that our future Executives would have “too much modesty not to be willing to decline the promotion.” He was right, of course, considering the number of incumbents who run again. But Franklin’s pleasant little conceit may have come true in a sense he did not imagine. Nowadays most ex-Presidents, financially speaking, will in fact be “promoted.” And unfortunately for George Mason, they are far from returning in status to “that mass from which they were at first taken.”