Getting A Life

What’s an ex-President to do?


Edward Heath, Britain’s prime minister from 1970 to 1974, recently announced that he intended to retire from the House of Commons after serving continuously there for fifty years. Heath has been around so long that he’s in the lyric of a Beatles song, yet no one in Britain considered it unusual that he should remain a leading voice in his Conservative party so many years after relinquishing his country’s helm. Such lingering is unheard of these days in the United States, and no doubt the departure of William Jefferson Clinton from the White House—not to mention his ghostly political presence as the spouse of the new Senator Clinton—will evoke continuing editorial lamentations about how we, as a nation, tend to squander the experience and sagacity of our ex-presidents (as well as lamentations from the other side about any political involvement he does maintain). The fact is, though, that men who have run the greatest power in the world like to be in charge, not merely whispering advice.

No, in recent years the accepted procedure for former Presidents has been to retire to the almost uniformly ugly, functional archives their friends, admirers, and the American taxpayers help them construct, and there compose memoirs justifying what they have done in office. We can expect Bill Clinton to do the same—provided, of course, that he escapes indictment.

Presidents writing their memoirs is a relatively new habit. For a Chief Executive to defend himself was long considered unseemly, much like campaigning for the presidency in the first place. The first president who tried it was James Buchanan, who in 1866 published Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion, an attempt to excuse the unholy mess he had helped make of the nation at that moment. The most outstanding presidential memoirs are those of Ulysses S. Grant, who wrote them while he was dying of throat cancer. It was a last, courageous act from a courageous man, designed to leave his family with some money after he had been swindled by an unscrupulous business partner. Even while giving orders during the Civil War, Grant displayed a talent for clear, succinct prose—a virtue in generals and writers alike. It also helped that Grant’s editor and collaborator was Mark Twain. Few presidents have been so fortunate. In more recent years, the ghostwriting of presidential memoirs has become both more bland and more overbearing—so much so that Harpers’ magazine editor Lewis Lapham, when asked for his critique of Ronald Reagan’s effort, exclaimed “But he didn’t write it. He probably didn’t read it.”

Of course, many presidents have found things to do in their retirement besides explaining themselves. Back in the days when being president was supposed to be an act of selfless public service, several early chief executives spent their last years fighting off bankruptcy. Thomas Jefferson, for one, left the White House in 1809 some $24,000 in debt—a staggering sum for the time. He was able to recoup for a while by selling his 6,500-volume book collection to the nation for nearly that whole amount, thereby forming the core of the new Library of Congress. But the incorrigibly public-minded Jefferson soon returned to philanthropic—and uncompensated—endeavors, founding the University of Virginia a few miles from his estate at Monticello. He not only designed and supervised the construction of the university’s buildings and campus—one of the most beautiful in America—but also set the curriculum, selected the faculty, and served for a time as rector.

Unfortunately, this relapse into civic-spiritedness left Jefferson on the brink of having to sell off Monticello. He even explored the idea of starting a lottery to save it. He did manage to stave off the debt-collectors until his death, on July 4, 1826, but his estate was some $107,274 in hock, forcing his surviving daughter, Martha, to finally put Monticello up for sale.

Jefferson’s death, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, coincided with that of John Adams, hundreds of miles away in Massachusetts. When the messengers bearing the news subsequently met in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, many Americans took this as a sign of the divinely ordained role they saw for their country. But Jefferson and Adams were not the only ex-presidents and founding fathers to expire on the Fourth. Exactly five years later, our fifth president, James Monroe, died in a house that still stands on Prince Street in New York City, where Monroe, a Virginian, had been hounded by creditors, all the while remonstrating with Congress to compensate him for some of the $75,000 in debts he had run up on official business during a forty-year career in public service. Congress eventually begrudged him some of the money Monroe felt he was owed, but not before he was forced to give up his plantation and go live in a few modest rooms where his end was almost certainly made more difficult by the cacophony of a Manhattan Fourth of July celebration.

Not all ex-presidents have limited their later years to staving off the bailiff or writing their apologias, of course. Jimmy Carter has led a notably worthwhile existence after the Oval Office, building housing for the homeless and mediating political disputes around the world—activities that have earned him considerably better poll numbers from his countrymen than when he was in office. Herbert Hoover, after producing a particularly sad and obsessive memoir of his own, returned to the remarkable career of private service he had begun before his presidency, eventually helping alleviate hunger in a war-devastated Europe, just as he had thirty years earlier. William Howard Taft went back to his first love, the judiciary, becoming the only man to serve as both president and Chief Justice of the United States. Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, Grover Cleveland, and Theodore Roosevelt all made concerted efforts, under one banner or another, to regain the White House. Only Cleveland succeeded.

Yet American politicians have rarely even considered returning to daily politics in our national legislature, á la Mr. Heath. Andrew Johnson did manage to make it back into the U.S. Senate, albeit mostly to give one final, vindictive speech against the forces that had nearly driven him from the presidency. John Tyler won election to Congress some 16 years after leaving the presidency—the Confederate congress, that is, an accomplishment that probably marks the nadir of ex-presidential behavior. But then there is John Quincy Adams, the man who surely put together the most worthy post-presidency of all. Few midlife career turns could have seemed less likely.

After he was trounced by Andrew Jackson in their 1828 electoral rematch, one might have expected Adams to return happily to his diverse interests outside politics. These included fine wines, domesticating wild plants, writing poetry and history, shooting pool, and taking vigorous nude swims in the Potomac. Instead, within two years he got himself elected to the House of Representatives from his old hometown of Quincy, Massachusetts. Relieved of any greater duty than serving his conscience and his constituents, he would again and again establish himself as what Thoreau would call “a majority of one.”

In no area did Adams give more brilliant meaning to this phrase than in his tireless campaign against slavery. Moviegoers may be familiar with his successful argument before the Supreme Court to win freedom for the slaves who had seized the ship Amistad. Yet still more dramatic in its way—and occasionally hilarious—was his years-long fight against the “gag rule.”

In early 1836, Southerners in Congress, increasingly agitated by constant petitions for the outlawing or at least limitation of slavery, pushed through a House rule that automatically tabled any such appeals. Confronted with this refutation of a basic tenet of our democratic system, Adams responded by reading out as many of the anti-slavery petitions as his constituents—or anyone else from the North—would send him. As a result, he began receiving a dozen death threats a month, many of them quite grisly. These terrified his wife and troubled Adams himself, but he pressed on.

On February 6, 1836, well into another tumultuous debate about the gag rule, Adams announced that he had a petition purporting to be from twenty-two slaves. Was it within the House rules, he asked the Speaker, to present such a petition? This was too much. One after another, the Southern representatives rose to demand that he be punished, and a representative from South Carolina named Waddy Thompson put forward a motion to censure him before the House, on the grounds that “by extending to slaves a privilege only belonging to freemen, [Adams] directly incites the slave population to insurrection.” Adams patiently let the debate build before rising to make his defense. He easily deflected the charge that he had permitted a petition from slaves to be presented; rather, he had quite plainly asked if it could be presented. Then he added, “If the House should choose to read the petition [they would find it] the reverse from that which the resolution states it to be. My crime has been for attemtpting to introduce the petition of slaves that slavery should not be abolished.

Pandemonium! It turned out he had received the petition from a Virginia slaveholder seeking to embarrass him. Now the Southern representatives put together a new motion of censure against Adams, for having “trifled with the House.” Waddy Thompson, leading the Southerners in that move, proclaimed, “Does the gentleman know that there are laws in all the slave states and here, for the punishment of those who incite insurrection? I can tell him that there are such things as grand juries . . . he may yet be made amenable to another tribunal, and we may yet see an incendiary brought to condign punishment.”

On February 9, Adams rose to make his reply to this argument. “If that, sir, is the law of South Carolina,” he said, “I thank God I am not a citizen of South Carolina!” More seriously he added, “Let that gentleman, let every member of this House, ask his own heart with what confidence, with what boldness, with what freedom, with what firmness, he would give utterance to his opinions on this floor, if, for every word, for a mere question asked of the Speaker, invoking a question belonging to human freedom, to the rights of man, he was liable to be tried as a felon or an incendiary, and sent to the penitentiary!”

He countered his attackers’ censure with a defiance bordering on contempt: “Did the gentleman think he could frighten me from my purpose by the threat of a Grand Jury? If that was his object, let me tell him he mistook his man. I am not to be frightened from the discharge of a duty by the indignation of the gentleman from South Carolina, not by all the Grand Juries in the universe.”

All remaining attempts to censure Adams quickly collapsed. His speech was reported throughout the nation, and the Southerners found to their chagrin that the very issues they had been trying so assiduously to suppress were now being more widely debated than ever. Adams, nearly seventy, had struck a blow for American liberty unequaled even in his own long and brilliant career. He would continue his campaign against the gag rule until it was finally repealed in 1844, and he himself would go on until on February 23, 1848, when he suffered a massive stroke and collapsed over his House desk.

Carried into the Speaker’s room, his right side paralyzed, Adams murmured “I am composed,” or perhaps “I am content.” Either was perfectly appropriate. Maintaining his composure all his life under the harshest pressures, he could rest content in the service he had done his country. One can only hope that Bill Clinton, or any ex-President, can ever again find a way to be so effective.