By Burton I. Kaufman
Univ. Press of Kansas. 646 pp. $45
Like outdated Macintosh computers, retired boxers and winners of “American Idol,” ex-presidents often hang around much longer than they’re relevant or wanted. Yet it seems impolitic to shoot them, as Grover Cleveland once favored. What to do with commanders in chief who “could not, and should not, be ordinary citizens again?”
“The post-presidency has evolved since World War II into a big business,” Burton I. Kaufman writes in “The Post-Presidency From Washington to Clinton,” a massive appraisal of the careers of about 30 chief executives who didn’t die in the White House or shortly after leaving it. “Ex-presidents have mass merchandised themselves and made untoward millions of dollars through the sale of their memoirs and other books (most of which have been partially or completely ghostwritten), through their appearances on the lecture circuit, and by being featured in different media formats.”
What Kaufman, also the author of books about Jimmy Carter, Dwight Eisenhower and the Korean War, calls “the office of the ex-president” wasn’t always about the Benjamins. Though founding fathers such as Washington and Jefferson retired to their plantations, they continued to meddle in politics. Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt ran for president again. Harry Truman took a cross-country road trip sans Secret Service detail, only to be besieged at every stop. And Franklin Pierce drank himself to death.
Today most former occupants of the White House have better options than the bottom of a whiskey bottle. Though ex-presidents have tried their hand at autobiography since John Adams, Richard Nixon was a particularly deft operator of the memoir mill, trying to redeem his reputation (and earn seven-figure advances) after Watergate by writing books at a Stephen King-like pace. Busy scribes Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton also became “citizens of the world” through international philanthropy. But the ex-president who milked the office the most, according to Kaufman, wasn’t even elected: Gerald Ford.