One of the minor problems before President Reagan is the prospect of three ex-presidents at large during the next three and one-half years. Rather than return our defeated leaders to the van of loyal opposition, our political system encourages former presidents to spend the remainder of their days relaxing on golf courses and ski slopes, working studiously in their memorial libraries or just being plain folk again.
But even in their various retreats they care strongly about our country's future. Invariably our former presidents grant newspaper interviews, appear on the so-called television "news" shows, publish their memoirs and in other ineffectual ways express their opinions on the problems confronting this nation. Their public reflections can, on occasion, be an embarrassment to the White House incumbent. Furthermore, those squandered opinions are a misuse of one of our greatest national resources: the collective wisdom of Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter.
The ancient Romans recalled Cincinnatus from retirement to public service, and President Reagan could follow their example by proposing anew the Forum of the Presidents' Act. This legislation, introduced more than 70 years ago, would provide an at-large seat in the House of Representatives for every living former U.S. president. It is a radical proposal, but then so are many of President Reagan's legislative proposals.
Some people, of course, will be quick to point out that the reason Ford and Carter are ex-presidents is precisely that the voters wished to remove them from the government. Nixon's departure is due to his own conscience. This objection, however, is easily put aside. The former presidents were removed from the presidency -- not from the government for all time.
In the House, our former presidents would, of course, no longer be able to decide national policy by themselves. Their voices would be few among many. Furthermore, they will have suffered a separation-of-powers change by having been incorporated into the House. Because they would not represent particular constituencies, they would not be bound by the local preoccupations that sometimes rightly and sometimes criminally occupy the time of our elected representatives. All of the time of our former president representatives would be devoted to the interests of the nation as a whole in the forum of the House.
The idea of creating a forum of the presidents in the House was proposed by William Stile, Bennet, a representative from New York, during the 60th Congress and then again during the 61st Congress. At a March 29, 1910, hearing before the House Committee on the Election of the President and Vice President, Bennet argued forcefully for his measure. The only former president to return to the House was John Quincy Adams. Historians agree, Bennet said, that "the 16 years Adams devoted to public legislation in the House of Representatives were of infinitely more value to the country than his four years in the presidency, and largely because of his four years in the presidency."
By returning to the government, our former presidents would enjoy an official forum for their considered views on all matters affecting the country. They would not be compelled to seek out so-called talk shows or the pages of learned journals of public opinion like "Playboy" to express their ideas: the floor of the House and the Congressional Record would be at their disposal. Rep. Bennet and his colleagues in the House were greatly disturbed by seeing President Cleveland's name and portrait associated with advertisements for tooth powder! Think how we would feel if President Nixon were to appear on the television under the sponsorship of Liquid-Plumr or if President Ford offered his analysis of the dangers of a strategic arms treaty under the auspices of Bubble Yum.
The knowledge and wisdom Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter would bring to the House could be invaluable. Two Congresses after William Stile Bennet debated his proposal for a forum of the presidents, a similar measure was introduced in Congress to grant ex-presidents a seat in the Senate. It too failed. The Senate was far too august an assembly to admit every former president into its ranks. The 98th Congress could correct the errors of the previous Congress. It could give Dick, Jerry and Jimmy a place in the House, which is probably where they belonged all the time anyway.