It is early morning, and the Secret Service detail for former presidents is assembling in an undisclosed Washington location. The supervisor steps forward, clipboard in hand, and calls out some names: "You agents will be traveling with former president Gerald Ford. You will go to Vail, Aspen, Palm Beach, Palm Springs and Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where Mr. Ford will address the annual convention of periodontists and play in their golf tournament. First-class accommodations all the way, as usual."
Then the supervisor looks at his clipboard and calls out three more names: "You three will be traveling with former president Carter. You will go by Trailways bus from Plains, Ga., to the South Bronx. There, Mr. Carter will help rehabilitate some slum housing and make a speech to a group of s. As usual, some of you will sleep on the floor in the slum housing while others will be housed at an Eight Days Motel in Hoboken, N.J. Any questions?"
Yes. Did anything like this ever happen? Answer: Not that I know. But given the way Ford and Carter have conducted themselves since leaving office, I cannot be far off. Aside from writing books and making an occasional speech, Carter -- the liberal -- has conducted his retirement conservatively. Like most of his predecessors, he has shunned commercialization of the presidency. Not so Ford. The longtime legislative conservative has virtually franchised the Oval Office.
Ford, whose various government pensions and allowances earn him $417,000 a year, nevertheless makes speeches, works as a consultant and will write a letter to an official (such as Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole) on behalf of a firm (such as Flying Tiger Line) that paid him a fee ($100,000) to consult on such momentous issues as U.S. landing rights and why a competitor (Nippon Cargo Airlines) should not get them. He may even do bar mitzvahs.
He does do corporate boards. He sits on several for fees as high as $30,000 a year. He earns consulting fees of as much as $100,000 a year. He is available as a speaker, but his fee can be a rather steep $20,000. For firms such as American Express he is both a consultant and a member of the board.
Ford's spokesmen point out that he also raises vast amounts of money for charities and that his flourishing business career is yet another expression of his conservative ethic. The man believes in business, free enterprise and all of that. His defenders say he is only practicing what he always believed. His retirement is vindication of his politics. Maybe. But there is also no question that Ford is selling the presidency.
The modern ethic for the presidential retirement was probably set by Harry S Truman, no man of independent means. In his memoirs, he wrote that he rejected all commercial offers after leaving the White House: "I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency."
Truman seems hopelessly quaint now. All that Ford does is "commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency," and he does it to a fair amount of board-room applause and precious little opprobrium.