Former presidents long slipped into a life soaked in sepia. They farmed on bucolic homesteads with graceful names. They golfed. Eventually, inking memoirs became standard post-presidency practice, sometimes because they needed money, odd as that seems today.
“After the White House, what is there to do but drink?” asked Franklin Pierce, who did, prodigiously.
Other former presidents fared better. Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. William Howard Taft became chief justice of the United States. Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter enjoyed more successful post-presidencies than their single terms in the White House.
The Clintons and the Obamas are forging decidedly different paths.
They launched foundations, libraries and museums, and global initiatives because this is what modern former presidents and first ladies do. But they’ve also become massive content creators. They live on our screens and in our ears and course through our social media feeds. They produce movies and television shows. This being 2021, they all host podcasts. The Clintons are penning his and hers thrillers to be published this year. The couples have partnered with such creative forces as Netflix, the History Channel, Apple, Spotify and Springsteen.
They’ve become brands. And, frankly, they appear to be having a blast.
“Public policy, culture, and entertainment are all so intertwined these days,” Hillary Clinton wrote in an email, sent through her spokesman. “There are tremendous new opportunities across mediums to tell important stories and lift up the voices of people who have been quietly changing the world. And if, while I’m at it, I can have a little fun writing a mystery with my friend Louise Penny, all the better!”
“There is no playbook for a post-presidency like this,” says Katie Hill, the Obamas’ spokeswoman. “President and Mrs. Obama understood the power of storytelling. They used their unique perch to share the stories of people who inspired them.”
Both couples exited the White House in their early 50s, blessed with the gifts of time and remunerative options. Two decades after leaving, Clinton is still younger than the current occupant. “Age and modern medicine is what changes the story entirely. Presidents didn’t used to live this long after their terms,” says Jeffrey Engel, director of Southern Methodist University’s Center for Presidential History.
They have adapted to the times, and mastered Hollywood and social media to share the stories of others, “story” being a favored term of both couples. Higher Ground has a dozen employees. Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton founded HiddenLight Productions to “share the stories of leaders — celebrated and unsung alike,” the 2016 presidential candidate said in an earlier news release. By creating television series, movies, podcasts, digital content and page-turners, the Obamas and Clintons are reaching larger, younger and more diverse audiences than those for White House memoirs.
Barack Obama, author of the best-selling, highly-praised memoir “A Promised Land,” has long celebrated his voracious consumption of popular culture with his annual list of favorite books, music and movies. His “Renegades: Born in the USA” podcast with Springsteen sounds like two boomers chatting about their passions over beers. In their third episode, the 44th president sings more than Bruce does. (Also, Obama, a “renegade,” seriously?)
Even a memoir becomes something else entirely, a global franchise and an event. Michelle Obama’s “Becoming,” has sold more than 15 million copies, bolstered by a documentary, plus an arena tour featuring special guests and merch. With the paperback and young reader versions debuting this week, its appeal showing little chance of waning. Hillary and Chelsea Clinton transformed their 2019 book “The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience,” into an upcoming Apple TV Plus docuseries, created by their production company, which they will host.
This month, the Obamas will launch Netflix’s “Waffles + Mochi,” sort of an international foodie “Sesame Street” with a passel of celebrity guests. Among Higher Ground’s other projects are a television series about Frederick Douglass, a biopic of civil rights leader Bayard Rustin directed by George C. Wolfe and a movie based on Mohsin Hamid’s novel “Exit West” starring Riz Ahmed.
The company is “set up as a platform to tell the types of stories that embody the Obamas’ values and interests,” says Joe Paulsen, Higher Ground’s head of strategy and business. “We have a home with Netflix and Spotify. If we believe in a writer, believe in an idea, we can advocate for it.” Malia Obama, who shares her parent’s interest in entertainment, is joining the writing staff of Donald Glover’s Amazon project “Hive.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Contrary to John Quincy Adams’s belief, “the greatest job in the world is being ex-president,” Engel says. “For the most part, they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to. People pay you for your participation. Everywhere you go, people stand up and applaud.”
There was a time when former presidents worried about even the appearance of profiting from their public service. LBJ Foundation CEO Mark Updegrove, author of “Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House,” says that even after leaving office, Truman was so wary of “cheapening the office” that, at book signings, he refused to sign with a recognizable brand pen, like, a Cross or a Bic, “for fear it might look like a corporate endorsement,” and he incurred the mailing costs to send copies to readers. In 1958, the Former Presidents Act helped alleviate many financial burdens, providing former chief executives with an array of benefits, including postage.
Subsequent presidents, many after decades in public office, learned they could be remunerated handsomely for a few hours of their time. Interviewer David Frost paid Richard Nixon $600,000 and a share of the profits to tell his story. Gerald Ford was compensated to sit on corporate boards. In 1989, Ronald Reagan set the gold standard when he was given $2 million for two 20-minute speeches and a few public appearances in Japan, opening the floodgates to criticism. It’s a practice that the Clintons and Obamas have continued.
Not every former president prefers to remain in the public light or court Hollywood. George W. Bush works with Clinton on disaster relief and the Presidential Leadership Scholars, but has opted for a quieter life, preferring to paint.
Before leaving the White House, the Clintons and Obamas had never generated the sort of wealth they have now, though Barack Obama received a major payday from the success of his earlier books “Dreams From My Father” and “The Audacity of Hope” that far outstripped his U.S. Senate salary. The Obamas reportedly earned as much as $65 million for their recent memoirs, negotiated by Washington lawyer Robert Barnett, who has represented the Clintons and George W. and Laura Bush.
Bill Clinton, the first (and, so far, only) presidential candidate to play the sax on television, “has always been a voracious reader and a lifelong fan of pop culture — from music and sports to television and film,” says his spokesman Angel Urena. “Bringing these projects to life has given him the chance to try new things, explore different forms of storytelling and work with people he admires across his wide range of interests. It’s been fun, exciting and gratifying.”
Hence, a thriller, which might be more fun than writing a 957-page memoir. The former president is re-partnering with publishing juggernaut James Patterson after their 2018 success with “The President Is Missing,” which sold more than 2 million copies. Their new book out in June is titled “The President’s Daughter.” It is not a sequel, although she also goes missing. “State of Terror,” his wife’s project with acclaimed mystery writer Penny that’s scheduled for October, is about a secretary of state dealing with, according to the news release, “the complex world of high-stakes diplomacy and treachery.”
The life of ex-Oval Office occupants could be easily upended again. Before politics, the most recent former president was a reality television host who branded his name on everything from casinos to steaks. As to what Trump may do next, Updegrove says, “all bets are off. We ain’t seen nothing yet.”