Smith offers insight into post-term lives of presidents

Patrick HoskenStaff Writer

Lauren Rock | Staff Photographer
Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith speaks on the “exclusive trade union” between U.S. presidents at Thursday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater.

In the waning days of his presidency, a 70-year-old Dwight D. Eisenhower fled Washington with his wife, Mamie, to their farm in Gettysburg. He was facing the impending reality of life after the Oval Office, a time marked by uncertainty.

Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith offered a peek behind the curtain at those private lives during Thursday’s morning lecture, titled “Hail and Farewell: An Exclusive Trade Union.” Smith’s talk was the penultimate lecture for Week Nine, themed “The Presidents Club.”

“Ike faced the conundrum of a retirement for which there was no retirement policy,” Smith said. “To guide him, Eisenhower had only his own instincts and the often dispiriting examples of those who had gone before.”

As Eisenhower found, however, the American people do not simply forget about previous presidents, Smith said. A flood of well-wishers showed up at his home to greet him and shake his hand.

“Even in private life, a former president is public property,” Smith said.

Eisenhower’s post-presidential experience was not unique, according to Smith. Before him, Calvin Coolidge lamented how his presidential title would always precede him, saying, “If only I could get rid of my past life.” Herbert Hoover said, describing the lives of former presidents, “We spent our time taking pills and dedicating libraries.”

But, Smith said, that was not always the case. Hoover traveled extensively, lectured and wrote prolifically, including 21,000 letters. Harry Truman met with world leaders and even conducted the Kansas City Philharmonic.

Truman also stayed active in politics, lobbying unsuccessfully for Democratic candidates in the 1950s and ’60s before settling on a charismatic young man from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy, Smith said. To rally against Kennedy’s 1960 election opponent, Richard Nixon, Truman told one audience, “If you vote for Nixon, you ought to go to hell.”

Kennedy’s election drew criticism from some Republicans who even suggested a national re-count, Smith said. But behind the scenes, Joseph Kennedy, the father of the new president, sought help from Hoover, under whom he had once served on a commission, in legitimizing his son’s victory. Hoover arranged a public handshake between the younger Kennedy and Nixon; in return, Kennedy made Hoover the honorary chairman of the Peace Corps.

“On Inauguration Day, all eyes are fixed on the rising, not the setting sun,” Smith said. “For the incoming president, anything is possible.”

Oppositely, Smith likened the experience on Inauguration Day of a former president to Cinderella’s carriage transforming back into a pumpkin at midnight.

When George Washington left office in 1797, he paid out of pocket to send his belongings from Philadelphia to his post-presidential home in Mount Vernon, Smith said.

“No longer commander-in-chief, Washington, as ex-president, became America’s celebrity-in-chief,” Smith said.

Hundreds of guests arrived at Mount Vernon to get a glimpse of the former president, Smith said. Washington told a friend, “Unless someone pops in unexpectedly, Mrs. Washington and myself will do what I believe has not been done within the last 20 years — that is, sit down to dinner by ourselves.”

In his retirement, Smith said, Washington attempted to live off his land, penned his will and freed his slaves after the death of his wife, Martha. Washington even called for the removal of a Virginia ban on educating African-Americans.

That engagement in social causes set a precedent followed by later former presidents, Smith said.

John Adams wrote an autobiography and took to corresponding with Thomas Jefferson, his successor, in order to offset the misery brought on by the death of his son, Smith said. As Jefferson ended his time in office, he sold his personal collection of books to raise money to replace those destroyed in the Library of Congress during the War of 1812.

“Impoverishment was to be the fate of many early presidents,” Smith said citing James Madison, James Monroe and Andrew Jackson as examples.

The end of a presidency can also be the beginning of a new political career, Smith said. John Quincy Adams ran for Congress, campaigning against slavery and pushing for the right of petition.

“John Quincy Adams illustrates a paradox that would become clearer with 20th-century presidents like Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter,” Smith said. “The less successful a chief executive is in office, the greater his opportunities to succeed as an ex-president.”

Once he left office, Rutherford Hayes fought for educational and prison reform and called attention to America’s unbalanced wealth concentration, Smith said. William Howard Taft went on a lecture tour, wrote for The Saturday Evening Post and even dispensed diet advice. Warren Harding named him chief justice of the Supreme Court, and, at the end of his life, Taft commented, “I have forgotten that I ever was president.”

Theodore Roosevelt ventured to Africa for a safari, then joined The Outlook, a magazine in which he pushed for labor regulations and women’s suffrage through his writing, Smith said. Roosevelt remained a vocal proponent of the United States entering World War I and almost saw a political comeback in 1920 before being sidelined by his health. An ailing Woodrow Wilson stayed out of Congress after his term, instead humorously specifying a plan to “teach ex-presidents how to behave.”

Lyndon Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird, wanted her husband’s White House portrait to be painted in the early days of his presidency, because she took note of the toll the job takes, Smith said. At his retirement event in January 1969, Johnson said it was the happiest day of his life.

Johnson spent his time as an ex-president on his ranch in Texas, meting out orders to his workers and watching the 10 p.m. news, Smith said. He gave out candy to a nearby school of Mexican-American children. He prepped his presidential library and had it advertised at Texas Longhorn football games. He smoked and drank.

Johnson’s farewell address ended up being a speech at a civil rights seminar at his library, where he said, “To be black in a white society is not to stand on level and equal ground. … Until we overcome unequal history,  we cannot overcome unequal opportunity.”

According to Smith, in Nixon’s years removed from the Oval Office, he offered advice. Nixon said, “An effective leader needs enemies, because then you know you’re doing something right,” Smith said.

After politician Pat Buchanan decreed a “culture war” at the 1992 Republican National Convention, Nixon voiced dissatisfaction with his party.

Nixon, the only president to ever resign from the office of the president, also wrote a book titled Beyond Peace.

“Old politicians sometimes die, but they never fade away,” Nixon said.

After almost an hour of presidential oral histories, Smith ended his lecture by invoking the same Sophocles passage Nixon had quoted at Hoover’s death in 1964.

“One must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been.”


Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity.

Q: Nancy and Michael’s book The Presidents Clubdeals a lot with the relationship — how a current president uses former presidents. Could you talk a little bit about the Founding Fathers? As I recall, there was a great many of them who lived on while others came in their place. Was it because of communication difficulties or some other reason that perhaps there wasn’t much contact?

A: I think, basically, when you left office, Chester Arthur said, he was quite annoyed at just how much of a non-person he became on leaving office. Some would argue he’d been a non-person before taking office, but in any event, Arthur said there appeared to be nothing to do for an ex-president except go out into the country and raise pumpkins. And the fact is that the ex-presidency as we know it today didn’t exist. These men left, as I said, often impoverished, they had no particular political clout, even popular former presidents. We didn’t have the mass media to give them an audience. Often they retreated, if not into poverty, then into obscurity. And it’s really a relatively recent development. Now, there’s a big, big exception to that. John Adams called on George Washington to assume command of a quasi-army for the quasi-war with France, but that really was an exception. Everything about Washington is unique. The man who has institutionalized, I would say, the modern ex-presidency more than anyone else is Jimmy Carter. And yet there are parallels, curious parallels with Hoover. Fifty years before there was a Carter Center, there was the Hoover Institution at Stanford. They were both one-term presidents, engineers, who were frankly more adept at humanitarian work than the grind of politics. But there’s no doubt — and it’s a two-edged sword here, to be perfectly honest with you, because while no one begrudges, in fact, people admire, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t admire, President Carter for his humanitarian work, and in the broadest sense of the word, peace-making efforts — it is also true that the Constitution says there’s only one president, implicitly there’s only one secretary of state, and it is, I think, no exaggeration to say that at various times, each of his successors, of both parties, have found themselves on occasion frustrated by what they see as his freelancing efforts. It’s very interesting. If you look at Bill Clinton, who has created his own center, in some ways modeled after the Carter, and who is engaged in global efforts to improve the quality of life, it’s very interesting that Bill Clinton has stayed away from any kind of operational diplomacy. Now, it may be affected by the fact that he’s married to the secretary of state, but you get the drift.

Q: Were Adams and Jefferson arguably the first incarnation of the Presidents Club, and was Abigail Adams’ continued antagonism toward her old friend Jefferson typical of first ladies? Do they have a more difficult time forgiving their husband’s enemies?

A: Well, it is no secret that first ladies, or potential first ladies, often hold grudges that their husbands, as professional politicians, can’t afford to. That’s a very valuable function for them, as a matter of fact. Actually, long before she died, Abigail had joined her husband in forgiving Jefferson his disloyalty, or whatever you want to call it. You have to remember, throughout the 19th century, to be called “Mrs. President” was not a term of compliment. Abigail was mocked as Mrs. President, Sarah Polk likewise, the idea being that these women were meddling. … It was said of Rutherford Hayes’ wife, Lucy Hayes — who is so much more than Lemonade Lucy, you know, the caricature — she was a partner with her husband, and it was said by one critical newspaper that while Mrs. Hayes was temporarily out of town, Mr. Hayes would be acting president. … I will never forget, when you talk about first ladies and wives of candidates dealing with defeat, moving on, re-establishing, even, friendships — the greatest honor that I have ever been given came when President Ford asked me to deliver the final eulogy at his funeral in Grand Rapids. If you’ve ever done anything like that, you know you’re in kind of a fog, you’re trying to get through it, and the Ford family was sitting 20 feet in front of me, and obviously you’re trying to speak to them and not lose it, and I have one very explicit memory of the experience. I remember hearing someone weeping, and I look over to my right, and it was Rosalynn Carter. And who would have thought, in 1976, that that’s how the story would end. I think you’ll find Barbara Bush, for example, the Bushes and the Clintons — George W. Bush refers to Bill Clinton as his brother; they’ve established a very close friendship as well. I think, in modern times, it is the norm for wives to get over either success or failure.

Q: Can you compare — you mention how there was no recount in 1960 and how that ended — could you compare that to 2000?

A: No.

Q: OK then. Why don’t you tell us how presidential libraries differ, and if you can visit only two or three, what’s the order?

A: You know, that’s the problem. That’s like asking which is your favorite child, you know. I’ve run five of them, and I’ve consulted on others. They’re all worth your time and your visit. One of the really refreshing things, and I’m very proud of having played some small role in this, is that the museums have been redone to become, frankly, much more intellectually honest. There was, for years, criticism, much of it valid, that these museums tended to take an uncritical, even celebratory view of the president and fortunately, well, in the case of Gerald Ford, we re-did the museum, and he was quite active and went out of his way to make sure that all sides were included — there’s a screen that plays the Polish gaffe over and over again. You remember, when President Ford prematurely liberated Poland in the 1976 debate? But the great example was we had an opportunity to obtain the staircase atop the old embassy in Saigon, and Henry Kissinger said, “Why on Earth would you want to remind people of the worst day of your presidency?” And Ford said, “First of all, well, it’s history, and we should be reminded of it, but secondly,” with some imagination that people didn’t often ascribe to him, he said, “You know, Henry, that staircase that thousands of Vietnamese scrambled up to get into helicopters to leave in April of 1975, that staircase is every bit as much a symbol of the desire for freedom as the piece of the Berlin Wall that is outside on the front lawn.” And so, not only did we get the staircase, with the help of the Clinton Administration, by the way, but we dedicated it. President Ford came back from California, and we invited the Vietnamese-American community in West Michigan, which is quite large, and you can imagine how bittersweet a day that was. But at one point, there was sort of a middle-aged woman who went up to President Ford and introduced herself, and said, “You saved my family. We went up that staircase.”

Q: What is your opinion of Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ?

A: God, you know, I’m tempted to take back the 2000 question if I could. Authors probably should stay away from assessing — let me say this. I’ve just read the latest volume, I’ve read three of the four volumes. I think Robert Caro’s background is important. Robert Ciro is an investigative journalist. He’s a man fueled by indignation. And that’s fine. He’s also a prodigious researcher and a brilliant storyteller, a brilliant command of narrative history. My problem, I think, with the Caro series overall, and I think it’s more the earlier volumes — the one thing everyone it seems to be could agree about Lyndon Johnson was he wasn’t a simple man. And often in the Caro, he comes off as such. He’s easy to caricature, but that’s not what biographer is all about. Obviously, I look forward to seeing how Caro handles the last volume, because in many ways, in some ways he’s dug himself in a hole. His portrait of Johnson is so bleak, for the most part, so unforgiving, that it will be interesting to see how he explains the transformation once in the residency, to a man who was willing, for example, to write off the South for a generation, by his own acknowledgement, when he signed the Civil Rights Bill in 1964, and then pursue the Voting Rights Act, and then the Housing Act in 1968. People tend to forget. Lyndon Johnson, whatever else you believe about Lyndon Johnson, was the last American president who told us that we had to care about poverty and that the nation had a moral obligation to those on the margins of society. It’s one reason why he’s actually been very well served by the release of his tapes, because Johnson was not a television president, but Johnson sure as hell was a telephone president.

Q: Speaking of biographies, the questioner asks, what is the best biography of Woodrow Wilson?

A: Well, when I was a child, this annoyingly precocious child that I was, some would say — preview of coming attractions in 1964, I was 10 years old, and I read a newly published book called When the Caring Stopped by a man named Jean Smith. Jean Smith died about two weeks ago, and it was a portrait, a sympathetic portrait, of Wilson, basically his last years. It seized me emotionally, intellectually, probably more than any book I’ve ever read. It is still a wonderful read. John Milton Cooper spent many, many years working on a big one-volume biography which I would strongly recommend, and coming down the road, Scott Berg, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Charles Lindbergh and also wrote a wonderful memoir of Katharine Hepburn — Scott Berg has been working these many years on a Wilson biography which I think is a couple of years away.

Q: Do you know why we haven’t heard much lately from Barbara Bush?

A: Well, I have. I’ll never forget, at Betty Ford’s funeral, I gave the last eulogy in Grand Rapids, and Mrs. Bush very kindly was there, sitting next to Bill Clinton. I came down from the pulpit and walked over, and she stood up, and she said, “Will you do mine when the times comes?” And what do you say? I was foolish so I said, “I’d be delighted.” I’ve seen her a couple of times since at events in Texas, and she’s great. The president, as you’ve seen undoubtedly, has a form of Parkinson’s disease and getting around is problematic. Walking is problematic. But he’s uncomplaining, and they’re both very active in these programs, and she’s in fine form.

Q: It’s noted by the questioner the cooperation that second President Bush gave during the transition to President Obama. Can you share any stories regarding not-so-pleasant transition experiences for some presidents?

A: Well, the worst, of course, is the Hoover-Roosevelt, 1932–33, and in fact, it has a direct connection. President Bush, ’43, said in September when the economy was threatening to go over the brink, he said to someone — and it’s a bit in parenthesis, I’m not breaking any confidences — but he said to someone, “If there is a Depression, I’m going to be Roosevelt and not Hoover,” meaning he was perfectly prepared, as president must, in times of crisis, to put aside his own ideological preferences. When Thomas Jefferson bought Louisiana, he said, “I stretched the Constitution so far that it cracked.” Most people are glad that he did, particularly if they live west of the Mississippi. Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower had a very unpleasant ride down Pennsylvania Avenue. Fortunately, 10 years later, at a time of great national tragedy, they finally made up. They both came to Washington for President Kennedy’s funeral, and they were in Blair House waiting for a car to take them to the services and along with Mamie and Bess, and the years fell away, and I’m very pleased to say they put the past behind them and renewed their friendship, or at least their appreciation of each other. I think it’s safe to say that Carter-Reagan was not the warmest hand-off of power, but it must be said, you all remember on that day, when everyone was waiting for the Iranians to release the American hostages, and really out of sheer spite, they didn’t want Jimmy Carter to get the credit, and consequently, they were not out of Iranian air space before noon, when the transfer took place. But Ronald Reagan, who had run a very tough campaign again Carter — Reagan had given instructions, people on his staff said, “Well, what happens if, in the middle of the inauguration, we learn that the hostages are free?: Reagan said that was simple: If that happened, he would call President Carter forward to acknowledge him for his efforts to free the hostages, which calls to mind what Carter had done four years earlier, if you remember. The very first lines of the Carter inaugural address, he said, “I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land,” and it was an extraordinarily gracious thing, and it made it possible later on. Lots of people were surprised, some people still are surprised that Ford and Carter became very good friends. They are probably the closest, if somewhat most unlikely; it’s somewhat like Hoover and Truman, maybe Jefferson and Adams. One thing, there’s a wonderful story, when President Carter, who was also one of the eulogists at the funeral at Grand Rapids — he started by describing a New Yorker cartoon that had amused both he and President Ford. It showed a little boy; he was pulling on his mother’s dress, obviously trying to get her attention, and he said, “Mommy, mommy, when I grow up I want to be an ex-president.”

Q: Without commenting on the timetable, what sort of an ex-president do you expect President Obama to be?

A: I have no idea. I imagine, whatever happens, he will be a relatively young man. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him make Chicago, maybe the University of Chicago, his base; that would be a logical place to put the library. Again, I have no idea. I think, like other former presidents, he will discover that he has a form, he has an audience, he has some baggage, which is true of every former president. He will, no doubt, draw upon the experience of his predecessors.

Q: Hopefully, this isn’t like asking you who your favorite child is, but in your opinion, who were America’s two best presidents and why.

A: The problem is, you can’t divorce that from context. There’s a reason why the Holy Trinity is Washington in the 18th century, Lincoln in the 19th, and FDR in the 20th. Let me twist that around. I’ll tell you who the worst presidents are. Andrew Johnson and Franklin Pierce. Pierce at least had the excuse that he was a drunk. Johnson should have drank more. Now there are people who will tell you, no, Ulysses Grant or Richard Nixon, you could make out a case — corrupt, forced to resign. But I submit for your consideration, there’s a qualitative difference between a president whose cronies pilfer the public till, as offensive as that is, and a president who, like Pierce, knowingly brings about the Civil War by pursuing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, ripping the scab off the Missouri Compromise, and worse, Andrew Johnson. Why Andrew Johnson? Because Lincoln had died, and 600,000 of his countrymen had died for a principle, and Andrew Johnson came as close to squandering their sacrifice as anyone could. For a long time, it was fashionable among historians to argue that Johnson was a victim of Congress, that his impeachment was politically motivated, to which I say, of course it was politically motivated, and the only tragedy is that it didn’t work. Andrew Johnson made it necessary for 100 years to go by before another Southern president named Johnson, who succeeded another assassinated president, came into office and committed all of the prestige of that office to the pursuit of racial equality.

—Transcribed by Joanna Hamer