What’s an ex-president to do? Trump and the post-White House lives of his predecessors


Here’s how other former presidents have occupied their time after leaving the White House

In this July 2020 photo, former president Donald Trump stands at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Is former president Donald Trump feeling anything like the 19th century’s Simon Bolivar in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The General in His Labyrinth?

The ailing and failing South American “liberator” is described in the novel as a man “shaken by the overwhelming revelation that the headlong race between his misfortunes and his dreams was at the moment reaching the finish line … ‘Dammit,’ he sighed. ‘How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?’”

Trump is certainly dealing with multiple misfortunes, including the unique ordeal of a second impeachment trial (despite his acquittal), the humiliation of an election loss, hydra-headed lawsuits on the horizon and looming loan payments that may shake the Jenga towers of Trump’s enterprises.

What’s this former president to do?

We may find out soon when Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC, this weekend. He will reportedly talk about the future of the Republican Party — and his role in it.

How early former presidents kept busy

How have other former presidents occupied their time?

Even though Trump’s interest in history is limited (he has, after all, spoken as if Frederick Douglass is still alive and suggested that the Continental Army captured airports during the American Revolution), the lessons and patterns of the past might nonetheless help him think productively about the next chapter of his life.

Founding Father presidents — George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — all retired productively to private life after leaving office. Plantation and farm management filled many days; Trump’s business interests might become a 21st century counterpart.

Adams and Jefferson also savoured the longer hours available for ongoing studies in philosophy, religion and history. Jefferson enjoyed applying his interest in science to crops at his Monticello plantation in Virginia — and founded the University of Virginia.

Adams and Jefferson also indulged in vast correspondence, including thoughtful exchanges with each other. The second president’s letters could be eloquently cranky about his fellow men (“human reason and human conscience … are not a match for human passion, human imaginations, and human enthusiasm”); he was also appealingly self-deprecating (“I drop into myself, and acknowledge myself to be a fool.”).

The second president’s son, John Quincy Adams, charted a different course after losing the bitterly fought 1828 election to Andrew Jackson. Rejecting retirement to Massachusetts, he served nine terms in the House of Representatives. He even died there — in the speaker’s room, after collapsing during a debate — ending a post-White House career in which he became one of the most prominent anti-slavery voices in the country.

Ulysses S. Grant also travelled his own road, literally.

He and his wife took two years to tour the globe, with the hero of the Civil War feted everywhere. There was tea at Windsor Castle (where Queen Victoria found Julia Grant “civil and complimentary in her funny American way”) and hours of talk with Otto von Bismarck after Grant simply knocked at his front door.

When crowds welcomed him home, the former president made a third run for the White House — but was out-maneuvered at the 1880 Republican convention by James A. Garfield. Grant’s last years were then spent battling financial difficulties and cancer, with Samuel Clemens — more commonly known as Mark Twain — coaxing him into writing the money-making volumes that remain a masterpiece among presidential memoirs.

Modern former presidents

The 20th century offers more models.

Theodore Roosevelt’s post-presidential career stands out for drama. After William Howard Taft was inaugurated, Roosevelt led a big game hunting expedition to Africa for the Smithsonian Institution and New York’s Museum of Natural History. His safari party tallied 11,400 kills, including six white rhinos.

Like Grant before him, Roosevelt kept travelling, spending months in Europe meeting monarchs and government leaders. And like Grant, welcoming crowds at home rekindled political appetites. As with Grant, again, that did not go well.

Styling himself a progressive “bull moose,” Roosevelt forged a third party when the 1912 Republican convention renominated Taft. A three-way electoral split then gave Woodrow Wilson the White House with 42 per cent of the popular vote.

Taft moved from the 1912 melee to a John Quincy Adams-like future. After taking up a Yale law professorship, he was appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1921.

Memoirs, libraries

By the mid-20th century, post-White House life had some common themes. Beginning with Harry Truman, each president — John F. Kennedy tragically excepted — opted to produce best-selling memoirs and to help build presidential libraries, repressing impulses to resuscitate their political careers.

Some prioritized relaxation while writing. Dwight Eisenhower, for example, spent time golfing, fishing and playing bridge (which had already been a regular features of his time in the White House).

Some had limited options because of declining health (Lyndon Johnson’s heart problems, Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s). One — Richard Nixon — turned his traditional hard work habits toward reputation rehabilitation, using expansive writing to gain elder statesman status.

Several have channelled energy and stature into creating new mechanisms for public service — for example, Jimmy Carter’s Conflict Resolution Program and work for Habitat for Humanity and the Clinton Foundation founded by Bill Clinton.

In the end, of course, Trump will devise his own unique post-presidency career — likely as unconventional and perhaps as troubling as his White House years. There is grumbling and fuming in his Mar-a-Lago labyrinth right now, but Trump is certainly seeking an escape that Bolivar could not find.

There will be golf, of course, à la Eisenhower. There will probably be a memoir, though a ghost writer may emerge battered from drafting sessions with a Trump accustomed to lobbing tweet-sized poison darts.

Most importantly, there will likely be Trump “big bang” efforts — Teddy Roosevelt-esque incursions into the 2024 election, rallies during which he can strut his stand-up routines, perhaps a cable network launch to outfox an insufficiently obsequious Fox.

Whatever Trump’s approach to his post-White House life, there is bound to be some of the miasma Garcia Marquez sensed around Bolivar: “A strange night … heavy with the weeping of orphans and the fragrance of decay.”

Ronald W. Pruessen
Professor of History,
University of Toronto

* Published in print edition on 26 February 2021

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