The death of former president Gerald R. Ford should cause us, again, to ponder how we treat our ex-presidents.
Traditionally, once they walk out of the White House, they are pushed into pastureland extending as far as the eye can see. Oh, they may attend funerals of foreign leaders. They may join corporate boards and give paid speeches. They usually write their memoirs, always omitting the juiciest parts. They speak out on behalf of humanitarian causes. They raise money for their libraries. They receive Secret Service protection.
But they do not really become senior statesmen in the sense that their views are sought out and listened to by current and future occupants of their old job. There is a pro forma photo op where a smiling current president shakes hands with a smiling ex-president and his wife. But there is no serious consultation. The ex-presidents usually keep their own counsel and refuse, for the sake of decorum, to talk publicly about how their successors are doing.
Even President Bush failed to seek out his own father’s advice about the wisdom of going to war in Iraq for a second time, although his father also went to war against Saddam Hussein.
It’s not hard to understand how the custom developed of sending presidents out to sea much as the Vikings launched those about to die. Presidents usually have come to office late in life, well-to-do and well-established. Exhausted by the rigors of office, they often gratefully sought out well-deserved retirement. Many died soon after leaving office.
Often the rancor of partisan politics after bitter campaigns left those kicked out of office unwilling to work with presidents of the opposite party and vice versa. And there’s no doubt that a situation looks different to the one in the Oval Office than it does to those who used to sit there. Weeks of classified briefings available to the sitting president may provide a much different picture from the one an outsider would have.
But, increasingly, we have younger presidents who leave office while still in their prime. Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton left office as able, thoughtful men with years of productive life ahead of them.
Ford, who died at 93 after leaving office 30 years before, gave an interview to The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, to be released after Ford’s death, saying that he would not have gone into Iraq in 2003 and vigorously disagreeing with how Bush attempted to justify war. He questioned what he said is Vice President Cheney’s “pugnacious” approach in the current administration. (Cheney had worked in Ford ‘s administration also.)
Carter, who makes his living writing books, is the only living ex-president who has made a practice of criticizing policies of his successors by becoming a have-suitcase-will-travel international troubleshooter. While he clearly irritated Clinton with some of his advice, he also proved useful in various roles.
It is understandable that former presidents hesitate to criticize sitting presidents in public. Nobody wants to be second-guessed. But in an increasingly difficult world, with new crises erupting in remote parts of the globe to daily buffet the president, advice from those who once held the job could be useful, even vital.
New presidents should regularly and quietly seek the counsel of the old presidents’ club. It doesn’t have to be public. It shouldn’t and wouldn’t be vitriolic sessions of shoulda-coulda-woulda. But dignified meetings sharing experiences, perspective and assessments of foreign leaders and situations could be extremely valuable.
No president, of course, would be bound to accept such advice. But if the current president had met privately and honestly and at length with his father, Ford, Carter and Clinton before going to war, there’s a good chance we would not be in this mess in Iraq. All four would have said, “Don’t do it.”
This country worships ever more passionately at the altar of youth. While that may work out well in technology and some art forms, it can backfire in diplomacy and national domestic policy.
Just the knowledge that a sitting president had consulted with former presidents could be reassuring.
At the very least, we all might learn something and the culture of backstabbing, rancorous partisanship we’ve cultivated might be lessened.
Pastureland is all well and good for animals, but it’s a waste of resources to send ex-presidents out there.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)hotmail.com.)