Jewish World Review August 23, 2001 / 4 Elul, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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What's an ex-president for?

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- JUST what do you do with an ex-president?

The question occurred while watching Bill Clinton address a crowd at Little Rock's aerospace museum -- as if he were one of those animated exhibits that talks as it turns as it emotes.

Between the little biplane hanging from the ceiling and the giant rocket booster, he fit right in -- as a kind of historical exhibit. Maybe an example of hot-air propulsion?

Strike that uncharitable comment.

It was an awkward position for anyone to be in, and the former president and still celebrity carried it off as gracefully as possible. And with as little self-promotion as could be expected from any career politician.

We all know that former presidents are valuable commodities, but just what is one supposed to do with them? America has always been the land of the future, though in a pinch we'll focus fully on the present. But the past? Well, as Americans say, that's history -- meaning not historic but over, finished, done, irrelevant. We may be the most amnesiac of nations.

Having a former president around is a bit like inheriting a family heirloom that no longer has a clear use. I've got an elaborate samovar sitting on a sideboard in my living room right now. You wouldn't want to discard that sort of thing, but you can't really use it, so you wind up keeping it. For Display Purposes Only.

After all, former presidents can't very well kibitz the current president, at least not immediately. Not good form, as the Brits say.

Even ex-presidential candidates follow the unwritten tradition and disappear for a decent interval after the election. When they do reappear, they emerge dignified, statesmanlike, above the rough-and-tumble of the campaign. They may even adopt a disguise -- like Al Gore wearing a beard.

Happily, ex-presidents can always go into seclusion to write their memoirs. It's the ideal solution. That way, taxpayers don't have to support them in lavish style. They are paid millions by a generous publisher as a kind of public service -- since presidential memoirs may be the most unread, even uncut, of books. The kind of books people acquire rather than read. The way we would invest in any other form of interior decoration.

The last and perhaps only presidential memoir worth reading was Ulysses S. Grant's. He wrote it while dying of throat cancer in order to leave his wife provided for, and finished it just days before his death. Some detect the fine hand of his publisher, Mark Twain, in the prose, but Grant's general orders were equally terse, candid and revealing. And all too effective, much to Bobby Lee's chagrin.

Other presidential memoirs tend to just occupy shelf space. But producing them keeps ex-presidents off the streets and gives them something fairly innocuous to do.

Somewhere at home I've still got the two-volume memoirs of Harry Truman, maybe holding up the shaky leg of an uneven table. Mr. Truman was a lot more impressive in person. He once showed a bunch of us history students at the University of Missouri around his library in Independence. Now that was an adventure.

Brisk, swift, no-nonsense, proper yet humorous in his show-me way, Mr. Truman took us past a huge oriental rug that was hanging from the rafters as he conducted a guided tour, and each time we passed it, he would say over his shoulder: ``That's a rug the shah of Iran gave me.'' You could tell he wasn't much impressed by shahs, potentates, and muckety-mucks in general. He liked to say that he had left the presidency to assume the highest office in the land: citizen.

No, the man had no airs at all. I fear the Clinton Library, to judge from the promos, and the Certificate Suitable for Framing sent to all the donors, is going to be nothing but airs. Once upon a time presidents simply returned to private life, as did Washington, Jefferson and John Adams. But that was a different, more dignified time.

Now ex-presidents are treated as national heirlooms, and we don't quite know what to do with them. Except build each a library/shrine/tourist attraction. It keeps them occupied, like serving on the occasional study commission. Which is a lot better than having them jiggling the current president's elbow and generally making pests of themselves.

Ex-presidents, even ex-presidential candidates, can be a bother if not diverted. Without a place to light, William Jennings Bryan, the greatest orator of his age and three-time Democratic presidential nominee, soon became a bore.

Theodore Roosevelt, who was still young when he left the White House, proved mainly a bellicose irritant for his successors, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson. TR was about as helpful to have around as a bull moose.

Being an ex-president is a touchy assignment, although Jimmy Carter has shown that it can be done well. Is there a single election in any new democracy around the world that has not used him as an impartial observer? His ex-presidential career has been the glowing success his presidency never was.

In retirement, Mr. Carter has somehow managed to be both candid and constructive, his own man and a national asset. If only he could have become ex-president without ever having been president, his career would have been an unmitigated success. But he may prove the exception among ex-presidents, most of whom neither fade away nor return to the fray full-steam, but just linger awkwardly.

As a former president, Bill Clinton now faces what may prove his toughest personal challenge: how to fade into the background. It'll be interesting to see how he handles that assignment. Let's just hope his ex-presidency doesn't prove, like some of the more flamboyant times of his presidency, entirely too interesting.

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