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The Post-Presidency from Washington to Clinton

Burton Kaufman


Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2013

Hardcover. xiv-646 p. ISBN 978-0700618613. $45.00


Reviewed by Jeffrey H. Bloodworth

Gannon University, Erie (Pennsylvania)



In Praise of Knights & Castles: Or Why the Political History of Elites Matter 

Presidential history is America’s version of “knights and castles.” The low-hanging historical fruit of medieval history, kingly intrigue and knightly chivalry remains an object of passionate public interest. From the “Game of Thrones” to Renaissance Fairs, millions adore tales of medieval gallantry and politics. American history lacks those relics of the Middle Ages; we do, however, possess presidents and a White House.

George Washington never wore a suit of armor but presidents wage war and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was once assaulted and burned to the ground. Knights and castles they are not, but Commanders-in-Chief and their White House suffice, nonetheless. As a result, the “presidential synthesis” has long been the avenue the lay public uses to order and understand their national narrative. Consequently, presidential administrations mark the birth and death of American epochs.

Since the late 1960s, successive generations of academics have employed a “bottom-up” approach that turned the traditional narratives and the presidential synthesis on their collective heads. For both medievalists and Americanists, knights, castles and presidents no longer drive history. In their stead were the peasants, poorly-behaved women, and dissidents, of all sort and stripe, who shaped and molded the past and present. Truly, an intellectual revolution had occurred. Too bad, the public failed to take heed.

Fifty years into the “people’s history” era, Americans remain fascinated by the past. Unfortunately, the public generally ignores bottom-up academic histories. Devouring David McCullough’s offerings and flocking to biographical films of elites, even the literate public demands top-down history. Burton Kaufman’s The Post-Presidency from Washington to Clinton responds to this audience. Deeply unfashionable, the work is also thoroughly engaging and destined to become a classic of a niche, yet emergent, literature on the presidency after the White House.

The unique product of a certain kind of author and a particular type of press, The Post-Presidency from Washington to Clinton is a scholarly achievement. A specialist in diplomatic and political history, Burton Kaufman has collaborated with the University Press of Kansas and its director Fred Woodward on several past projects. Scarcely a mediocre publisher of academic minutiae, Woodward’s press produces knights-and-castles-history, American-style. From military history to the gold standard in presidential biographies, the University Press of Kansas is home to unfashionable, yet still important, history.

Fifty years ago, Kaufman’s book would have been much briefer. With few notable exceptions, most presidents either died in office or lived a few short and unremarkable years after their terms. The advent of modern medicine and healthier lifestyles now means ex-presidents have decades in which to further define their public selves and legacies. Led by the peripatetic Jimmy Carter, every post-Watergate president has established a substantial post-presidential career.

With this in mind, Kaufman’s work is necessary. Indeed, political historians and media observers require the veritable “big book” that places post-presidential actions into context; and this work delivers. To the author, the evolution in post-presidential careers mirrors the developments in the larger American political culture. Thus, Washington, Adams and Jefferson retreated from a public life after their presidency for virtual seclusion. Hewing to the republican ideal of the “citizen-statesman,” they left the White House to supposedly resume their private lives.

Though Washington, Adams, and Jefferson dabbled in politics all three kept to the republican ideal and remained above the fray. Their immediate successors, Madison, Monroe and Quincy Adams, abandoned their elders’ example. Reflecting the larger changes in American political culture, the evolution from a republican sensibility to a raw, participatory democracy, the latter lived his post-presidency about as far from the bucolic Mount Vernon as one could get—in the House of Representatives.

Throughout the nineteenth century, ex-presidents increasingly engaged in partisan politics and self-promotion. To Kaufman, Grant marked a transition point between eras. After 1877, the nation itself embarked upon an urban, industrial frenzy with resulting changes in post-presidential lives. Reflecting these transformations was Grant, who used his office for commercial self-promotion. Decades hence, Theodore Roosevelt continued to revolutionize the office and the post-presidency alike. In this way, the dynamic lives of ex-presidents continued to mirror variations in the larger political culture.

As the aforementioned example reveals, The Post-Presidency from Washington to Clinton hardly uncovers much new interpretive ground. Kaufman, however, places known facts in a new light. For example, Woodrow Wilson’s post-presidential career, in the author’s view, was not merely a “short interlude between his presidency and death” [264]. Placed in a different perspective, Wilson’s post-White House law office and plans for a political comeback were not quixotic. Instead, he hoped for an active post-presidential career that followed Roosevelt’s model.

Approximately half of Kaufman’s 650-page work is devoted to the “Modern Post-Presidency.” Few should quibble over the author’s choice of Hoover as the advent of this era. Indeed, in his thirty-year post-White House career, the thirty-first president made “the position of the ex-president” into a full-time occupation [316]. Franklin Roosevelt’s untimely death left it to Truman to build upon Hoover’s paradigm. In addition to founding the semi-official “Office of the Ex-President,” Truman also altered the presidential library from a museum, as Roosevelt intended, into a center for research. In addition to their verve and a changed political culture, actuarial tables also played a role in Hoover and Truman’s transformation of the modern presidency. Both men led long lives.

The post-presidencies of their immediate successors, Eisenhower and Johnson, were cut short by heart disease. Indeed, neither man accomplished much of significance after their time in power. A fact that lent credence to LBJ’s lament, “the only thing more impotent than a former president is a cut dog at a screwing match” [394]. Whereas Ike and LBJ died quickly, Nixon and Ford survived decades after leaving office. Moreover, in a reflection of their times, they marketed themselves to a mass audience in pursuit of disparate goals. For Nixon, he sought redemption, while Ford wanted economic security (and then some).

Whereas Nixon earned grudging acceptance, Ford made himself into a multi-millionaire and national treasure. Equally significant, the thirty-eighth president forged a bond with Jimmy Carter. Though the Georgian has undoubtedly blazed the consummate trail of a modern post-president, he and Ford did something heretofore unthinkable: they joined forces. Starting with a simple Reader’s Digest column, the two former presidents jointly and regularly commented on foreign and domestic affairs and helped inform the national agenda.

For Carter, however, shaping one national agenda was not enough. Through the Carter Center, the thirty-ninth president became a global peacemaker and prophet for democracy and human rights. To Kaufman, he “redefined” the post-presidency by turning the republican ideal upside-down. After Carter, former presidents wield their influence for the “welfare of mankind” [448].

The alpha to Carter’s omega, Ronald Reagan was as different from his predecessor as any two white, Middle American men could have been. The Gipper’s bout with Alzheimer’s obviously makes his post-presidency into a separate and special case. He, nevertheless, also embarked upon a public post-presidency that was cut short by a tragic disease.

The author’s epilogue gives both closure and suggests continuing action. Kaufman is forced to summarize the post-presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton even as the latter is still in its infancy. A moderately conservative patrician, Bush refused the effusive do-gooder model provided by Carter. All the same, his willingness to work with Clinton and push voluntarism shows how complete the evolution of the post-presidency has become. Meanwhile, Clinton’s global activism and domestic partisanship might make Washington blanch, Jackson belch, and Teddy Roosevelt envious. But in light of Kaufman’s thesis, the forty-second president’s pursuits seem (almost) foreordained.

Burton Kaufman’s work is well written, deeply informed, and highly entertaining. It deserves a wide audience. Critics will wonder about the necessity of a 650-page tome on the subject of the post-presidency. They probably have a point. In a more perfect world, the literate public would surely consume monographs about “the people.” We don’t live in that world. In an age of declining readership and struggling university presses, academics should, like Kaufman, write for the public we have. Moreover, presidential history matters and the careers of ex-presidents are increasingly relevant. Returning to knights and castles and the presidential synthesis is not an alternative. Writing histories that inform and interest the educated public about relevant issues and personalities remains our only choice.


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