“The Post-Presidency from Washington to Clinton”

BOOK REVIEW: RIDGE WRITERS ON BOOKSReview by Donna McCrohan Rosenthal

Back in the Grover Cleveland era, a newspaper editor suggested that former presidents be shot upon ending their terms. Other proposals have included adding presidents as ex officio members of the Senate and the National Security Council. As this comprehensive, readable and fascinating book (by Burton I. Kaufman, 646 pages, photos, index, hardcover, University Press of Kansas, 2012, $45.00) shows, the challenge of “where do we go from here?” has evolved over time.

Our first three presidents, George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, conformed to the 18th-century ideal of politically disinterested private citizens engaging in public service for a limited period before returning to private life. Yet our sixth, John Quincy Adams, went on to win a seat in the House of Representatives, launching one of the most illustrious post-presidential careers in our history. Martin Van Buren, too, re-entered politics, as the first defeated president to seek reelection and the first to run as the candidate of a third-party movement.

Ulysses S. Grant fell into disastrous financial ventures, embarked on a two-and-a-half-year world tour to promote the U.S. as a developing industrial power, and wrote his best-selling “Memoirs” (completed while fighting terminal throat cancer). Rutherford B. Hayes distinguished himself with philanthropic and humanitarian activities, becoming a respected late 19th-century voice of the middle class. Theodore Roosevelt, the nation’s youngest ex-president when he left office in 1909 at the age of 50, busied himself as a world traveler, naturalist, explorer and prolific best-selling author while, in the global arena, helped shape the course of U.S. politics for ensuing generations. William Howard Taft taught as a professor of law at Yale University, then topped that achievement with his appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Following World War II, huge sums of money from the lecture circuit and paid corporate capacities entered the mix.

Kaufman approaches his roster chronologically and biographically, concluding with the Carter Center’s efforts to stop the spread of disease, support human rights and foster peace, George H. W. Bush’s charitable work, parachute jumps encouraging senior citizens to remain physically active and campaigning for sons Jeb and George, and the Clinton Global Initiative that has raised billions of dollars to confront pressing world needs.

“The Post-Presidency from Washington to Clinton” covers the presidencies, post-presidencies, personalities, passions and advisory influence of a total of 31 former presidents who lived at least two years after leaving office. Kaufman has produced an extraordinary study, worthy of reading and then reading again.

Story First Published: 2014-01-15