MAXWELL:  He’ll be out when he’s 54

11/10/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


He’s ba-aaaack!

Indeed, William Jefferson Clinton, of Hope, Ark., has been re-elected to a second term as president of the United States of America _ the most powerful political office in the world. Consider this fact: If he does not die in office or get impeached, Clinton will be a mere 54 years old when he leaves the White House in 2001.

Just think, Clinton will be with us for a long time as an ex-president. With so much youth and so much time, what is his future? Surely, no job can be as fulfilling as working in the Oval Office or crisscrossing the globe in Air Force One to twist the arms of a Benjamin Netanyahu, a Yasser Arafat or a Boris Yeltsin.

But in little more than four years, Clinton will have to decide how to spend the rest of his life. How will he adjust to relinquishing center stage and returning to the mundane existence of a private citizen?

Meanwhile, let us look at how some other ex-presidents have fared after their terms ended.

All former presidents have struggled with the reality of the “morning after” and the question of their proper role after leaving the White House. “I awoke to find an altogether new, unwanted, and potentially empty life,” Jimmy Carter wrote. Others, though, have been relieved. “Never did a prisoner released from his chains feel such relief as I shall in shaking off the shackles of power,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, who served from 1801-1809.

And these men’s subsequent lives reflect the urgency of their words. After losing to Ronald Reagan, Carter turned his sense of loss into an admirable afterlife. When not globe-trotting for the United States or for an international philanthropic or research organization, he helps manage the Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta, home to his library and a research and teaching center. Away from the center, Carter builds houses for poor people, fishes, teaches Sunday School and writes poems.

Jefferson, on the other hand, retired to his Virginia plantation at Monticello, where his greatest achievement was founding the prestigious University of Virginia.

The fortunes and careers of our ex-presidents have been as extreme as the personalities and the characters of the men themselves. Some made millions of dollars on the strength of their former positions; others died penniless. The following sampling gives an idea of the many differences:

John Quincy Adams (1825-1829), an eloquent abolitionist who skinny-dipped most mornings in the Potomac River, loved politics so much that he got himself elected to the U.S. Congress and served until 1848. He is the only ex-president to serve in the House of Representatives.

William Howard Taft (1909-1913), an Ohio lawyer and judge, never wanted to be president. Even as a young man, he wanted to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1921, his wish came true when President Warren Harding appointed him to the nation’s highest court.

Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) lived for nearly 32 years after leaving the White House. Although his presidency was considered a flop, Hoover, a hard-working Quaker, amassed $1-million as a mining engineer and served on two famous commissions that wrote provisions that changed how the federal government operates.

Grover Cleveland is the only president to leave office (1885-1889) and then to get re-elected (1893-1897). After his first term, Cleveland ran again and lost to Benjamin Harrison. In the 1892 election, however, he rebounded and defeated Harrison.

Three other former presidents _ Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore and Theodore Roosevelt _ used their idle time to stage new, but failed, presidential comebacks.

What, then, is the proper role of a former president, one who has enjoyed such vast authority and instant respectability? The answer centers mostly on how and for how much an ex-president “cashes in” on the power of public office, whether or not he crassly commercializes the position.

Jefferson, who, at his death, owed a debt of $107,274, including $345 to his grocer, stands at one pole. At the opposite end is Gerald Ford. Barron’s magazine labeled him “the first former president to go into business in a big way. . . . He is making more than a $1-million a year, not counting his two government pensions, his social security or the government’s contribution to his office and staff expenses. . . . He pockets consulting fees from various companies of up to $100,000 a year, he sits on a dozen boards of directors at fees up to $30,000 a year, he gives about 30 speeches a year to business groups at $18,000-$20,000 each.”

So what will President Clinton do? He gave few clues at his victory party in Little Rock on Tuesday night. He simply said that he had “run the last political campaign of my life.” For sure, he is no Jimmy Carter, no Jefferson and no Teddy Roosevelt, the big game hunter who formed the Bull Moose Party.

If Whitewater or one of the many “gates” _ as in file and travel _ or another “bimbo eruption” does not hobble him, Clinton will be free to exercise unlimited options to become wealthy without depending on federal largess. That is, if legal problems do not bankrupt him. His youth and connections only add value to his potential.

As a lawyer and a law professor who attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, as a former governor and as a former president of the world’s only remaining superpower, Clinton can become one the country’s true elder statesmen of the century.

And lest we forget, of course, William Jefferson Clinton plays a mean saxophone. Whatever his day job, he can always moonlight with a jazz band. Ah, to be so talented and young after residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.