For many of President Bush’s critics, the fact that he is now seeking work in the worst job market in a generation is poetic justice. As Bush noted in his farewell press conference, he is too much of a Type A for “the big straw hat and Hawaiian shirt, sitting on some beach.” (He might want to reconsider: Thanks to the recession, tropical resorts are running great promotions.)
Given recent history, Bush probably expects to profit from ex-presidency. Bill Clinton reported income of more than $90 million from 2000-07. But Bush is very unlikely to earn Clintonian numbers. Ex-presidents peddle image, presence, and experience. In Bush’s case, each is tarnished. To aggravate matters, many of the industries in which ex-presidents make easy money are a) doing poorly, and b) based in the Washington-Boston corridor where Bush hostility runs deep.
An ex-president’s first move is usually a book deal. Clinton got an estimated $10 million to $12 million for his memoirs. But with sales down, and Borders and Barnes & Noble contracting, “there’s likely to be a buyer’s strike in the book business for up to six months,” says one former head of a well-known imprint. Moreover, the industry just isn’t that interested in what the Bush inner circle is peddling. Agents are dining out—mostly at Subway—on tales of turning down meetings with Condi Rice. Laura Bush is believed to have received an advance of about $2 million for her memoirs, about one-quarter Hillary Clinton’s haul.
Several publishers I spoke to believe a Bush memoir wouldn’t command much in the way of foreign-rights payments. And given Bush’s professed lack of interest in reflection, what could he offer to American audiences? “Right now, his presidency is seen as such a cascade of mistakes that it’s hard to know what he could say that would be compelling,” says Geoff Shandler, executive editor at Little, Brown. Bush’s best option may be to cut a deal with a Christian publisher such as Thomas Nelson, which pays smaller advances than the New York houses. “Somebody out there will be willing to make a bet that he can reach his political constituency,” says Peter Osnos, founder of the politico-friendly publisher PublicAffairs. The consensus estimate for a Bush book advance: $1.5 million to $2.5 million.
Bush has been mum about book plans, but he’s been more forthright about his desire to joint the lucrative yakkers’ circuit. “I’ll give some speeches, to replenish the ol’ coffers,” he said in September 2007. Ronald Reagan flew off to Japan to make $2 million for a few speeches soon after leaving office. Clinton, to no one’s surprise, has been a prolific speaker. But speaking agents I talked with expressed little interest in Bush—and not, they say, just for political reasons. “I’m in business to make money, and I don’t think I’d make money doing it,” says Bill Leigh, chairman of the Leigh Bureau speaking agency.
The biggest spenders for the high-profile speakers have traditionally been investment banks and asset-management companies, such as Merrill Lynch and Citigroup. But many firms have disappeared, and those that remain are wards of the state. Bush could, however, count on a few trade associations and friendly defense and energy companies to generate a handful of gigs at $125,000 a pop (plus private plane travel).
While corporate boards used to be a reliable, well-paying sinecure for former politicians, “I’d be surprised to see him on one,” says Wendy Pangburn, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of executive recruiter Heidrick & Struggles. Board slots have morphed from a few meetings per year at resorts to several meetings and lots of conference calls. “You have to work at it,” she says. In the age of Sarbanes-Oxley, board seats entail a heightened amount of fiduciary responsibility—which, even the dwindling core of Bush partisans will concede, hasn’t been one of the president’s strong suits.
That leaves the time-honored and highly lucrative field of crony capitalism, or, as it’s known more genteelly today: private equity. Out of public view, magnates routinely provide nice incomes to pols who can open doors and help raise funds. Former Vice President Dan Quayle and former Bush Treasury Secretary John Snow hang their hats at Cerberus Capital Management. Bill Clinton was dealt into a fund run by ally Ron Burkle. The Carlyle Group has been a bipartisan haven for Washington A-listers, including former President George H.W. Bush. Bush the Younger has friends in this world, including Tom Hicks, the private-equity baron who helped W. make his fortune with the Texas Rangers.
We may be too quick to write off Bush’s prospects. Twenty-eight years ago, another one-time Southern governor, possessed of a deep Christian faith, left office unpopular, thanks to a shambolic economy and a foreign-policy disaster in a Muslim country. He, too, was largely written off by the Eastern establishment. It was a great embarrassment when Jimmy Carter’s memoir failed to garner a seven-figure advance. But Carter has since become the Stephen King of politicians—a prolific, highly paid best-selling author of volumes on any number of topics, including fly-fishing. He probably has a lot to teach Bush about how to rebuild a reputation and build a fortune. At the recent gathering of ex-presidents in the Oval Office, Bush couldn’t stand far away enough from Carter. That might have been his final strategic mistake.
A version of this article appears in the latest issue of Newsweek.