Mr. Ex-President

How George W. Bush can make the most of the rest of his life.

See all the coverage of Slate’s farewell to Bush

President George W. Bush

Herbert Hoover was once asked what, exactly, ex-presidents do with their time. “Madam,” he said, “we spend our days taking pills and dedicating libraries.”

Hoover was in on the joke. After leaving office under a cloud in 1933, * he spent years mulling his failures. But eventually, President Harry S. Truman asked him to oversee several government projects, from tackling starvation in postwar Europe to making federal agencies more efficient (some projects, alas, remain ongoing). By the time of his death in 1964, Hoover was more popular than when he was in 1933. His secret for overcoming his critics: “I outlived the bastards,” he said.

Indeed, many presidents have been better ex-presidents than they were presidents. The ineffectual John Quincy Adams went on to become a respected member of the U.S. House from Massachusetts for nine terms. Martin Van Buren, an unremarkable head of state, became one of the strongest advocates of abolition. After one embattled presidential term, William Howard Taft fulfilled his lifelong dream to become chief justice of the Supreme Court. Which raises the question: How can George W. Bush be the best ex-president he can be?

So far, Bush has only hinted at his plans. After moving to Dallas, he’ll work on setting up and funding the George W. Bush Presidential Library. There, he plans to write his take on the major events of his presidency. (Expect a book.) The lecture circuit is no doubt part of the plan. And if his post-presidency is anything like his presidency, the entire country will be clear of brush by 2012.

But the broad strokes of Bush’s post-presidency are still unclear.

There are generally two models for the modern ex-POTUS: The fade into relative obscurity favored by Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan; and the activist, globe-trotting, elder statesman model as practiced by Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. (George H.W. Bush has been mostly the former type, though more recently he’s teamed with his successor, Clinton, to help victims of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.) For years, the former model was dominant. Of the 34 men who have survived to see their post-presidencies, only a handful of them were young and healthy enough to have a full second act. And even then, remaining in the public eye isn’t always an attractive option. Truman, unpopular at the end of his presidency, spent much of his time cultivating his library. Ford continued to suffer from his decision to pardon Nixon after Watergate.

Carter redefined the post-presidency in a way that raises the bar for future exes. Like Truman, he left the White House with punishing poll numbers. Compared with his successor, Reagan, he was seen as a nonentity. But instead of immersing himself in the usual business of legacy-burnishing via a presidential library, he started the Carter Center, an organization dedicated to humanitarian fundraising, research, and conflict resolution. Carter, meanwhile, inserted himself into various global conflicts, chatting up Habitat for Humanity, supervising elections in Nicaragua in 1989, and brokering a peace agreement on President Clinton’s behalf in Haiti. For all his globe-trotting do-gooding, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

His meddling hasn’t always been welcome—Clinton blew up at him for media grandstanding after the Haiti agreement, and Carter’s comparison of the Israeli occupation to apartheid has irked some former fans. (His role in the 2008 Democratic National Convention was limited to a comically brief wave.) But he proved that one’s post-presidency can outshine—and, in retrospect, redefine—one’s presidency.

Bill Clinton followed Carter into humanitarian advocacy, only with a focus on the private sector. Despite some slips during his wife’s 2008 campaign, Clinton remains popular. With the attention and influence of a head of state but none of the responsibility, he gives the impression that the only job better than president is former president.

Bush could go either way. On the one hand, he values his personal life. On the other, he’s young and has a strong sense of mission. Bush recently described himself as “a Type A personality. I just can’t envision myself, you know, the big straw hat and Hawaiian shirt sitting on some beach.” He has made noises about wanting to promote freedom and spread democracy.

But it’s hard to see him doing that in the same way Carter does, for example. For one thing, it could be seen as trampling on the turf of future presidents. (President-elect Obama has been careful not to speak out of turn; Bush will likely return the favor.) There’s another problem: Any attempts to “promote freedom” will inevitably rekindle memories of Iraq. And even if Iraq morphs into a peaceful beacon of freedom in the Middle East over the next few years, the Bush administration’s war there will always be remembered in part for its stumbles and miscalculations.

That’s why Bush may want to explore other ways to spend his post-presidency. One option is to become an informal adviser to his successors. Thomas Jefferson was the first long-term presidential mentor, advising fellow Virginians James Madison and James Monroe. James K. Polk looked to Andrew Jackson for advice on the Mexican War. John F. Kennedy approached Dwight D. Eisenhower in the aftermath of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. This last meeting was in part a media stunt—Kennedy wanted to project unity after the Cuba disaster. It did the trick.

Bush’s decision-making process may not be one that successors want to emulate. But his experience may prove useful to Obama and future presidents, especially if they face similar decisions. (What if Iran decides to kick out weapons inspectors?) Luckily, clarity of speech is not a prerequisite. When Kennedy called Eisenhower during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Eisenhower’s advice was rather opaque: “[W]hat can you do? If this thing is such a serious thing, here on our flank, that we’re going to be uneasy and we know what thing is happening now. All right, you’ve got to [do] something. Something may make [the Soviets] shoot [their nuclear missiles] off. I just don’t believe this will. In any event, of course, I’ll say this: I’d want to keep my own people very alert.” (Mark K. Updegrove has the full account in his book Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House.)

Bush could also re-enter government. A congressional run a la John Quincy Adams seems unlikely, as does a Taft-style Supreme Court nomination. But a Hoover-like renaissance would be possible. Hoover had a strong analytical mind and knew the ins and outs of government, so the job of roving government-efficiency expert suited him. Bush’s role would be different, perhaps serving on a commission to oversee foreign elections or negotiate treaties or, yes, promote democracy. This probably wouldn’t happen in the near future. Hoover stewed for 12 years before Truman came calling. Once time passes and views of Bush soften, he might be able to take on the statesman role.

Bush might also explore the possibility of higher education. (No jokes.) Jefferson famously founded the University of Virginia in 1819 after serving two terms as president. Eisenhower (Columbia) and Woodrow Wilson (Princeton) also ran universities, though they did so before they ran the nation. Academia may not seem like a natural fit for Bush, but he has a formidable academic pedigree—Yale and Harvard—and he can legitimately claim that his administration made education a priority.

There’s one thing Bush should not do, which is spend the rest of his life revisiting his mistakes. Sure, every president deserves a memoir or two. But ex-presidents must strike a balance between defending the past and moving on. The most successful ones use their ex-presidencies not to defend their legacies but to enhance them. Carter’s humanitarian work—peace negotiations, elections oversight, not to mention the eradication of the Guinea worm and river blindness—has all but eclipsed his downer of a presidency. Likewise, Bush would be smart to tackle a cause that won’t remind everyone of his failures. Don’t promote freedom. Fight AIDS in Africa—an area in which the Bush administration excelled. The best way to make people forget your screw-ups is to score new wins.

In that sense, Bush begins his ex-presidency with an advantage. It’s no coincidence that the best ex-presidents—John Quincy Adams, Hoover, Carter—were shoddy presidents. Likewise, Bush has the benefit of low expectations. Plus, ex-presidencies can often seem more “real” than presidencies, as if the person’s true character is finally shining through now that they’ve left the political arena. “Once they’re no longer president, you learn more about them than when they were president,” says presidential historian Michael Beschloss. “Then they’ve got speechwriters, handlers, they’re always reacting to events [in political ways]. When they leave, you see how they react to withdrawal from power, how they want to spend their time, and what their deepest values are.”

In other words, Bush is in a good spot. Here’s his chance to show the world what he’s really like, whether that means writing a book, helping the poor, or promoting education. Or clearing lots and lots of brush.

Correction, Jan. 15, 2009: This article originally said Hoover left office in 1929. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)