At noon on January 20, 2009, George W. Bush will become a former president of the United States. Assuming they live, he will join former presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and his father in a unique fraternity.
He will be 62. He is a relatively young man in good physical health. He will be capable of a vigorous life as a former president. He is not considered an intellectual.
What will he do for the next three decades?
In interviews by author Robert Draper for his book “Dead Certain,” President Bush has been non-commital about life after the White House: “I can just envision getting in the car, getting bored, going down to the ranch,â€ the president said. Other than that, Mr. Bush said, he plans to “replenish the olâ€™ coffers.”
Perhaps he was kidding. President Bush won’t be destitute upon leaving office:
His assets are estimated at between $8 million and $20 million (and his daughters are out of college). Moreover, since the 1950s, when it was clear that Harry Truman could not afford even an office staff, the federal government has taken care of former presidents. Mr. Bush will receive an annual pension of $186,000, travel funds, mailing privileges, Secret Service protection, office space, staff, stationery and transition expenses.
Presidents can make large sums as former presidents. President Reagan was not so enfeebled by illness to pass up $2 million for two speeches in Japan after leaving office. President Nixon received $600,000 for his interviews with David Frost and $2.3 million for his memoirs. President Ford’s income reached $1 million a year after he left the presidency. Estimates of speaking fees for President George H.W. Bush reach $100,000.
President Clinton accepted speaking fees up to $350,000, earning nearly $40 million in speaking fees over the past six years. Much of that has gone to his private foundation, but his financial turnaround since leaving office deeply in debt is remarkable.
President Ford’s post-office years were spent in comparative quiet. He lent his name and knowledge for fundraising and teaching to the University of Michigan, his alma mater.
President Nixon went into literal exile, then sought to rehabilitate his reputation, mostly through writing 10 books, including his memoirs, and traveling abroad. Presidents sought his advice on foreign policy. Sadly, Alzheimer’s disease shortened the time that President Reagan had to establish his post-presidential record.
Both Presidents Carter, who won the Nobel Peace Prize, and Clinton, who has raised millions for initiatives on AIDS, health and climate change, have built admirable records of public service on a global scale as well as written books.
All presidents, however, have tried to influence how history views them. Hence the memoirs and other books. And they all raised money for presidential libraries, one of their chief means of verifying or recasting their historical records.
It’s likely that President Bush’s advisers in and out of the White House have long been thinking about his and their historical records. The president will leave office with perhaps the lowest approval rating in modern history. A war he began will still be raging â€” as it was for President Johnson when he left office. President Bush can count on his political opponents (and perhaps some White House insiders) to write numerous examinations of his presidency with most likely to be highly critical.
What will President Bush do? As a former president not known for excellence in writing, how will his presidential memoirs be produced? If he produces an “as told to” series of books, will he release the presidential documents that verify his version of history?
Will he adopt a social agenda, as Presidents Carter and Clinton have, for which he will advocate and fundraise? Much of his presidency has had the adjective “faith-based” in front of it. To what extent will he demonstrate that in his post-presidential words and deeds?
President Bush will have wielded unprecedented power in the United States for eight years. How will he handle not having such power? What role, if any, will he seek to play â€” or be permitted to play â€” in the Republican Party?
Or will he become a post-presidential Madonna â€“ continually re-inventing himself under the guidance of Karl Rove and Karen Hughes?
Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.