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After they leave the White House, what should America do with our ex-presidents?

Leaders come and go in America. But what's a former president to do after leaving the White House? Jared Cohen explores the engaging topic in an exclusive excerpt from his book, "Life After Power."

Democracies feature a cast of characters that autocracies don’t: former leaders. 

In an autocracy, leaders are usually in power for life, and things can get dangerous for them if they step down. But in democracies, there’s life after power. 

Leaders come and go. That’s what makes the system work. But what is a former president to do after being the leader of the free world?

Even before George Washington’s Farewell Address, the Founding Fathers worried about former presidents. In Federalist 72, Alexander Hamilton wondered, "Would it promote the peace of the community or the stability of the government to have half a dozen men who had had credit enough to be raised to the seat of the supreme magistracy, wandering among the people like discontented ghosts?" 


More than two centuries later, we have an answer to Hamilton’s question. 

Former presidents can be among their successors’ most important allies — or their most fearsome opponents.

Hamilton didn’t know the answer to the question he asked, but his worry was informed by history. There weren’t many examples of leaders leaving power for the Founders to draw on. From Julius Caesar to Oliver Cromwell, revolutionaries almost never gave up office of their own accord. They've held onto it until their last breaths. 

The most notable exception was the Roman general Cincinnatus, who came back from his farm to lead Rome to victory in battle, and then resigned as dictator to return to his plow.

But it had been more than 2,000 years from the Roman Republic to America's founding. Before George Washington, no one knew what a former president was supposed to do.


America’s system of government depends on the existence of "formers," people who step aside to allow for the peaceful transfer of power to another leader. The fact that there are so many former heads of state and heads of government scattered around the world today, flying from city to city, speaking at conferences – often collecting exorbitant fees for doing so – is in many ways a legacy of Washington’s Farewell. 

Yet history shows that a leader’s story doesn’t end when he or she leaves office. Former presidents retain a kind of power – they’ll always have been president, people who have a political base and near-universal name recognition. They’re political forces of their own, and though they don’t have an office, the ambition of former presidents can still be made to counteract the ambitions of their successors. They had agendas in office, and they rarely abandon those agendas on the other side.

Many presidents have struggled with what to do next. The best person to ask might have been President Grover Cleveland, who served two nonconsecutive terms, and thus left the White House not once, but twice. And Cleveland didn’t think much of former presidents. 

He once remarked that the country "would be relieved of all uncertainty and embarrassment if every president would die at the end of his term." He never softened that position.


Later, at a dinner in his honor after his second term, his host asked Cleveland, "What shall we do with our ex-presidents?" On that occasion, Cleveland joked that they should be "taken out to a five-acre lot and shot." 

But then he thought better of that comment, adding, "A five-acre lot seems needlessly large, and in the second place an ex-president has already suffered enough." To Cleveland, the only thing worse than being a former president was having been president.

Cleveland was not alone in his morbidity. After his third-place defeat in the 1912 election, some of William Howard Taft’s supporters suggested he consider running again in 1916. 

Taft wanted no part of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Better than run for office, former presidents should be given "a dose of chloroform or of the fruit of the lotus tree," he thought, in order to "secure the country from the troublesome fear that the occupant could ever come back." 

Whatever the opinions of Taft and Cleveland, former presidents are a feature of democracies, not a bug. Their existence in American life is an unstated assumption, and requirement, of our system of government. Unless they die in office – as eight presidents have – they need to move on. 

And with the passage of the 22nd Amendment in 1951, enshrining the two-term limit, it became even more certain that presidents couldn’t stick around forever.

There is no playbook, path or position for what a former president is supposed to do after the White House. There are no titles of nobility or lifelong peerages in the United States. And the objectives the former president pursues vary more dramatically now than ever before.   

Seven presidents stand out as having found greater purpose after the White House, and yet each of their stories is unique. 

Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Grover Cleveland, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush answered the question of what to do next in different ways. 


Their lives span American history, from the founding to the present. They come from different backgrounds and different parties. They hold different places in Americans’ memories. 

But, in different ways, they changed history after the White House — and they’re each models of successful post-presidencies.

Thomas Jefferson was the first former president to achieve something at the end of his life that was worth including on his tombstone: founding the University of Virginia. He set a precedent for every former president to follow who wanted one last great accomplishment. 

He was a lifelong founder

No other former president – and few former heads of state in history – has built an institution that has thrived for more than two centuries.        

John Quincy Adams’s one-term presidency turned out to be an intermission between two of the most impressive careers in public life in American history. 

He’s the only former president to be elected to the House of Representatives, where he served nine terms and died in the Capitol in 1848

In a much lower office, he found a much higher calling. 

In this historic second act, he became a leader for the growing abolitionist movement, he launched a crusade to protect the right to petition and free speech, he represented enslaved men and women before the Supreme Court — and he passed the abolitionist torch from the founding generation to a young congressman named Abraham Lincoln.     

Grover Cleveland is the only former president to run for a nonconsecutive term and win. His successful comeback to the White House made him America’s 22nd and 24th commander in chief. In that time, he held back a populist tide in his own party and an imperialist wave in the other. 

But in the process, he sacrificed his popularity and happiness, learning that the job can be harder and less forgiving the second time around. After his second presidency, he went to Princeton University, joined the board of trustees, and had an academic battle with the school’s president and his future successor, Woodrow Wilson

William Howard Taft never really wanted to be president in the first place. He yearned for a seat on the Supreme Court. But he deferred that dream to accommodate the wishes of his wife, his brothers and his friend Theodore Roosevelt. 

He lost the presidency in a humiliating third-place finish in 1912, and he thought his career in public service was over. 

But when Republican President Warren Harding named him chief justice of the United States in 1921, Taft was so delighted that he barely remembered his four years in the White House. 

In that position, he reformed the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary. He is the only person in American history to lead two branches of the federal government. 

On a personal level, his years on the bench – the final decade of his life – were the happiest and most fulfilling of his life.     

Herbert Hoover’s one-term presidency has gone down as one of the worst in history. But his 31-year post-presidency was one of the most influential. 

For 12 years, he railed against the New Deal, shaping the rise of the modern conservative movement. 

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in 1945, Democratic President Harry Truman resurrected Hoover, enlisting his only living predecessor to lead international famine relief after World War II. Hoover later reformed the executive branch under Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. 

He reconciled John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon after the divisive 1960 election. For more than three decades, he worked to recover his good name and his place in public life. 

By the time he died, he’d reminded Americans why they had elected him president in the first place, and they remembered why he had once been known as the "Great Humanitarian."

Jimmy Carter has had the longest post-presidency in American history, at 42 years, and he entered hospice care early in 2023. He left office unpopular, with a sinking economy and American hostages in Tehran. 

But he went on to become one of America’s most beloved former leaders, after having spent four decades leading humanitarian efforts around the world. While he pursued his good works, he was a constant thorn in the sides of his successors, at times undermining their policies because he was convinced that he was right and they were wrong. 


He viewed life after the White House not as separate from, but as an extension of, his presidency. Through his activism, he redefined what it means to be a former.                          

These six former presidents each had compelling and instructive final chapters of their life story. But what about the presidents whose chapters are still being written? 

One of the most extraordinary stories in this category is also the most ordinary, that of George W. Bush. Like Carter, he left office unpopular, with troubles at home and abroad. But with the passage of time, Bush has significantly improved his standing in the eyes of the American public, and he now enjoys an approval rating in the low 60s. 

The same reputational renaissance happened to Carter, but Bush and Carter are very different men. Whereas Carter stayed engaged in politics, George W. Bush’s post-presidency is a return to an earlier era, the Washington precedent. 

For Bush, politics mostly ended the day he left office. After a lifetime in and around public life, he moved on. He doesn’t miss it. He doesn’t try to reshape his legacy. He is not introspective. 

His party has changed, and his successors have undone much of his work. But his days are spent on his faith, family and a pastime that no one predicted – painting. 

Through painting, George W. Bush has found a post-presidential voice that allows him to express what he believes, while steering clear of politics. His work elevates people often overlooked – from veterans to immigrants – and in doing so, he raises their visibility, shares their stories and contributes to important conversations without undermining his successors. 


The post-presidency is not written into the American Constitution. But every president knows that the White House isn’t forever. They need to believe that life after power is possible, and that life doesn’t end with the job that will be the first line of their obituaries. 

As former presidents from Thomas Jefferson to today have shown, the years after the White House may be some of the most impactful and purposeful. That idea – though simple – is particularly important now. 

The 2024 election will likely see the two oldest presidential candidates in history face off in the first presidential rematch since Cleveland’s run in 1892. Whatever happens, this election will not be normal. 

At a moment when voters are unenthusiastic about many of our current leaders, it may be time to remind ourselves – and them – that life after power is not only possible, it can be great.

Excerpted from "Life After Power: Seven Presidents and Their Search for Purpose Beyond the White House," © copyright Jared Cohen (Simon & Schuster, Feb. 2024), by special arrangement. All rights reserved. 

Stay tuned for additional excerpts at Fox News Digital from "Life After Power."

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