How Should Former Presidents Behave?

Photograph Source: White House photo by Eric Draper – Public Domain

There is something disconcerting about watching former United States President Barack Obama being interviewed on French television to market his new book A Promised Land. Already the author of several best-sellers – publishing about one’s life seems to be a prerequisite for presidential candidates – Obama was all the literary figure during the interview on a book tour looking to justify the $65 million deal he and his wife had signed. The Obamas do have two daughters in expensive colleges, but ethical questions remain: How should former presidents behave? Should they profit from their prestige as the former highest elected public servant?

The question is particularly pertinent as speculation abounds about Donald Trump’s future, assuming that he will no longer be in office after January 20, 2021. Apparently, he is already collecting money to be used for a second presidential run in 2024. There are also rumors that he will be trying to start a media platform to compete with his former sycophants at Fox News. One can only hope that the New York State Attorney General and Manhattan District Attorney will take up some of Trump’s future time by dragging him into court for various financial sleights of hand. And, we shouldn’t forget, he does have hundreds of millions of dollars in outstanding personal debts that have to be paid off before 2024.

There has been no mention for the moment of a Trump presidential library. Perhaps at Mar-a-Lago next to the 18th green? Also, surprisingly, there seems little publisher interest in his memoirs, perhaps because a compendium of his tweets would not be marketable or all potential collaborators are afraid of sullying their careers. But, after all, The Art of the Deal did sell 650,000 copies. The New York Times refers to several publishing executives who warn that “publishing Mr. Trump could be perilous…and that the possibilities of boycotts, libel lawsuits and social media campaigns outweighed the obvious financial benefits.” Also, as one top publisher commented; “We’d want to know that he would be willing to be edited and submit to a rigorous fact-checking process.”

What about the Obamas? Barack Obama’s current volume is only the first of his memoirs of his life and time in office. Both volumes are expected to be lucrative best-sellers. The family has recently purchased a house on 30 acres at Edgartown on Great Pond Martha’s Vineyard for over $11 million. Not simple to justify defending the middle class when the former University of Chicago law professor and senator from Illinois has now joined a small elite of the best, brightest and wealthiest at their favorite East Coast summer retreat. The Obamas also have a multiyear deal with Netflix to produce shows and films via their company Higher Ground Productions.

But let’s not belabor those who have or will take advantage of their role as public servants. (Trump and his family have already profited from their time in office.) Jimmy Carter and Harry Truman are splendid examples of how former presidents can set examples. Carter founded the Carter Presidential Center at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1982. The Center focuses on mediating conflicts, promoting human rights and relieving suffering. Carter has personally mediated for the State Department with foreign leaders as well as working for Habitat for Humanity International to help the underprivileged.

Harry Truman is a remarkable example of restraint by a former president. In his diary, Truman expressed admiration for the Roman hero Cincinnatus who returned to farming after leading the Roman Empire. Like Cincinnatus, Truman, in 1953, returned to his home in Missouri with no Secret Service agents following or a guaranteed income. As recounted in David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography, “He liked to say he was just a plain American citizen again.” When asked what he planned to do on the morning of January 22 after his arrival home, Truman famously said he was going to “carry the grips up to the attic.” Truman did finally finish his post presidency volumes called “Memoirs,” published by Doubleday and serialized in Life magazine. The highlight of his post presidency was an honorary doctorate from Oxford, quite a reward for the former bank clerk, farmer, soldier and clothing store owner who had never been to college. McCullough notes that Truman’s net profit over the five-year period after leaving office was “about $37,000.” (Only after 1958 were there official presidential retirement benefits.)

In Switzerland, a special nod goes to Ruth Dreifuss, the first woman president. She has a background as a journalist, social worker and union head. Since her retirement from the Federal Council in 2002, she has been a tireless advocate for human rights as a member of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty and her work with The Global Commission on Drug Policy whose goal is “to bring to the international level an informed, science-based discussion about humane and effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs and drug control policies to people and societies.” She has continued to live in the popular neighborhood of the Paquis in Geneva, worlds away from Martha’s Vineyard.

On the other end of the spectrum, former Swiss President Moritz Leuenberger was severely criticized in 2010 when he joined the administrative council of the leading Swiss construction company Implenia following his resignation as the minister of transportation and energy.

My sympathies are with the Carters, Trumans and Dreifusses. Public trust should not be used for personal gain. Former presidents should not profit from their prestige. Obama’s excesses and Trump’s finances are in stark contrast to how former presidents should behave.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.