Former President Jimmy Carter is back at work again. “I am concerned about the state of our electoral system,” he told the Washington Post, “and believe we need to improve it.” With former Secretary of State James A. Baker as co-chair, Carter will lead a national bipartisan commission on election reform. His prestige and experience will insure that policy makers will consider the commission’s recommendations.
Carter is not our only activist former president. Last month, at the request of President George W. Bush, former presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush came together to sustain public awareness and raise funds for the nations devastated by the Southeast Asia tsunami.
Roles for former presidents are not defined by law or custom. Commonly, they leave office, write their memoirs, build their libraries, deliver speeches and serve on corporate boards. These activities may do a lot for their egos and net worth, but they don’t do much for the nation. There ought to be a way to encourage former presidents to remain active and productive in the public arena.
Taking on useful work after the presidency is not new. John Quincy Adams left the White House in 1829 and served in Congress from 1831 until his death in 1848. William Howard Taft was dean of the Yale Law School and chief justice of the United States after his presidency.
Bush and Clinton made news with their willingness to work together. It surprised the public that former rivals would collaborate, even on such a compelling cause. “Not to say that differences don’t matter,” Clinton has noted about his work with Bush. “Not to say that you shouldn’t have political arguments, but I think if we remembered our common humanity it would make our politics work better.”
This collaboration should not have been a surprise. In fact, the Bush-Clinton partnership is not the first bond between presidents of different political parties. President Truman established what may well have been the most productive presidential partnership in American history. He wrote a short note to Herbert Hoover in 1945 asking for his advice on postwar food shortages. Over the next eight years these two very different men worked together to feed Europe and reorganize the executive branch of the federal government.
Since then there have been other productive bipartisan presidential partnerships. Over the past 20 years, Presidents Ford and Carter have collaborated on many causes, including efforts to nurture democracy around the world.
But participation is inconsistent because there’s no structure or institution to provide a channel to let former presidents perform useful service. One option is to make these men honorary members of the U.S. Senate. Although appealing, this idea would require a constitutional amendment and is not likely make the best use of their influence and abilities.
A less formal possibility is for sitting presidents to call on their predecessors to raise public awareness of critical issues such as starvation in Africa or head up commissions on, say, the future of Social Security or health care reform. Former presidents of different parties working together would be likely to encourage solutions to complex national and international problems. Although the Carter commission will be a private effort, it is a model that has real potential.
At the very least sitting presidents could meet regularly with their predecessors to seek advice on matters of national concern. The current President Bush talks with his father from time to time, and it would be well worth his effort to consult regularly with presidents Ford, Carter and Clinton as well.
Shared experience brings these men together in friendship and partnership. Hoover once referred to former presidents as “that most exclusive trade union.” Exclusive, indeed. Our former presidents are a band of brothers with a mutual respect that they and they alone can fully appreciate. They want to be useful, alone and together, and whoever is sitting in the Oval Office has the power and the suasion to challenge them to put their experience to use. That’s the hidden message of the Carter Commission on Electoral Reform and the Bush-Clinton mission to Southeast Asia.
Timothy Walch is director emeritus of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, and the editor of "At the President's Side: The Vice Presidency in the Twentieth Century" (1997).