On ex-presidents

Barring an intervening tragedy, Barack Obama will, in a few months or a little over four years, join a very exclusive club: living ex-presidents. Each is unique in his own way. Two of them have hung over this campaign.

George W Bush has been absent from this campaign – other than in the speeches of Democrats. In some ways, though, it is Bill Clinton who is unusual. In living memory, three men left the White House after two full terms, both alive and popular. Though Clinton was nowhere near as popular as Reagan and Eisenhower, he is the only one who has energetically devoted his retirement to partisan campaigning. The others used their retirements to, well, retire. Of course, he was much the youngest of the three. Eisenhower and Reagan both set new age records in office.

Where George W Bush is unique is that of those who left office unpopular, he was the only one to have served two complete terms. His father, Carter and Ford were all defeated at the ballot box. Nixon resigned and Johnson declined to defend his record.

Oddly – perhaps because he was not rejected on grounds of competence – it was Nixon who became the most respected authority during his retirement, with well-received books on global politics. Carter did most to rehabilitate his reputation, building houses for the homeless and promoting democracy abroad. He has exhibited no public bitterness about what must have been an especially stinging rejection: in 1980, he carried just six states.

Reagan, though making only occasional personal appearances, is constantly invoked by Republican candidates, in very stark contrast to George W Bush. George H W Bush may have had the most satisfying retirement. He reprised his interest in parachuting and saw two of his sons elected as state governors, one going on to be President. Most deliciously, W defeated the running mate of the man who defeated his father. 

But it is Clinton who has remained the staple of partisan campaigning. He campaigned vigorously for his wife and has appeared again and again for Democratic candidates across the country. He was stinging in his condemnations of Barack Obama during the 2008 primary season and has described himself as the only person in America who is more enthusiastic about Obama in 2012. My, isn’t that a backhanded compliment?

If Obama wins (something that will probably be known by the time this column is published), Clinton will be able to take some of the credit. If Romney triumphs, then Clinton will remain his party’s undisputed elder statesman. Remember, the last three Republicans elected twice were W, Reagan and Nixon. The last three Democrats were Clinton, Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. To have voted for Wilson, a voter would have to be male and at least 117. 

As ever in American politics, the campaign goes on. There are those already eying 2016 or 2020. The Democrats, at least, will be seeking a new candidate in four years’ time. Unusually for a vice-president, Joe Biden is an uncertain candidate. Will he or won’t he? Will primary voters care? Hillary Clinton may very well have another go. With a term at the State Department she now looks a credible contender, and not just an adjunct to her husband. But the cabinet is the graveyard of presidential ambition. Paul Ryan and Chris Christie may head the Republican pack, but watch also Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal.


Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com

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