Presidents of the United States have generally had a rebirth once they have left the White House. Despite all the criticism they may have encountered in office over policy issues, out of power they have been accorded a degree of respectability which is certainly reflective of a sophisticated democratic system.
One wonders, though, if such respectability will be there for Donald Trump once his presidency comes to an end on January 20 next year. In these past four years, and that includes his less than presidential behaviour since he lost the election to Joe Biden in November, he has, besides undermining American democracy, ruined his own reputation. Never presidential in stature, he might have had a chance to redeem himself through acknowledging his loss to Biden. He has lost that opportunity and, worse, continues to dig deeper holes for himself.
At one minute past noon on January 20, Trump will be a former president. For millions of people in America and around the world, it will be good riddance. But that is not what has ever been said about his predecessors. Take the instance of Richard Nixon, whose exit from office in 1974 was against the background of the disgrace that was Watergate. But Nixon, one of the brightest of American presidents in the twentieth century, did not wallow in despair. He quickly went about rehabilitating himself, through writing his memoirs and tomes on foreign policy, besides touring the world.
Nixon, who brought about the opening to China in 1972, kept contacts with the Chinese leadership that came after Mao Zedong and Zhou En-lai. At home, he was consulted by some of his successors, including Ronald Reagan, on policy as it was or ought to be. Nixon died twenty years after his resignation, but by that time his reputation had to a considerable degree been restored. The Nixon Library in his native California remains a testament to his rich political career.
Ronald Reagan was not an especially remarkable president, but he had enough sense to know how to relate to the public. His humour, added to his self-confidence, had people warm to him. There was little that was intellectual about him. His grasp of diplomacy was average if not poor, but with his expansive personality he was able to influence people around him with confidence. When Egypt's President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in October 1981, he took the remarkable step of sending former presidents Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter to his funeral. Towards the end of his life, Reagan developed Alzheimer's. When he was taken to the White House as a guest of President Bill Clinton, he did not remember that he had been president for eight years.
Absolute decency marked Gerald Ford, the only president not to be elected to the White House. Succeeding Richard Nixon in August 1974, he gave Americans hope of a new beginning when he told them that the country's long nightmare was over. It was certainly for him a bitter feeling when he lost the race for the presidency to Jimmy Carter in 1976, but he harboured no bitterness about his loss. True to the spirit of the US constitution, he was graceful in defeat. In 1980, he would have liked to be Reagan's running mate, but when it did not work out, he walked away into the sunset.
Bill Clinton, one of the most cerebral of presidents in American history and yet one with a penchant for tying himself up in knots (read Monica Lewinsky), injected dynamism into politics in his two terms in the White House. A powerful orator, he was a natural who after the White House years wrote a book, set up a foundation in his own name and went on a lecture circuit. He remains a most sought-after speaker and lights up every room he enters. Similar is the story of Barack Obama, who simply sparkles with brilliance in both his speeches and his one-on-one dealings with people. Obama's new book, A Promised Land, is yet once again symbolic of the sheer intelligence that led him from his youth at Harvard all the way to the White House. His recent appearances for the Biden-Harris team at pre-election rallies testify to his enduring appeal.
One can be sure that Obama will soon have his own library or foundation come up, in the way his predecessor George W. Bush has his own post-presidential establishment. Bush will not be regarded as a great president and the question of whether he was defeated by Al Gore in 2000 and the Supreme Court gave him what belonged to Gore will dog his legacy. But since his presidency ended in 2009, Bush has been the repository of respect from all classes of Americans. It was the same with his father, George H.W. Bush, who served only a single term as president and was defeated by Clinton in 1992.
Jimmy Carter is one of those presidents who, despite all the nobility of soul in them, are vanquished by misfortune. Carter promised Americans during the campaign in 1976 that he would not lie to them, that his foreign policy would be underscored by an emphasis on human rights abroad. The Iranians, by taking US diplomats hostage in 1979, weakened him badly. Additionally, with mounting economic problems, he was at sea. But since leaving the White House after a single term (he was beaten by Reagan in 1980), he reinvented himself as one of the most respected of statesmen on a global scale. He has supervised elections abroad. Through his Carter Centre, he has reached out to those in need around the world.
Lyndon Johnson lived a quiet life at his ranch in Texas after his presidency ended in January 1969. He died in January 1973, but till the end came he remained in contact with people, especially with politicians. Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower were always around to proffer advice to their successors.
The club of America's former presidents has historically been symbolic of quiet grandeur. Living former presidents have often come together on certain occasions, interacting in good cheer. That is something that will elude Donald Trump. He will be a former president, ranting and divisive, but ignored and forgotten, for reasons of his own making.