The five living former presidents are creating a new role for themselves after leaving the Oval Office.
Historians have long wondered how the nation can best benefit from the experience of former presidents. Each of them has a unique understanding of the country, of official Washington and of international affairs. They are, collectively, an important resource and they could help an incumbent president in a variety of ways, such as with advice, representing the United States on missions abroad, dealing with Congress or swaying American public opinion on issues of major importance. But none of this happens very often.
The situation may be changing. The five living former presidents are inventing an important role for themselves that everyone can applaud: working together for charitable causes and humanitarian goals. Most recently, they banded together to help raise money for hurricane victims, demonstrating that unity is still possible in our politically and culturally fractured country. The five – Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, three Democrats and two Republicans – gathered in College Station, Tex. for a big fundraising concert Oct. 21. It was part of a disaster relief campaign for victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S Virgin Islands. The overall effort has raised $33.6 million so far, including $2.6 million from the concert alone, according to organizers.
Even President Donald Trump, who has been a very polarizing figure, took a break from his pugnacious ways to send a prerecorded video in which he thanked his predecessors for their “tremendous assistance.” Moving beyond his past criticisms of Obama, George W. Bush and Clinton, he said, “[A]ll five living former presidents are playing a tremendous role in helping our fellow citizens recover….This wonderful effort reminds us that we truly are one nation, under God, all unified by our values and our devotion to one another.”
Obama set the theme for his presidential brethren when he told the crowd, “Americans step up. And as heartbreaking as the tragedies that took place here in Texas, and in Florida, in Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have been, what we’ve also seen is the spirit of America at its best.”
The concert was hosted by country singer Lee Greenwood and included performances by Lady Gaga, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, Sam Moore and Yolanda Adams, quite a diverse group. Afterward, Lady Gaga posted a photo of herself with the “exes” on Twitter with the message, “Nothing more beautiful than everyone putting their differences aside to help humanity in the face of catastrophe.”
This wasn’t the first time that former presidents have teamed up for charity. Clinton and the elder Bush joined forces to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast in 2005. And Clinton and the younger Bush helped raise money for victims of an earthquake in Haiti in 2010, at Obama’s quest.
Yet having all five of the living ex-presidents team up for charity is rare. And divisions remain. Both Obama and “W” delivered unusual and pointed critiques of President Trump (without mentioning his name) on Oct. 19, two days before their joint appearance. In separate speeches, each of them suggested that Trump is too divisive and is vulgarizing politics and government.
One thing that appears to have totally disappeared in the lives of the former presidents is a sense of limits on how much they profit from their years in the White House. Bill Clinton in particular has been making millions of dollars from paid speeches, and Obama apparently is following the same lucrative path. This is far different from the model set by Harry Truman when he left office in 1953. Truman didn’t endorse commercial products, accept consulting fees or engage in lobbying, although he did accept more than $500,000 from Life Magazine for his memoirs. But he said, “I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency.”
Another important development is that at least two of the exes – both Bushes – show no interest in a sustained participation in politics. George W. Bush “could be the poster child for a happy second act,” Barbara Bradley Hagerty wrote recently in The Atlantic. “Uninterested in either burnishing his legacy or remaining at the center of the political swirl, he has discovered what midlife researchers suggest is the secret to fulfillment: shifting away from ambition and acquisition and toward activities that have lasting and intrinsic worth, such as investing in important relationships and causes or hobbies that give joy and meaning to one’s life.”
The former presidents’ paradigm for the future – adopting causes that have intrinsic worth and a larger meaning – could be their joint appearance in College Station. It set a positive tone and demonstrated that the ex-presidents aren’t always spoiling for a fight, as Trump appears to be. Polls suggest that the public hopes this spirit of goodwill and empathy spreads to the man who currently occupies the White House.