WASHINGTON — Ex-presidents are an untapped natural resource. It should not be so.
Former President Jimmy Carter is making the rounds of the talk shows promoting his latest book, which focuses on human-rights abuses against women worldwide, which are often conducted in the name of religion. Carter at age 89 spends every day defying the voters who swept him out of office after one term. He sets a standard for public service that makes his years since leaving the White House his enduring legacy.
He also reminds us of the unique experience and knowledge that ex-presidents have, and how they could be put to greater use once their term is over. Carter’s biggest foreign policy achievement as president was the Camp David peace accords that he personally hammered out between Israeli Prime Minister Begin and Egyptian President Sadat. For all the turmoil in the Middle East, that peace treaty endures today, a testament to Carter’s determination and willingness to take political risks.
Subsequent presidents have occasionally called upon Carter to undertake diplomatic missions that he was uniquely suited for, but none tapped Carter for a continuing role in the Middle East as perhaps a special envoy. As Carter himself acknowledged in interviews last week, his outspokenness on sensitive matters has made him too much of a lightning rod for presidents of either political party.
But what if Carter were in the U.S. Senate, a permanent member with voting privileges who could speak his mind without fear of losing an election, who could cross the political aisle at will, and who could bring his considerable expertise to any debate. What if every president upon leaving the White House could then enter the Senate; it would help ease the gridlock, bringing an independence of mind and party, Republicans and Democrats alike, men and someday women tempered by the experience of having held the highest office in the land.
It would take a constitutional amendment, and some spoilsport would say, what about President Nixon? It was hard enough for much of the country to accept Richard Nixon’s forced resignation and President Ford’s pardoning his predecessor. Imagine if a Senate seat had been Nixon’s consolation prize. Yet Nixon’s policies were never the problem; he was a moderate Republican. Even though he had been disgraced, politicians in both parties thereafter sought his advice and counsel.
So set aside Nixon, and think of the contributions to the current debate that our ex-presidents could make, Carter, Bill Clinton, and the two Bushes, father and son. The younger Bush, whose antipathy to Washington is well known, could bring something valuable based on his eight years as president in a time of two wars, wars of his own making.
Even Republican Herbert Hoover, whose failure to grasp the magnitude of the Great Depression still marks him as a failed president, was called back into service by President Truman, a Democrat, to give advice on aid to Europe at the end of World War II. Hoover had been dubbed the “Napoleon of Mercy” for his successful effort to provide food to war-torn Belgium during World War I. John Quincy Adams, after losing reelection to Andrew Jackson in 1828, ran for Congress and served nine terms in the House after exiting the White House.
President Obama often says he has waged his last election, and it’s unlikely any modern president would leave the White House and run for another office. An automatic stepping stone to the Senate might not even be that appealing. Obama in particular wasn’t that happy there, serving only part of one term. Like his predecessors, Obama is expected to carve out a cause or an area of public service where he can make an impact. As for Carter, who invented the idea of the post-presidency, asked last week by humorist Stephan Colbert what inspired him, Carter said simply, “I didn’t have anything else to do.”