Both Oars In When 'Has-Beens' want to be again

These days, people are staying active longer and presidents are trending younger.

Subsequently, it is fast becoming the norm for former presidents to leave the White House with 30-plus years to kill. With sixty being the new forty, retired presidents are unlikely to settle for playing golf, tending to their libraries and appearing publically when summoned, for three decades. They are going to want a second act.  

The possibility of former presidents having long, active post-office careers raises some serious questions. For instance, is just any job fitting for a former president? Should it be a requirement that former presidents continue to put the nation’s interests first no matter what their new job? Should this be a contractual requirement in order to receive the lucrative presidential pension and honorific perks? What safeguards should there be in place to make sure that former presidents don’t use their access and titular roles for influence peddling?

We don’t have to wait for the relatively young Mr. Obama to leave office to get a taste for the issues that can be created by a has-been president wanting to continue as a world player. Mr. Clinton provides an early look. His high profile and constant activity around the world warrant getting serious about answering the above questions.

Mr. Clinton’s acceptance of an official post with the United Nations provides an interesting test case for whether or not there should be limits on the types of positions a former president can pursue. Adding a blue cap to Mr. Clinton’s already crowded millinery (former president, husband to the Secretary of State, international charity clearinghouse head, to name a few) causes a lot of confusion in Haiti. It blurs the line between US interests and the UN.  It also makes it difficult to know the official stance of the US State Department.

Mr. Clinton’s inclination to accept a UN posting should be no surprise. He chose to call his flagship foundation the Clinton Global Initiative. Even casual observation of his work in Haiti suggests that he is a bit geographically ambidextrous for a former president. He often shows up at the table with non-US investors. It appears that he may be driven more by jet quality than national interests. At the very least, he seems to have traded ‘Mr. President’ for ‘Mr. Global’.

There is also the issue of separating business and good works. With the unnatural merging of philanthropy and capitalism through the direct involvement of billionaires and celebrities in world development projects, it is hard to tell when Mr. Clinton is on a business trip and when he is on a mission of mercy. I never noticed that confusion with former President Carter—he always seems to be all good works upfront and no business behind. Of course, Carter has never been the mullet type.  

The recent excerpt in TIME magazine from Nancy Gibbs’ forthcoming book, "The Presidents Club," does nothing to allay my concerns. She can write all she wants about former presidents falling into their new roles with grace and only acting when called upon—but that’s the past. That is not our experience with Mr. Clinton. I doubt that he spends much time at the quaint former presidents’ dormitory with its boarding school beds draped with presidential seal spreads—just not his style.   

I jest a bit, but these questions are serious. I am genuinely concerned that we will face significant embarrassment with future former presidents if the globe-trotting Mr. Clinton is any indication of what is to come. How will we survive several ex-presidents’ simultaneous efforts to be relevant, especially if they are willing to chase the spot-light no matter how far it takes them away from our national interests?    

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