By Thom Little, Ph.D.

It is hard to believe, but it has been a decade since SLLF began its series of programs at Presidential Libraries. The initial program, Lessons from the White House to the Statehouse was held at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum and featured a former Arkansas Governor, the Director of a Presidential Library, the Chief of Staff to President George H.W. Bush, one of America’s foremost Presidential scholars and a Presidential photographer. This fall, that series continues with our Fall Leadership Summit at The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, Life After Politics. Some may argue about Jimmy Carter’s effectiveness while in office, but no one can dispute his positive impact in the more than four decades since he left the White House. Like it or not, elected officials eventually leave office, whether due to term limits, retirement or defeat. That is a fact of political life, but it does not have to be the end of public service.

In preparation for this program, I have been reading Life After Power: Seven Presidents and their Search for Purpose beyond the White House by Jared Cohen (2024). In it, Cohen presents the post presidencies of seven US Presidents. Each found their passion and purpose in their own way, with no two paths being the same, but each being fulfilling.

The Educator. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, served as the Secretary of State, Vice-President, and President. As the only American to hold the three top national offices (as well as governor of Virginia), you would think he would retire to a quiet life at his beloved Monticello at the end of his second term in 1809. However, you would be wrong. Instead, Jefferson spent the last decade and a half of his storied life establishing The University of Virginia, known still today as “Mr. Jefferson’s University.” In fact, Jefferson himself specified that his gravestone include the founding of University of Virginia but not his elected offices.

The Congressman. In 1824, John Quincy Adams was elected America’s 6th president by the US House of Representatives after no candidate earned a majority of the electoral votes. With this questionable beginning and a Congress controlled by the other party (a first for the nation) it is no surprise that Adams’ one term (like his father’s) was frustrating and of limited impact. In 1828, he was soundly defeated, sending him back home to Massachusetts where he claimed, “The sun of my political life sets in its deepest gloom.” However, he could not have been more wrong. Two years later he was elected to the US House of Representatives, where he rebuilt his reputation and held sway for 14 years, becoming known as “Old Man Eloquent,” shaping America’s future in Congress more than he ever had in the White House.

The Return. Grover Cleveland, elected to the White House in 1884 is one of those often overlooked US Presidents who served in the latter third of the 19th century. Following his defeat for re-election in 1888, it appeared that Cleveland was doomed to be another one-term president. However, perceiving that unless he intervened, his Democratic party would be at the mercy of the party bosses or the populists, both of which he detested, he said he would not actively seek his party’s nomination in 1992, but would accept that nomination if it were offered and indeed it was. Winning in November, Cleveland became the first and to date, the only US President to be elected to two nonconsecutive terms.

The Chief Justice. William Howard Taft, America’s 27th President, never wanted the job. Taft longed to be on the US Supreme Court, but his family pushed him toward the Presidency. His family won. With the endorsement of outgoing President Teddy Roosevelt, Taft was elected President in 1912. His four years in office were marred by limited policy success and infighting with Roosevelt who eventually ran against Taft on a third-party ticket, assuring that both lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Following eight years of the Wilson Administration, Taft finally got  the call he had longed for when President Harding tapped him to be Chief Justice in the summer of 1921. Taft went on to serve in that post for almost nine years, during which he reformed the court, strengthened the administrative power of the Chief Justice and established precedents that are still being felt to this day.

The Great Humanitarian. Perhaps no Presidential administration began with more promise than that of Herbert Hoover.  Having served admirably in the previous administrations, earning the nickname “The Great Humanitarian,” he won the 1928 election in a historic landslide. And yet, four years later, he suffered the biggest loss of any incumbent President in history, winning just six states and becoming the butt of Democratic jokes and “persona non grata” in his own party. Running for office was not an option so he threw himself into charitable work, chairing the Boys Club of America and sponsoring humanitarian aid in Europe. More than a decade after leaving the White House, Hoover was asked by President Truman to lead humanitarian efforts in post-war Europe as he had done two decades earlier. His efforts led Truman to declare to Hoover, “Yours was a true service to humanity.”

The Builder. When Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter declared that he would seek the 1976 Democratic nomination for President, pretty much everyone outside of the Peach State said, “Jimmy Who?” Seven years later, when he lost by more than ten points to Ronald Reagan, everyone thought they knew who he was – he was an “outsider” whose administration had failed at both domestic and foreign policy. They thought he would return to his farm in Georgia but they were wrong. President Carter threw himself into humanitarian efforts at home and abroad. He established The Carter Center as a place where “he could invite people like Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin to Camp David” and he could focus on humanitarian aid to the world. At home, he and wife Rosalynn worked tirelessly promoting and building homes with Habitat for Humanity. In recent years, Carter has worked for peace and democracy across the nation and has become “America’s favorite former President.”

The Artist. In 2000, George W. Bush became only the second son of a president to be elected to that office. Elected on a promise to focus on domestic policy (especially education), Bush’s world (and ours) changed with the September 11 terrorist attacks. His response to those attacks all but assured his re-election in 2004, but the “Great Recession” saw his popularity and public support plummet. Unlike Hoover and Carter who strived to rebuild their reputations following ignominious endings, Bush seems quite content to move on, saying, “When it’s over, it’s over. I don’t miss it.” While he initially mirrored other former presidents, building his Presidential Library, writing a memoir and giving speeches, Bush found those endeavors unfulfilling. But he had no desire to return to politics. At the request of a friend who noted that Churchill took up painting after leaving office, Bush decided to paint. In explaining his pastime, Bush notes, “I paint out of wanting to honor sacrifice, service, and duty…I painted out of pride.” He has found his post presidency voice with a paint brush.

So, there you have it– seven presidents, seven post presidencies. It is clear from these stories that there is life after elected office, whether you return to the private sector, seek another office, engage in philanthropic endeavors, or just go home. Join us this fall at the Carter Center (September 26-28) to see how you can make the most of your time after you leave office.