It is said that in the United States of America every little child can be president. Whether that dream still has validity in this day and age is certainly up for debate, but the fact remains that the position of president is still one of those great peaks to which children and many adults reach. Yet recent years have shown that perhaps the most lucrative rewards do not in fact lie in the White House; they can be found beyond its walls in the fertile fields of the post-presidency.
Paradoxically, even though the past 70 years have seen the most powerful presidents in our nation’s history, those individuals have reaped steadily fewer rewards from the office. Harry Truman suffered from a popularity rating that fell along a somewhat continuous line throughout his second term; Lyndon Johnson became a victim of the Vietnam War, dying shortly after his only term; and Jimmy Carter rode his initial wave of popularity straight into the teeth of a severe recession. Granted, there were presidents who managed to achieve a degree of consistent popularity in the office and through the rest of their lives, like Ronald Reagan. But on the whole, the presidency is no longer-if it ever was-an office that makes people. Today, the president will emerge from the White House a grizzled and tired veteran of countless battles after four or eight years. There may be rewards beyond (personal) satisfaction in the office, but they are vague and difficult to achieve. The presidency, important as it is, has assumed a new role: preparation for the post-presidency, where any former president regains the ability to become a star.
By no means is it a requirement that ex-presidents actually spend their remaining years doing anything more productive than building up a large and grandiose presidential library, but neither is the assumption that in this day and age they will simply become a stump speaker with Secret Service protection. If presidents who are not Richard Nixon desire to use their fame to become, say, humanitarians, they will only be lauded for such a valiant attempt at using their fame for good. If the attempt at using one’s time out of the presidency for good exists, the accolades come whether or not lasting success accompanies it.
How is this anomaly possible? How can presidents who are out of office and thus limited in their ability to affect current policy decisions still gain fame for their actions? It is because when presidents are in office they will be forced either to compromise or do nothing; either way voters will see them as individuals who, in some way, did not completely fulfill the mandate they were charged with by the electorate. Their flaws will be on display for all to see. After they leave and retreat once again into private life, however, they will regain the ability to filter what the people see and focus on what they love. They will become the action-oriented superstars of people’s rosy memories once again. Who knows? If circumstances permit, they might even win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Andrew Hamner is a freshman majoring in journalism and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.