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Presidents use bonus years to write a comeback story

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday September 9, 2012

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

Presidents of the US, like the rest us, also retire.  In fact, polls show that about half the American people would like to retire Barack Obama on November 6th – and the other half would like Obama’s retirement to be delayed four years.

This weekend, however, is special.  You see, President Herbert Hoover, who died 11,553 days after leaving the presidency, held the record for the longest retirement.  Yesterday – on Saturday, September 8 – President Jimmy Carter chalked up 11,554 days since leaving the White House.

From a bonus years perspective – where we spotlight productive work performed by men and women living through their post-career years – both presidents are motivating examples.  Reason: In each case, these retired presidents, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, have been more respected for what they achieved in their bonus years than what they achieved during their White House years.

When the Republican Herbert Hoover ran for re-election in 1932, he was defeated by Franklin Roosevelt who held him to account for the stock market crash, a sour economy and the onset of the Great Depression – plus out-of-control spending, raising tariffs, placing millions on the government dole, and outcroppings of shanty towns and homeless encampments called “Hoovervilles” all across America. The 59 year-old Hoover – who did not like FDR, a view that was reciprocated – spent the remaining years of the FDR presidency in political exile in Palo Alto, California.  But when Harry Truman ascended to the presidency, Hoover got a second chance, an opportunity to rehabilitate his reputation as a public servant and a leader.

Hoover’s bonus years reboot as a statesman began right after WW II when, in 1946, he was appointed coordinator of the Food Supply for World Famine, mirroring successful work he had done following WW I.  A year later, President Truman asked him to chair the consequential bipartisan Commission on the Organization of the Executive Branch, known thereafter as the “Hoover Commission.”  In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower asked president Hoover, now close to his 80th birthday, to chair another consequential commission to streamline the organization and operations of the federal government.

When President Hoover passed in 1964, the once-discredited 31st American president who had also been a successful mining engineer and business man in China and Australia, a leading figure in the post-World War I American food and economic relief effort in war-torn Europe and a successful Secretary of Commerce under both presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, was again highly-regarded as a result of his many non-partisan, bonus years contributions – and especially those shaping a new public administration in America.

Jimmy Carter, since yesterday the new record-holder for the longest post-White House “retirement,” was, like Hoover, also a one-termer.  When President Carter left the White House with the inauguration of Ronald Reagan in January 1981, he was only 56 years old.  Like Hoover, Carter’s tenure as the 39th president was tarnished by difficult conditions that included stagflation – i.e., high inflation and recession – plus a severe energy crisis, long lines at the gas station, and the Iran hostage crisis (including a failed rescue attempt)  along with unpopular policies such as the federal bailout of Chrysler and “surrendering” the Panama Canal to Panama. Known by many as the “malaise president,” Dr. James Laney, Emory University president and Carter friend and colleague, said that when Carter left Washington, “…he was at the nadir of popularity.  It wasn’t just that he was unpopular.  People avoided him…he was a loser.”

Carter returned to his peanut farm in Plains, Georgia – and might have retired there or written his memoirs and planned his presidential library.  Or he might have leveraged his status as a former president to cash in on the speakers’ circuit, rake in handsome corporate director fees, or appear in celebrity events to support worthy causes.

Instead, Carter and his wife Rosalynn in 1982 decided to establish The Carter Center, an Atlanta, Georgia non-profit, where they devoted their gifts of time, talent and treasure to advancing human rights and alleviating human suffering in more than 70 countries.  Author Jimmy Carter tells the story of the first 25 years of The Carter Center in Beyond the White House: Waging Peace, Fighting Disease, Building Hope, published in 2007 by Simon and Schuster.

Throughout this period, the former president and his wife also volunteered many hours to Habitat for Humanity – not in the board room but actually wielding hammers and pounding nails to build housing for the poor.  Carter friend and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, pointing to the idealism and selflessness that people saw in the Carters, said, “When you are a private citizen, and you are there because of your faith, there’s something nice and fresh and humble about that.  It’s a language people understand.”

Though Carter continues to ruffle feathers – both on the Left and the Right – by injecting himself and the Carter Center into local conflicts around the globe, he has clearly devoted his bonus years to repair the world’s troubles, amassing in the process a compelling comeback story that includes the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, awarded 22 years after leaving the White House.

Whether you live in the White House or a townhouse, the longevity achievements of the 20th century mean that those of us who’ve made it to the 21st will have many more bonus years than our fathers and grandfathers.  It is amazing to see how many are using those years to continue to work, in some capacity, to help others.  It is motivating to see how many, like Presidents Hoover and Carter, are using those years to revise the punch lines of their lives.  It is inspiring to see how many are using their gifts to nurture extended family, serve the larger community or otherwise make the world a better place.  The bonus years can be the best years.

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