The life of an ex-president after leaving office

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FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama smiles after putting on the first green at Farm Neck Golf Club during his annual summer vacation on Martha's Vineyard, in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, U.S. August 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo - RTSMFTF

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JOHN YANG: But first, when former President Obama lifted off from the U.S. Capitol Friday, he joined one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. There are just five living ex-presidents.

Today, a former president can do pretty much whatever he wants. After a weekend in Palm Springs, President Obama and his wife reportedly flew to the British Virgin Islands for some vacation time. But what next?

Judy Woodruff sat down with Atlantic writer Barbara Bradley Hagerty, who spent several months looking at how presidents who left office at relatively young ages decided what to do with the rest of their lives.

This is part of the NewsHour’s ongoing partnership with The Atlantic.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, The Atlantic: Well, generally, presidents — and let’s refer throughout history — unless presidents were wealthy, they generally had to work.

So, George Washington became the largest whiskey distiller. And, you know, William Howard Taft became the Supreme Court chief justice. So, they had to work.

But, more recently, what I was interested in seeing is that presidents are living so long now. And when a president leaves in midlife, at the peak of his game, what does he do then? What does he do for an encore?

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, over time, the idea of what to do and the amount of time has changed. Take us back to modern presidents. I mean, you looked at Jimmy Carter.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Jimmy Carter, he had a rough landing after his presidency, which is not atypical.

So, Jimmy Carter loses to — in a landslide — to Ronald Reagan, and he comes home to Plains, Georgia, and there he finds that his business, his peanut business, is a million dollars in debt, that his house is in need of repair, and, literally, the forest has come right up to his back step, their back step.

And it was kind of this metaphor for Jimmy Carter’s life. How does he navigate through the thicket? How does he have meaning in his life, after he was a one-term, relatively unpopular president? And so that was his challenge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And he was in his mid-50s.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: He was. He was 56.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how did he go about figuring out what he would do?

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: When you look at Carter, what you saw was a man who was — his personality, he was very smart, very ambitious, and he had a kind of biblical ethos.

In fact, Walter Mondale told me that Jimmy Carter said, “You know, when this is all over, I want to be a missionary.”

So there’s that. And then there was his presidency. And what you saw in the presidency, it was a rough presidency, but he had this one defining area, right, Camp David, peace between Israel and Egypt.

And so what he did is, he took those two things and he created the Carter Center. And the Carter Center absolutely redefined the post-presidency for everyone who came behind him. He created this institution where he could do freelance diplomacy and other good works around the world.

So, the Carter Center has monitored more than 100 elections. He’s won the Nobel Peace Prize. He also kind of got under — he was kind of a burr under the saddle of his successors. Because of this peace-at-any-cost type of ethos, he ended up interfering in their policies.

For example, under President Clinton, North Korea was developing nuclear weapons, and Carter went over as a private citizen and said “that economic sanctions were off the table.” He said this on television. And Clinton was absolutely furious.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, after the Jimmy Carter legacy of building up the Carter Center, a couple of presidents later, along comes Bill Clinton, very different set of circumstances.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Yes, absolutely.

And Bill Clinton also had a pretty rough landing when he was the ex-president. On his first day out of office, he went to the coffee shop in Chappaqua, New York, to get a cup of coffee, and suddenly he was surrounded with a phalanx of reporters, right?

And he — they were shouting questions at him: Why did you pardon Marc Rich, the fugitive financier? Why did you do that?

And suddenly he found himself completely naked. He didn’t have a press office to protect him. He had no barrier between himself and the rest of the world. And it was a really rough time for him, made all the more rough because he was counting on some speeches to help him with his debt. As you remember, he came out of office with $12 million in legal fees because of the impeachment proceedings. And he paid a lot to his lawyers.

All of those speeches just disappeared overnight because of the Marc Rich controversy, so it was a pretty tough time for him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You wrote, I think, that Clinton was described as having given a lot of thought to his post-presidency.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Yes, apparently from the first…

JUDY WOODRUFF: While he was president.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Right.

Apparently, from the first day he was in office, he was thinking about his post-presidency. And he set up the Clinton Foundation when he was still president. And so he has — he had given a lot of thought to it. It’s just those plans were a little bit delayed while he had to get through those first rough months.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see the Clinton Foundation and what it’s been able to accomplish, compared to Jimmy Carter’s work at the Carter Center?

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Well, the Clinton Foundation is kind of the Carter Center on steroids, right?

I mean — and it reflects Bill Clinton’s personality. So, when he started this Clinton Foundation, it is a global enterprise to do good. Right? They have done a lot of good. They have gotten sugary drinks out of public schools. They have driven down the price of AIDS medicine in Africa.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But with the Clinton Foundation comes a lot of money. They have raised a lot of money, and then there were questions about how that money was spent.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Yes, there was questions about how the money was spent and whom he raised the money from, the royal Saudi family and Blackwater. There’s kind of really a lot of murkiness, which actually didn’t help his wife in her presidential campaign, of course. There were a lot of questions about it.

But, you know, what Bill Clinton did with his post-presidency is, he turned it into a money-making enterprise for himself. So, since 2001, Bill Clinton has earned $250 million in speaking fees and in book contracts. As one person said it, “Being president is a really, really good career move.”

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: His successor, George W. Bush, comes along, has, of course, his own set of issues during his presidency, and approaches his ex-presidency very differently.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Very differently.

He was delighted not to be president. He tells this story that, the day after he left the White House, he’s down in Crawford, Texas, and he opens a newspaper, and he looks at the news, and he thinks, what are we going to do about this? And then he realizes, I don’t have to do anything about this. This is no longer on my watch.

So, he closes up the papers, he grabs his two dogs, drives to the office and starts writing anecdotes for his book. So, he absolutely loved being away from — what I understand, from the everyday pressures of the presidency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And he’s been one of the less visible former presidents.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Yes. Yes, he has.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you account for that?

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: I think it’s personality.

His speechwriter said that “the reason he seems content is because he is content.” He isn’t trying to burnish his legacy. He’s unbothered about the criticism of his eight years in office, the wars and the recession and all of that.

And so what he does is, he does the things that give him meaning and purpose. He’s pivoted toward his friends, toward mountain biking, toward golfing. Also, he goes to Africa and he looks in on the clinics and things like that.

But you know what he’s really into right now is, he’s into painting, took it very seriously. He took lessons. He does it hours every day, and now he’s painting. He’s painted war veterans, many of them wounded, as a kind of tribute to them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, let’s talk about President Obama.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He’s out of office. He’s got his own eight-year legacy, and a very different set of circumstances than he anticipated as he left office.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: This election really muddied the waters.

There was a sense that the world was Barack Obama’s oyster. He could do anything he wanted. He could work on gun control or race relations or criminal justice reform, climate change. He could own a basketball team. He could teach law. He could do anything he wanted.

The day after the election, we realized that his opportunities were circumscribed, at least at the beginning, because there’s a Republican president and Congress who is actually actively seeking to undo some of his greatest achievements.

And what’s really interesting about this time is, this election actually gave him a new, unexpected purpose, because the Clintons are no longer really the head of the Democratic Party. He’s the senior statesman in the Democratic Party. He knows that he needs to begin to work on developing new talent, bringing the party along. And so he’s got this short-term purpose as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The other thing about President Obama was the importance to him of family. He talked — he spoke about living over the store, being able to have dinner every night with his daughters.

And that will affect his life post-presidency.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: You know, Erik Erikson, the great psychologist, said, “You need three things for midlife. You need work, love and play.”

And he has — he will find meaningful work. And he has play. He bodysurfs and plays basketball and reads voraciously, and then love. He’s got a lot of friends, but he’s got his family. I mean, this was a man who spent his childhood kind of without a father.

And, in many ways, he defines himself more as a dad and a husband than he does as a president or an ex-president. So, kind of one of the — one of the things that people told me is that leaving the White House is not going to be difficult for him. What’s going to be really difficult is watching his children leave the nest.

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