After the Oval Office

by Kim Allen

The post-Election-Day hangover is dragging on and on, and we still don't know who will be in the Oval Office come January. We've all laughed about the Revocation of Independence, countless comedians' satires of the situation, and the multitude of joke web sites relating to Florida, butterfly ballots, and Shrub's boil. There are serious issues, too, like the mounting evidence that outrageous measures were used in Florida to discourage or even prevent African Americans from voting.

Since you've heard it all before, I am not going to talk about anything relating to the next US President, whoever he is.

Instead, I want to talk about something that is all too often forgotten in the very American rush toward the future. We don't know who's moving into the Oval Office, but we know who's moving out. Let's take a moment to consider what ex-Presidents do after leaving office.

In a few short weeks, we will have five living American ex-Presidents: Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton. Ex-Presidents of course suffer from a serious demotion in status and real power once they leave the Oval Office, but they still retain a heck of a lot of influence. And they know a lot of things about the world, having seen it from an inside view that most of us will never have. There's potential there to use all that knowledge and influence for the good of the American people, which they supposedly care passionately about-- didn't they say that five million times during all those speeches they gave?

What have our ex-Presidents done for us lately? We can write off Reagan immediately for health reasons, so let's just consider the others. Ford-- has anyone heard anything about him? Me neither. Bush Sr.? As far as I can tell, he just retired back to the Texas ranch lifestyle, where he basks in his inherited wealth and figures out ways to get members of his family installed in various political positions (and as owners of sports teams).

The only ex-Pres you hear about is Carter. I don't care if you hated him or loved him when he was in the Oval Office (or aren't old enough to remember him). There's no getting around the fact that he is the only living ex-Pres who actually went on to do anything after he served as Chief Executive.

Jimmy Carter founded the Carter Center, a nonprofit organization that works for world peace, human rights, and improved health for poor people. He has also served as a mediator and international election monitor. And he is a main force behind Habitat for Humanity, which helps poor families and communities build affordable housing. He doesn't try to grab the spotlight-- he understands very well that the current US President, Republican or Democrat, needs to be in the spotlight in order to lead, and ex-Presidents just get in the way. So he quietly goes about his own charity and peace work, using his influence and, yes, his passion for serving, to do as much good in the world as he can.

And what about Clinton? Clinton is an intriguing case because he is leaving office at the youngest age of any President (only Kennedy would have been younger). He probably has decades ahead of him during which he can continue to serve America however he chooses. What will he do? Will he sit on his butt somewhere in Arkansas, entertaining supermodels in the privacy of his own home while Hillary raises hell on the Senate floor?

I doubt it. Checkered past or not, Clinton is not the type to rest on his laurels. I was interested to see that Wired Magazine, a Silicon Valley new-economy-techno-business publication, recently did an interview with Clinton. Here are a few excerpts, straight from the horse's mouth:

Wired: So will you keep on participating in the new economy? Are you going to stick with us?

Clinton: Oh, yes. The trick for a former President who's a committed citizen is to figure out how to trade institutional power and authority for practical influence in a positive way, without in any way getting underfoot of the next President... There are an infinite number of things to be done... I think one of the heaviest obligations I have, beyond the obligations I have to my family when I get out of here, is just to try to be an effective citizen on all these things that are emerging that I've had a chance to see in a way that most people don't.

Will we see you in the Internet economy in some way?

Maybe. I'm very interested in all this stuff... One of the reasons I want to stay involved in all this stuff is purely selfish. It gives me a chance to be around people who are younger than I am, who know things I don't know, who are full of ideas that will shape thw world that my grandchildren will live in, and I get a big kick out of being there.

Do you have any inkling [what you'll write about in the personal note you leave for the next President]?

I'm sure it will be full of good wishes... and then I will try to say something about the future. I think it's very important that the President always keep the country focused not only on the immediate concerns, but on the long-term challenges that the country faces. A big part of my job is keeping people's vision lifted...

I basically buy the argument of Robert Wright's new book Nonzero... He argues that notwithstanding the horrors of the 20th century brought on by organization -- the Nazi and the Communist, the totalitarian regimes and the mass murderers and the continued prevalence of ethnic, racial, and religous hatreds -- that Martin Luther King was right. Martin Luther King said that the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.

[It's] sort of a reverse social Darwinism: The more complex societies get and the more complex the networks of interdependence within and beyond community and national borders get, the more people are forced in their own interests to find non-zero-sum solutions. That is, win-win solutions instead of win-lose solutions... And on balance, that's a humanizing and elevating development.

How are you going to continue doing this after you leave office?

I don't know, but I'll figure it out.

And he probably will. Clinton knew this interview would be published after the election, so he could speak a little more freely (he also knew who the Wired readership is, so he tuned his words to be appealing to those who work in the New Economy, but hey, he's a politician).

The point is, could you even imagine Bush (Sr. or Jr.) saying any of that stuff? I can't either. They seem not to have a very sophisticated notion of how the Internet is transforming the economy, our culture, and even the physical environment. They and other conservatives rarely wax idealistic about the benefits of increased interdependence and the search for non-zero-sum solutions. Maybe some of those words are too big for them.

I'm not a big fan of traditional politics, nor am I registered with either party. But just looking at the Presidential history of the past three decades, is is undeniable that some have done better than others in terms of living the ideals they espoused in their political speeches.

We like to think that we have elected Presidents who genuinely care about America, its people, and the development of world politics and economics. What better test of that quality than to see whether these people are willing to continue serving those goals even when they no longer occupy the Oval Office?

We're probably going to get Shrub next. I bet he'll fall right into the pattern of Daddy Dearest, not contributing a darn thing to the world after the 4-year party is over (please, not 8). Anyone willing to bet against me?

Copyright © 2000 by Kim Allen

02/09/07 at 18:15