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'Second Acts:' Presidents After the Oval Office


President Bush still has two years left in his term, but the author of a new book says what he does after leaving the oval office may be just as important to his legacy. Mark Updegrove is the author of "Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House". I asked him what post-presidency life was like at the nation's founding.

Mr. MARK UPDEGROVE (Author): George Washington set the tone for what former presidents do or don't do after leaving the White House. And he went back to his farm in Virginia and led the life of a gentleman farmer. Ostensibly he wanted to leave the burden of power behind. He didn't meddle in the affairs of his successor, John Adams, and he kind of lived out his twilight relatively quietly at Mount Vernon.

SEABROOK: Of course you begin your book, "Second Acts," with Harry Truman. Does he mark the beginning of the modern era for you? Why did you begin with him?

Mr. UPDEGROVE: Well, yes, in some ways he does. But Truman really represents sort of the old way of doing things for former presidents. He also retreated quietly to Independence, Missouri, his hometown, just as Washington did to Mount Vernon, and led a relatively quiet existence as well. Remarkably, in those days there was no presidential pension. There was no transition budget. There was no staff or office provided to former presidents. Those emoluments, including a sizable presidential pension, came much later, in 1956, saving Truman from what may have amounted to, in his words, financial embarrassment.

SEABROOK: So it does kind of sound like this sort of sleepy time in a former public servant's life, so different from what we've seen now, where Bill Clinton is globe-trotting, raising money for big causes. It's a totally different kind of second act, isn't it?

Mr. UPDEGROVE: It is indeed, and I think the big change is that former presidents are now pursuing their own agendas, agendas that they have almost left over from their White House years.

SEABROOK: Of course, Nixon was different. He, despite the shame of leaving office under the Watergate investigation, he later became a trusted advisor to other presidents, didn't he? You talk about him in the chapter you call "Rehabilitation."

Mr. UPDEGROVE: Yeah. I think that word, more than any, marks what President Nixon's post-presidency was all about. He left the White House in disgrace in 1974, with the stain of Watergate on his hands, went back to his home in Southern California, threw himself into exile for four years, and then four years later decided, you know, I want to make my mark in foreign policy again. I want to make contributions to this nation and to the world. And by the time he died 16 years later, 20 years after leaving the White House, he was remembered more as a venerable elder statesmen than he was a disgraced former president.

SEABROOK: So with this sort of more modern, since Ford - it seems like Carter, Bush, to some extent Reagan - although of course he battled Alzheimer's in his post-presidency - and now Bill Clinton, they all sort of center on human rights issues: poverty, health care. Is that the theme that seems to be rolling out?

Mr. UPDEGROVE: You're right, that is a common theme, Andrea. I don't know that there's any particular reason for that. I think if you look at Carter, for instance, just as with Nixon, he pursued things that he wanted to be remembered for in his presidency. Nixon wanted to be remembered for foreign policy. Carter, I think, wants to be remembered for peace-making and human rights issues. If you ask Carter what he sees his legacy as being, both in and out of the White House, it is peace-making and human rights.

Clinton, on the other hand, I think Clinton would admit that he didn't do as much with AIDS as he wanted to or as he should have. His daughter Chelsea reminded him of that after he left the White House, and he's concentrated on treatment of AIDS through much of the Third World. So for Clinton it's something, again, that was left unfinished from his presidency.

SEABROOK: In your book, it seems that George Bush, his post-presidency is something like Gerald Ford's, in that he's joining boards and he's sort of in the background. But in part that's because his son is now the sitting president. I mean - and President Bush recently just said - President George W. Bush - said that his father is a closer advisor than many Americans would think.

Mr. UPDEGROVE: Yes. The elder Bush told me that we're closer than most people would think, and the differences that they may or may not have do not keep them apart for very long. What Bush has done is more traditional in nature. Again, he's stepped back. He knows that his legacy is largely intertwined with that of his son, so the book on George H.W. Bush is far from being finished.

But one of the things he told me, Andrea, is that he doesn't want to save the world. What's he's done is he's focused more of his philanthropic efforts locally. By the same token, when he was tapped by his son along with President Clinton to help with tsunami relief and to help with fundraising after Hurricane Katrina, he quickly stepped up to the task.

SEABROOK: Mark Updegrove is the author of "Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House." Thank you so much.

Mr. UPDEGROVE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Andrea Seabrook covers Capitol Hill as NPR's Congressional Correspondent.