Professor's Prologue

The Role of the Retired President

by Dr. Martin E. Goldstein, Professor of Political Science at Widener University

Most of us contemplate, at one time or another, what we will do when we retire.   Perhaps we will develop a new hobby or pursue an old one with renewed vigor. Or maybe we will decide to volunteer for worthy causes. Many of us will follow our professional calling, but at a reduced level.  Another option – enjoying unstructured leisure time – also sounds appealing.

What do presidents do after leaving office?  What should they do?  To one degree or another, presidents acquire knowledge of the country and the world.  Wouldn’t it be a shame to allow such expertise to simply evaporate?  Isn’t there a constructive role for such individuals, many relatively young, healthy and ready to serve, to play?  (The same questions could be asked of retired heads of many states. Perhaps the time is ripe for the creation of a global presidential service corps.)

A few former presidents and others have expressed views on these matters. In The Federalist No. 72, “Publius,” Alexander Hamilton worried about the role of ex-presidents. He asked, “Would it promote the peace of the community, or the stability of government, to have half a dozen men who had had credit enough to be raised in the seat of the supreme magistracy wandering among the people like discontented ghosts and sighing for a place which they were destined never more to possess?”  Franklin Pierce, who failed to win reelection in 1856, inquired, “After the White House what is there to do but drink?” (In fact, this is exactly what he did until alcohol helped speed his death.)  In an 1889 letter, ex-president Grover Cleveland wrote that Henry Watterson’s suggestion might have merit: “Take them out and shoot them.”  Happily, this recommendation was not followed, for Cleveland was elected to the White House again in 1892. 

Dwight D. Eisenhower opted for playing golf daily, and Lyndon B. Johnson turned to cattle ranching. In more current times, however, ex-presidents have devoted their post-White House years to civic matters. Our most recent presidents have worked on the development of libraries bearing their names, and many former chief executives have kept up with national and international events and have offered advice to their successors.  At the same time, the tradition has arisen that ex-presidents don’t publicly criticize or second-guess their successors. 

Of late, former presidents have turned to humanitarian efforts.  Upon retirement, Jimmy Carter established the Carter Center to promote peace and understanding.  Carter won the Noble Peace Prize in 2002 for promoting international peace, with particular focus on the Middle East.  He has helped build homes through Habitat for Humanity, and he has worked actively to nearly eradicate the guinea worm parasitic disease in Africa.

Bill Clinton also stands out as someone who has found ways to serve his country and all humanity since leaving the world’s most potent seat of power. He has joined with former president George H. W. Bush to lead disaster relief efforts for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Ike in 2008.  In 2010, he also responded to President Obama’s call to join the former president George W. Bush to lead relief efforts following a massive earthquake in Haiti.

Through this work and the many initiatives of the William J. Clinton Foundation, which he established shortly after leaving office, Clinton has remained one of the world’s most recognizable and influential political figures.

Widener University 1821 iconDr. Martin E. Goldstein

Dr. Martin E. Goldstein has been a member of the faculty at Widener University for 40 years specializing in government and politics. After having been awarded two governmental fellowships, Goldstein spent two years working for the Department of Defense as a policy analyst and has worked with the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. You can reach him at

President Clinton will discuss his life after the presidency at the first installment of the 2012-2013 Philadelphia Speakers Series on October 1 at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.