Why does the US mythologise its former presidents?

No matter their shortcomings, former presidents have a history of being mythologised as forces for ‘good’ in America – even Nixon was able to exert influence after his disgraced tenure. Will the same thing happen for Donald Trump?

Circa 1905: Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), the 26th president of the United States (1901-09) sitting at his desk working [File: Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

With the days counting down on his presidency, politicians and pundits are fretting over what Donald Trump will do after he leaves office.

The Democrats’ newest impeachment charge blames the president for inciting the insurrection that took place on January 6, when Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in Washington, DC, in protest against Joe Biden being formally certified as the next president of the United States. The Democrats’ goal is to bar Trump from ever serving in public office again.

Meanwhile, in addition to the thousands who stormed the Capitol building, Trump also retains supporters among elected Republicans, seen most clearly in the 147 representatives who voted not to certify Biden’s electoral victory even after the insurrection took place.

Like it or not, what such events reveal in the waning days of Trump’s term as president is that he and his many followers will move into the future undeterred by whatever opponents may throw at them.

Such concern surrounding what may take place after a current president leaves office may strike many as strange. But the reality is that presidents have on many occasions remained quite active, causing controversies, seeking power and, at the very least, trying to stay relevant well after their days in the Oval Office came to an end. Just as common is how many Americans follow them, giving them a pass on many of their past wrongdoings.

Portrait of fourth US President James Madison (1809-17) [Photo courtesy of the National Archives/Newsmakers]

Take, for example, James Madison, who was the country’s fourth president – from 1809 to 1817.

Madison did not cause an insurrection after he left office. He did, however, according to Madison’s biographers, Garry Wills and Donald McCoy, doctor past statements and correspondences to make his earlier positions on issues tally with popular positions of the day. Madison was so concerned with his image and lasting influence that he got sick with worry over how others would see him and his administration’s policies after leaving the White House.

These actions seem quite the opposite of what would be considered appropriate of one of the US’ “founding fathers”.

Yet, instead of his years of post-presidency squabbles and interventions into political life, it is Madison’s role as the principal author of the American constitution that is most remembered. Eulogised as the main architect of US institutions (with the separation of powers within the government structure as the central elements of “Madisonian Democracy”), it is as if, for many, his life ended once he left office.

The truth, however, is different. Not only did Madison lead an active political life for years after exiting the Oval Office, but it was one that showed he was quite willing to intervene in current affairs to protect his legacy and seek influence. In part, he was able to get away with his behaviour because Americans and political leaders let him. As is more often the case than not, former presidents are given a kind of “free pass” to do as they please once they leave office.

Looking more into Madison’s life after he departed the White House, as well as those of other former commanders-in-chief, we see a certain kind of mythologising that seemingly knows no bounds, often with Americans forgiving ex-presidents for past behaviours from owning enslaved people to waging wars in the Middle East. Perhaps we will have to add inciting a coup to this list.

Carter – ‘A near-saint’

Madison shows us something that is quite common among former presidents – a persistent concern with politics and a desire for power.

This probably contrasts with the figure many think of when it comes to American ex-presidents – Jimmy Carter.

Former US President Jimmy Carter delivers a lecture on the eradication of the Guinea worm, in the UK’s House of Lords on February 3, 2016, in London [Eddie Mullholland-WPA Pool/Getty Images]

Carter, who served one term in the Oval Office (1977 to 1981) before losing his bid for re-election to Ronald Reagan, periodically appears in the popular press as that 90-year-old-plus near-saint who goes around the world building homes for the less fortunate.

After leaving office, he has been credited with providing “an ideal model of post-presidential life” and for being a great American “leader”.

Or, if Carter does not immediately come to mind, then people may recall how America’s former chief executives have made it something of a tradition to erect libraries to store their letters and other writings.

Essentially serving as national monuments, presidential libraries lend to the myth of the American president as some kind of national treasure that is to be cherished and not reproached. Trump’s library, given his propensity for communicating via Twitter, may turn out to be quite small in terms of correspondence, or even be entirely virtual.

Playing ‘king-maker’ – and ‘king un-maker’

But while collecting books and organising personal papers may not seem too political, most ex-presidents do not limit themselves to this.

Take, for example, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. This Roosevelt – not to be confused with his cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) – was active politically right up to the time of his death in 1919.

Former US President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) at Cambridge University in the UK on May 26, 1910 [Topical Press Agency/Getty Images]

In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became president after William McKinley, under whom the former was acting as vice president, caught an assassin’s bullet. This propelled Roosevelt, who was 42 at the time, to become president and serve out the rest of McKinley’s term in office until 1904.

Roosevelt promised not to seek a third term in 1908. In fact, shortly after being elected in 1904, he stated: “Under no circumstances will I be a candidate for or accept another nomination.”

His reason was the two-term norm that George Washington, the nation’s first president, had begun when he left office after being elected twice, concluding his second term in 1797. Any inkling that Washington would have run for a third term was erased with his death, which came just two years after leaving office.

One of the perennial debates in US politics has raged over the number of terms each president should be allowed to serve. It was only in 1947, with the passage of the 22nd amendment – in large part, a reaction to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s four consecutive terms – that the unwritten norm for two terms became law of the land.

Teddy Roosevelt, having been the youngest president ever, was in a significantly different situation.

Not only was Roosevelt young, but he left office quite popular among the general population for taking on corporate power in antitrust disputes which broke up large firms such as Standard Oil. His popularity was also due to his efforts in expanding the system of national parks in the name of conservation and his push to make the Panama Canal a reality. Such initiatives have contributed to the mythology surrounding Roosevelt, especially in terms of his stature as a strong public official who defended both the “common man” and nature.

Entering retired life was just not an option for him.

At first, Roosevelt chose to play “king-maker” by throwing his political weight behind his secretary of war, William Howard Taft, who sought to become president. And, with the popular ex-president behind him, Taft successfully won his bid for the presidency in 1908.

The chief justice of the Supreme Court and former president of the US, William Howard Taft, signing the visitors’ book at Sulgrave Manor in Oxfordshire, the ancestral home of George Washington, DC on July 1922 [Topical Press Agency/Getty Images]

But Roosevelt did not rest content with just helping a member of his cabinet follow in his footsteps. In fact, over the course of his life, Roosevelt was never prone to letting others act on his behalf. After overcoming health troubles as a child, his upbringing in a privileged New York family greatly assisted his ambition to enter into public life. He was first elected to the New York state assembly when he was just 24 years old.

Still, the mythology surrounding Roosevelt is almost exclusively to do with his personal toughness and perseverance rather than with the fact that a wealthy family backing his goals was never far behind.

Regardless of the source of his confidence, rankled by what he perceived as Taft’s conservatism, Roosevelt ran for president to challenge the then-incumbent in 1912.

So much for norms and pledging not to run again.

This time, Roosevelt went the third-party route, campaigning as the candidate for the Progressive Party instead of as a Republican. He did get more votes than Taft, who ran as the Republican nominee, but Roosevelt ended up losing to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

It is an open question as to whether Trump will try something similar, leading a third-party bid if Republicans ultimately decide to break from him now.

What is certain is that for at least the next four years, while not serving as president, he will have the tools to retain a following given the variety of media outlets and platforms that allow him to connect to supporters. Despite his banning from Twitter and the takedown of the right-wing platform, Parler, networks such as Fox and OAN (One America News) continue to see the administration kindly. Meanwhile, his “America First” brand of xenophobic nationalism, in tandem with his use of China as a political punching bag, still resonate with millions. It is one thing to denounce an insurrection as a tactic, yet quite another to delegitimate the political goals and vision that led to Trump’s first successful electoral bid and which drew the thousands who stormed the Capitol.

One problem for the Republicans is that there is no so-called “heir apparent” to take over Trumpism if Trump were to exit the political scene. Mitt Romney’s brand of politics seems a distant, toned down version of Ted Cruz’s, with the latter politician walking in lockstep with the president. Neither leader, however, maintains the kind of following that Trump currently enjoys, even despite the insurrection attempt.

For these reasons, it is more than likely that Trumpism will continue, with Trump, in some form, remaining integral. One option that it could take, as Teddy Roosevelt led the way in showing, is for a former president to make a comeback by launching a third-party campaign bid.

Wielding power and influence

About 20 years after Theodore Roosevelt, Teddy’s cousin – Franklin – became president by beating the incumbent, Herbert Hoover. Similar to his older cousin, Franklin’s elite family assisted his political journey, with his first successful election sending him to the New York state senate at 29 years old. Unlike his relative, FDR never had a post-presidential life, being elected to four consecutive terms and dying at the beginning of the last.

Circa 1945: The 32nd president of the US, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, (1882-1945), on board a Clipper aircraft [Fox Photos/Getty Images]

As the longest-serving president ever and the only case of one serving more than two terms, FDR spent a total of 12 years in the Oval Office. Having presided through the Great Depression, and then World War II, FDR is remembered – even mythologised – as the president that managed to keep the country united during difficult, politically volatile times.

While in part true, it is also the case that towards the end of his more-than-a-decade in office, FDR was heading into dangerous territory. Both his third and fourth presidential bids were criticised by opponents, as the line between president and dictator was seemingly becoming blurred.

It is also worth recalling that FDR’s success in terms of getting things done while in power depended in no small measure upon southern segregationists backing the Democrat, with their racist Jim Crow policies mainly going unchallenged over the course of the president’s decade-plus time in office. Those policies constituted a system of apartheid that divided and discriminated against people of colour by providing them with inferior services in areas such as transport and education.

In terms of ex-presidents around this time, there is also Herbert Hoover, who FDR beat in his first campaign in 1932.

Former president of the US, Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), smoking a pipe, right, while heading the Finnish Relief Campaign meeting at the Waldorf Hotel, New York City on April 1, 1940 [Stark/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

Instead of sulking in defeat, Hoover spent his post-presidency quite active in political life. This much was expected, as before becoming president, Hoover had spent years working in the administrations of Woodrow Wilson and Warren G Harding.

Before and after being president, Hoover sought power and influence.

First, he remained a vocal critic of the FDR administration and the series of New Deal policies that the Democrat promoted, from the public projects that put scores of unemployed Americans to work, to new farm policies that intended to promote environmental conservation and stabilise incomes. Then, in 1940, Hoover sought to unseat FDR by seeking the nomination of the Republicans. Despite his efforts, however, Wendell Willkie became the party’s nominee who would challenge, and then lose to Roosevelt that year.

Hoover did not let these setbacks keep him from seeking influence.

For the general public, he would be remembered for failing to act decisively during the early years of the Great Depression. Yet, in political circles, the former president had a certain esteem, especially for foreign affairs and public service.

Such a reputation led him, in 1947, at the direction of President Harry S Truman, and then again in 1953, under President Dwight D Eisenhower, to chair two separate commissions that were charged with studying and investigating the organisation and operation of the executive branch of the federal government. The commission’s goals were to recommend organisational changes to promote economy, efficiency and improved service.

Over the course of the operation of the two commissions, hundreds of recommendations were made, with many leading to actual changes in governance. In addition to leading to the creation of the General Services Administration, which is in charge of maintaining government building real estate, the first Hoover Commission is credited with enhancing the power of the presidency. Moreover, from national security and labour relations to veterans’ affairs and the operation of the post office, the Hoover Commissions’ recommendations also led to millions in budget cuts.

Through his work in the commissions, Hoover managed to rehabilitate his reputation which had been damaged by his administration’s failings during the Great Depression.

Would Hoover have been called upon by Truman and Eisenhower to lead a reform of the highest office in the land had he not once been president? It is unlikely.

Winning, losing … and running again

Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover provide cases of former presidents who, while remaining active in politics, were ultimately unsuccessful in their attempts to return to the White House once they left it.

Grover Cleveland, on the contrary, who served as both 22nd and 24th president, reveals how a former president can lose his re-election attempt, then win later.

Portrait of 24th US president, Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) [Courtesy of the National Archives/Newsmakers/Getty Images]

Cleveland was first elected in 1884, eking out a victory by beating his rival, James G Blaine, with a margin of just more than 57,000 votes. A slim margin for any era, even at this time before women’s suffrage, as well as with racial restrictions in place, the total voting population was just below 10 million.

Moreover, what especially characterised political life during Cleveland’s time was the long shadow that the Civil War had cast over America.

Racial tensions persisted in the post-war period, known as Reconstruction. Presiding over most of this period was the administration of ex-Civil War general and Republican Ulysses S Grant, who served as the 18th US president from 1869 to 1877. To quell racial tensions, Grant sent federal troops into the South on various occasions to make good on the 13th, 14th, and 15th constitutional amendments that, respectively, abolished slavery, guaranteed due process for every citizen regardless of race, and extended suffrage.

Ulysses Simpson Grant (1822-1885), the 18th president of the US and American general, working on his memoirs after his fatal illness had overtaken him [Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

The Reconstruction era came to an end with the presidential election of 1876, which was won by Rutherford B Hayes. That election had been a mess, with each party declaring its candidate the winner amid allegations of voter intimidation and election fraud. The resulting negotiations surrounding its conclusion saw Republicans and Democrats agree to essentially end the former party’s efforts to intervene in Southern states’ affairs.

That compromise did not end the extreme polarisation of the era, which Cleveland had to navigate in his presidential campaigns.

Proof of this partisan divide was not just Cleveland’s very narrow victory in 1884, but his subsequent loss four years later in 1888. In that election, Cleveland won the popular vote by just more than 90,000 votes, yet lost the electoral college vote 233 to 168 (at that time, it was 201 Electoral College votes that were needed to win, not 270 votes as is required now).

Still, the toxic, deeply divided political landscape and re-election loss did not stop Cleveland from continuing to pursue power and political office.

In fact, it is reported that his wife prophesied, as they were leaving the White House in 1889, that they would return in four years.

And they did just that when, in 1893, Cleveland was elected once again to the presidency.

Cleveland’s desire for power and influence never left him, regardless of the defeats that he suffered and the overall political climate within which he ran for office.

The impeached become unimpeachable

Just as Cleveland sought four more years in office after experiencing defeat, there is every reason to believe that Donald Trump, with his series of legal challenges to overturn the most recent election apparently coming up short, will return to the campaign trail in 2024 – that is, if he is not barred from doing so.

Some may scoff at this prospect, especially as Trump has broken so many rules and norms, leading to him being impeached – twice. But being impeached is no barrier to popular favour, as has been proved more than once, and Trump will likely retain some kind of following in the coming years.

US President Donald Trump golfs at Trump National Golf Club on November 22, 2020, in Sterling, Virginia [Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images/AFP]

In US history, only two other presidents have received the dishonour of being impeached – Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson. A third, Richard Nixon, had an impeachment process initiated but he resigned before a vote could take place.

Johnson became president after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. He was impeached in 1868 over deep disagreements concerning the direction of the country during Reconstruction. The Senate – by just one vote – failed to gather the necessary support for his removal. Johnson finished his term, proving essentially ineffective to unite the country and pass significant legislation.

Circa 1865: Andrew Johnson (1808-1875), the 17th president of the US (1865-69). Vice president to Abraham Lincoln, he became president upon his assassination [Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

Following his much-maligned tenure in the White House, Johnson unsuccessfully mounted a series of campaigns for a variety of public offices in his home state of Tennessee.

Still, his fruitless presidency and series of defeats for lower-level offices did not keep Johnson down.

In 1875, Johnson won a seat in the Senate. Reportedly, he rejoiced at the news of his success, stating “thank God for the vindication”. His comeback was cut short, however, when just a couple of months after winning the seat, he died from a series of strokes.

That Johnson managed his comeback was a testament to the fact that a significant number of Americans of his day, instead of writing him off, viewed his political prowess positively enough to send him back to Washington, DC.

Jumping forward 100 or so years, to when Bill Clinton was impeached, shows another example of a politician who let nothing get in his way of wielding influence.

Clinton’s impeachment came at the very end of his second term in office, in 1998, over allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice pertaining to the cover-up of his affair with a young White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.

Despite all that, and unlike Johnson, Clinton left office highly regarded. According to Gallup – the polling firm which tracks approval among the general population over time – Clinton’s approval rating remained steady, even ticking up in the time after the impeachment and leaving the White House.

In fact, such a finding is seen in the approval ratings of seven of the last nine presidents, including Republican George W Bush, who led the disastrous war in Iraq.

Former US President George W Bush speaks during the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York City, US, September 25, 2019 [File: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters]

The popular, gay and strongly Democrat TV presenter, Ellen DeGeneres was famously lauded in 2019 for defending her good friendship with Bush, who has opposed gay marriage, after they were pictured seated next to each other at a football game.

DeGeneres said at the time: “I’m friends with George Bush. In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs I have.”

This may go some way to explaining why Americans are so forgiving of the actions of their former presidents – the American psyche which preserves the US as “the land of the free” – a great democracy in which everyone can live harmoniously together no matter their beliefs.

A similar mindset is found among the many pundits who appear shocked at the storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters, claiming regularly how “this is not us”. Not only did the insurrection, in fact, take place, but America’s long history of supporting coups in other countries belies a simple reading of American politics as always pro-democratic.

A similar finding is noted in other democracies, with former presidents seen as actors involved in charity more than anything, and therefore, above the political fray.

As Clinton and most other ex-presidents show, such a belief is more myth than reality.

Democratic US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her husband former President Bill Clinton wave to supporters after she was projected to be the winner in the Democratic caucuses in Las Vegas, Nevada February 20, 2016 [File: David Becker/Reuters]

Bill Clinton has spoken at every Democratic Party national convention since leaving office.

Also, both times that his wife, Hillary Clinton, unsuccessfully ran for president, in 2008 for the Democratic nomination against Obama, and 2016 as the Democratic nominee against Trump, he campaigned on her behalf.

The last time will be remembered for Trump’s theatrics perhaps more than Bill Clinton’s efforts, particularly in the moments before the Republican candidate’s debate with Hillary Clinton.

At that time, shortly after the now infamous Access Hollywood video surfaced, which featured a recording of Trump making lewd, sexually explicit comments, Trump staged a press conference with a group of women who accused Bill Clinton of harassment. This move, to impugn Hillary for complicity, served primarily to distract from candidate Trump’s own scandals.

The Nixon effect

Scandals also did not lead to Richard Nixon’s disappearance from political life.

A year or so of cover-ups over the 1972 Watergate scandal, when members of the president’s re-election effort broke into Democrat National Committee headquarters to acquire politically valuable information, led high-ranking Republicans to persuade the president to resign and leave office, which he did in 1974.

Former US President Richard Nixon waves to photographers as he prepares to get into his car at the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris, May 20, 1987 [Scanned from negative – Reuters/Jean-Claude Delmas JS/CMC/PN]

With such a tarnished reputation, one would expect Nixon to crawl into the proverbial hole and to, well, go away.

But, as history has routinely shown, an ex-president will not be kept down.

Nixon, in this regard, was like the many other former commanders-in-chief who have continued to search for influence after leaving the White House.

This much was shown in the famous Nixon-Frost interviews when, three years after resigning in 1977, the former president sat down with the British journalist, David Frost. In part needing to meet financial difficulties, Nixon also intended to publicise his memoirs.

As some may remember from these conversations, Nixon apologised to the American people, but admitted no wrongdoing. He presented himself as defiant, expressing contrition to the public not for criminal behaviour, but for not staying in power and continuing to fight.

Keeping up a similar spirit afterwards, Nixon sought to remain relevant and exert influence in still other ways. This, despite dismal approval ratings at the time of his resignation.

Gerald Ford, who was Nixon’s vice president, issued a formal pardon to Nixon for any crimes he may have committed shortly after assuming office. At the time, reporters were shocked. “No one could believe it,” reported The New York Times.

A few years later, speculation continued that behind the scenes, dirty tricks and secrecy between Nixon administration allies were behind Ford’s “blunder”.

Then, with time, opinions changed.

After a brief bout of health issues, Nixon embarked on a series of high-profile foreign trips to China and Egypt as a private citizen. Reporting at the time was generally favourable. Such trips tend to be made by acting presidents. Yet, even when out of power, Nixon was performing the part of a president.

Additionally, behind the scenes, Nixon took the role of a kind of de facto adviser to acting presidents. Reportedly, Ronald Reagan, the US’s 40th president, regularly sought Nixon’s advice, especially on international affairs.

His “expertise” was not reserved for Republicans alone, as Nixon also gave his thoughts on foreign policy to Bill Clinton on Russia and post-Cold War politics in general.

Nixon never returned to the White House in an official capacity, but behind the scenes, he did what he could to remain connected to the inner workings of governance.

Reagan: Bipartisan hero, or precursor to Trumpism?

After Carter and Nixon, Ronald Reagan served in the White House from 1981 to 1989. This president’s time after office, given his Alzheimer’s disease, was not as eventful as those that came before or after him.

American President Ronald Reagan makes an announcement from his desk at the White House, in Washington, DC [Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

Still, what is interesting about him is not so much what he did after office as to how he came to be remembered.

Reagan has been essentially deified by Republicans over the course of the last couple of decades. Heralded as bringing the Cold War to an end, Reagan’s administration forms part of conservative lore for cutting taxes and spending. For these reasons, just as required as a flag pin on a Republican candidate’s lapel during a public outing, are a regular run of homages to this president from the 1980s.

Democrats, as well, have turned Reagan into something like an icon.

Obama, as is reported, admired Reagan’s persona and even some of his policies.

With a similar kind of esteem, on the campaign trail back in 2016, Hillary Clinton criticised Trump’s praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin, stating “what would Ronald Reagan say?”

Democrats and Republicans alike mythologise Reagan as something of a national treasure, despite the AIDS pandemic that he failed to acknowledge and the ballooning of defence spending that exploded the national debt on his watch.

It is also Reagan – not Trump – who first campaigned on the promise to “Make America Great Again”. This, along with making regular appeals to Christianity to garner the support of the religious right and the use of racist tropes such as “welfare queen” to keep his supporters tuned in, were tactics of a trail blazed by Reagan before Trump blew them up years later.

The time of Trump

It is unlikely that Trump, in his post-presidency, will take on a role similar to Nixon’s in terms of acting behind the scenes. Just as improbable is some kind of bipartisan groundswell of esteem in the coming years, which Reagan generated, especially given the US’s extremely bitter bipartisan political climate.

What is more likely is that Trump will try to remain directly influential in American political life, whether through persisting in his voter fraud allegations for years to come, or in calling out Biden for reapproaching the global community.

Trump’s approval rating never ticked above 50 percent during his time in office, yet neither did it bottom out in the low 30s or 20s.

George W Bush’s approval ratings did drop to such lows at the time he exited office, in large part due to the exploding financial crisis at the time and long-drawn-out war in Iraq. His rise in popularity in the years since he left the White House may not be a sign of forgiveness as much as it is a kind of nostalgia for a time when partisanship was neither so marked nor all-encompassing.

This leads us to believe that President Trump’s following will accompany him into his days as ex-president which, perhaps like those of Grover Cleveland, will be marked by a brief four-year reprieve before getting back on the campaign trail.

It seems that more than anything, a return to the Oval Office is Trump’s goal. And, as he has never been one to avoid the spotlight, we can be guaranteed that the next four years will be replete with Trump appearances and interjections into public life. The question is, are Americans ready for at least four more years, not of President Trump, but the candidate?

Now, as the fallout from the Capitol insurrection shows Trump and his followers shaken, but not defeated, we have to wonder to what lengths the soon-to-be-former president will go to exert power and wield influence. One thing that is clear, is that Trumpism will not go away quietly.

Source: Al Jazeera