It used to be that ex-presidents behaved like old soldiers: they just faded away. Perhaps after a few years they appeared for a wave at the camera at their party’s convention or sat for a valedictory interview when approaching the last round-up. But generally they finished their term and left the stage.
Ike, Truman and Johnson followed this pattern, but no more. Now you can’t get rid of them. The latest ex to reemerge into the limelight from well-earned obscurity is George W. Bush, a man well up in the competition for president least likely to be missed. Except for occasional operations, his veep never went away, but Bush had the good sense (or lack of Karl Rove to tell him what to do) to simply retire to a life of biking and painting pets.
Why he’s suddenly back in the public eye is not obvious. He has a book to plug, presumably outsourced to a literate person to write, about the leader of the clan (A Portrait of My Father), but that’s too straightforward an excuse to be either amusing or plausible. It may be he has been emboldened to show his face by Obama’s unfavorable poll numbers which are closing in on the level of public distaste, repentance and repudiation that he achieved. But the fact that other people are unpopular doesn’t make you the belle of the ball.
It may also be that the chaos in Iraq and Syria makes Bush believe his destabilizing of the region in the first place is no longer so damning. If one president after another gets stuck in the same quagmire, can he still be blamed? Yes. Ask Lyndon Johnson.
Or maybe he’s out to promote the presidential aspirations of his brother Jeb. You can only imagine how Jeb must feel about this. Surely he’s thinking, “For God’s sake, Bro, go home, pipe down, don’t do me any favors. If it wasn’t way too late I’d have already changed my name to Jeb Clinton or Jeb Eisenhower or Jeb Jefferson.”
Even W’s mother has said she thinks the country has had too many Bush presidents, and she certainly wasn’t thinking about her husband, 41, as the superfluous one when she said it.
His father, except for a weird occasional need to skydive in order reenact his being shot down by the Japanese, has maintained a low profile, so he hasn’t been the one setting a bad example for W.
Carter and Clinton are omnipresent, doing good. The former tries to promote democracy and wipe out tropical diseases and erect affordable housing. The Clinton Global Photo Op apparently does good works too, having something to do with the Third World, though it seems mostly useful in giving Chelsea a job, trying to get a job for Hillary, allowing the Clintons to hang with megabucks donors and keeping Bill’s face in front of cameras just in case the 22nd amendment is ever repealed.
The worst example of an ex-president who wouldn’t go away was surely Richard Nixon who heads so many worst lists. For 20 years after his exit, one jump ahead of the law, Nixon doggedly refused to vanish. He gave well-paid self-serving interviews to Dvid Frost, attended a State dinner for Deng Xiaoping at the insistence of the Chinese, defied the State Department by attending the funeral of the Shah of Iran and wrote nine books offering an ungrateful nation the benefit of the wisdom acquired by an unindicted co-conspirator. All this relentless effort was designed to keep Watergate out of the first paragraph of his obituary. It did not succeed.
It’s possible George W. Is reemerging to engage in a similar attempt to burnish a tarnished image, but he clearly lacks the ferocious drive and malign cunning of Nixon as his still comic Bushapropisms demonstrate.
More likely the ex-president is simply bored and misses the attention. It can’t be much fun after thinking your every hiccup is news to find out you are now something, like yesterdays paper, to wrap fish in. One minute you’re jetting around the planet on Air Force One or dispatching hundreds of thousands of troops on fools errands, the next you are reduced to eating your peanut and jelly sandwich alone at home with nobody for company except the Secret Service detail.
But that’s the way it goes. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi. “The shouting and the tumult dies; The Captains and the Kings depart.”