After the White House: A Retirement Plan for President Bush

02/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On January 20, 2009, George W. Bush became a former President and will have to consider how he will spend his time after leaving the White House, no longer at center stage in the events of the day, both in our country and in the world. So, what do presidents do after they leave office? Some, like Richard Nixon, wrote books to annotate the history of the time and to modify our view of the accomplishments of his administration. Others, like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, remain participants in the events of the world while performing good works through their respective foundations, addressing the problems of climate change, HIV/AIDS, childhood obesity, economic development, human rights and the reduction of human suffering. George H.W. Bush teamed with Bill Clinton to encourage aid for victims of Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and continues to help raise money for cancer research. Now, as eight tumultuous years of a presidency determined by a single Supreme Court vote in 2000 comes to an end and George Bush ponders what he should do with the rest of his life, I offer some suggestions for how he should occupy his time, the likely result of which would be personal growth and contributions to our country.

As of this writing, 4,219 members of the U.S. military, including 11 Pentagon civilians, have died in Iraq, a war initiated on the basis of faulty intelligence and executed with a flawed strategic plan. The men and women who make up our armed forces rely on the integrity and good sense of their leaders and everyone acknowledges that their work, under difficult circumstances, is both heroic and worthy of praise. I would humbly suggest that President Bush spend time visiting the families of each and every one of our fallen soldiers, whose loss is more than just a picture in the paper one day or a funeral with military honors. It is a lifelong experience. In these families there are now thousands of children without a parent and thousands of parents who are missing a son or a daughter. For them, there will always be an empty chair at the family table. Such visits, likely requiring two in a day, would take between five and 10 years and would require the President to travel to each state in the union. He could see how our country is more than just the sum of the individual states and that the most important matters in life are neither blue nor red.

Once he has completed this journey, President Bush should visit the soldiers who continue to receive care in V.A. hospitals throughout the country. These soldiers, though surviving, often are living with tremendous challenges, including amputations, burns and brain injuries. Their lives and those of their families will never be the same. They, too, deserve to meet face to face with the Commander in Chief of the country they loyally and heroically served. Visiting with these people, pushing their wheelchairs and reading to them would likely be appreciated. We often forget about these people and the nature of their particular sacrifice; President Bush could help us remember them, too.

Since the war began, more than 90,000 Iraqi civilians have died, nearly 9,000 in 2008. The effect on their families is no less tragic than those within our own country and a visit to them no less important. Unfortunately, the soon-to-be-former President may not find himself welcome at the door of many houses in Iraq to help those families understand their own loss, but he should, after his departure, still find a way to help those relief organizations committed to easing the suffering of these families.

While the President is traveling the states visiting families and soldiers, it would be informative for him to also spend time in the public schools and observe the dedication of underpaid teachers who, often with their own money, buy the supplies they need to teach. It would give the President a clearer view of the numbers of children who, during his administration, are still being left behind. He also could find some time to head back to New Orleans, roll up his sleeves with many other citizens, and help those who are still there rebuild their community and construct houses for people who still have no real home.

The numbers of people who lack health insurance and are dealing with life-threatening illnesses are higher now than when the President took office. It could be enlightening for President Bush to visit emergency rooms and county hospitals where millions of people now go for their primary care and to witness the struggles of people suffering from life-threatening diseases. These people have to confront a health care system both complex and often unresponsive at a time when they are least able to handle it. One can only imagine the additional burden for these people and the elderly if the country had followed his suggestion to privatize Social Security.

At its best, retirement offers an opportunity to continue to learn and deepen one's understanding of our shared world and ultimately of ourselves. Some people attend community college or return to universities for advanced degrees to expand their knowledge and refine their thinking, in the light of their life experiences. President Bush might find this to be particularly useful. I would suggest he consider courses in science and discovery, the great religions of the world and even a course in constitutional law. It would help him understand the difference between the scientific methods used to uncover the mysteries of the universe, both physical and biological, and matters of faith. He would gain a better understanding of the legal basis for habeas corpus and the eighth amendment limiting cruel and unusual punishment.

So, as President Bush leaves the White House and returns to Texas with considerable life and energy left before him, we can only hope for him what we want for ourselves; to learn from our mistakes and others, and to do good in the world with the time, intellect and freedom that we are blessed to have.