WASHINGTON ― Former President Barack Obama’s decision to accept $400,000 from investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald for a speech about health care generated plenty of outrage last week that he is monetizing the presidency. Then there was the counter-argument that those concerned about Obama’s new source of income are just racists.
But aside from the accusations of racism, this debate isn’t new. Debates about the propriety of ex-presidential behavior trace back to the country’s founding. But the contemporary question begins 40 years ago with an important decision made by Gerald Ford.
Yes, Gerald Ford.
Few historians would put Ford, the 38th President of the United States, on their list of most influential and important presidents. His accidental ascension to the presidency after the resignation of Richard Nixon is perhaps best remembered for the pardon he gave his predecessor and his oversight of the country’s official retreat from Vietnam.
It was Ford’s time as an ex-president that was truly revolutionary. In a break from every ex-president before him, Ford decided to turn the prestige of the presidency into cash. He joined corporate boards and hit the paid-speaking circuit.
“[H]e didn’t just commercialize the former presidency; he created the commercialized former presidency,” Ford biographer Thomas DeFrank said in an interview with the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation. “That’s why I said in my book that every former president should go visit his grave in Grand Rapids and thank him for ensuring that they will be instant zillionaires.”
Just like Obama, Ford got serious flak for monetizing the highest office in the nation after leaving it ― from the press, presidential historians and even his former press secretary.
Ford even accepted money to hawk a presidential medal collection, signing a 1978 deal with Franklin Mint, which claimed to be the world’s largest private producer of coins. The silver medal set sold for $1,950 and the gold for $2,750.
In a letter featuring his official ex-president letterhead, Ford asked recipients to buy the medals: “From the days of George Washington to our own time, the story of the American presidency has been one of continuing challenge and responsibility. That is why I believe the Medallic History of the American Presidency will provide a meaningful way for many American families to enrich their knowledge and appreciation of the heritage of freedom we enjoy.”
“We wish he could earn his way without dragging the presidency into it,” the New York Times responded in an editorial.
Jerald terHorst, Ford’s first White House press secretary, wrote in the Washington Post that he wished his former boss would stop the “huckstering and hustling and merchandising of the presidency.”
“Mr. Ford believes in the free enterprise system, and is engaging in that,” Ford’s assistant, Robert Barrett, countered when asked by the Associated Press in 1978.
DeFrank later recounted a similar argument from Ford himself: “I will always remember ... him pounding the desk and saying, ‘God damn it, Tom, it’s the free enterprise system at its finest.’”
Ford’s reasoning reflects its place in time. The 1970s featured a number of revolutionary decisions in corporate America to decouple itself from its obligations to labor and society at large and enter into the global marketplace, while still asserting its political power in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, income inequality exploded ― arguably leading to today’s record high levels.
The nation’s first brand ambassador-turned-president, Ronald Reagan, also benefited from these new post-presidential perks. Japanese firm Fujisankei paid Reagan $2 million to deliver two 20 minutes speeches in Japan in 1989, less than a year after leaving office. Fujisankei paid an additional $5 million to cover costs related to the former president’s trip.
Reagan was also criticized for this ― some guy named Donald Trump even poked fun at him for taking money from U.S. businesses by promoting competitors in Japan. “Former Presidents haven’t always comported themselves with dignity after leaving the Oval Office,”a 1989 New York Times article read. “But none have plunged so blatantly into pure commercialism.”
Every president since has followed Ford and Reagan’s lead to varying degrees.
George H.W. Bush accepted money for speeches from companies like Amway, Choice Hotels International and Barrick Gold, among others. Bush also received a five-figure honorary role on an advisory board for Barrick Gold, a Canadian mining company. Although a millionaire when he entered the White House, Bush quipped an excuse to the New York Times, “everybody has to earn a living.”
His successor, Bill Clinton, took that to new levels, earning around $100 million from paid speeches since leaving office in 2001. Clinton left office with between $2 million and $10 million in legal debts stemming from his impeachment and disbarment hearings, which put him in a slightly different position than most ex-presidents. He used his early earnings to help pay off these debts and those of some of his White House staff. But continued to amass a substantial fortune from speaking gigs ― and has, as everyone is well aware, received substantial criticism for it.
George W. Bush was much less popular when his presidency ended, but still made $15 million from paid speeches in the just the first three years after leaving the White House.
Now Obama is taking part in the new ex-president tradition of getting really, really rich.
It wasn’t always this way.
Harry Truman contemplated this issue upon leaving office in 1953 and decided it was indecorous. Though he received numerous offers to make money after moving back home to Independence, Missouri, he wrote in his memoirs that “I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency.”
Truman was not a wealthy man in the 19 years he lived after leaving office. He spent much of his time responding to letters from admirers around the country, which he said personally cost him $30,000 a year in postage and related expenses. He did, however, think the government should help defray those costs in some way ― a position that he conveyed to his old friend Speaker Sam Rayburn.
Truman’s request entered a long-running debate about what to do with ex-presidents. Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first treasury secretary, worried in the Federalist Papers prior to the ratification of the Constitution about the “half a dozen men who had had credit enough to be raised to the seat of the supreme magistracy, wandering among the people like discontented ghosts.”
“Of course the subject would be relieved of all uncertainty and embarrassment if every President would die at the end of his term,” Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th president and the only one in history to be elected to two non-consecutive terms, opined in a 1891 speech in Sandwich, Massachusetts.
William Howard Taft agreed. In a speech to the Lotos Club in New York City following a failed reelection bid in November 1912, ex-presidents should be administered, “a dose of chloroform … and the reduction of the flesh of the thus quietly departed to ashes in a funeral pyre … to fix his place in history and enable the public to pass on to new men and new measures.” This was undoubtedly a jibe at former President Teddy Roosevelt’s decision to come out of retirement and run in the 1912 election.
Luckily for Taft, this practice was never adopted, thus allowing him to become the only ex-president to also serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Millard Fillmore, who like Ford was never elected to the position but rather acceded to the position upon the death of President Zachary Taylor, had earlier appealed for some sort of government support for the former heads of state in the New York Herald in 1873: “It is a national disgrace that our Presidents, having occupied the highest position in the country should be cast adrift, and, perhaps, be compelled to keep a corner grocery for subsistence.”
While no former president has ever had to open a corner grocery store to get by, many have found other ways of paying the bills. Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president, was the first to pen a memoir about his life and time in office. Grant died of cancer days after finishing the final draft, but his widow, Julia Grant, received $400,000 in royalties for his memoir, which is still widely considered the finest presidential memoir written before or since.
Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president, received a litany of job offers from the business community as his presidency wound down. His reason for rejecting them, “Some of the offers that have come to me would never have come if I had not been President. That means these people are trying to hire not Calvin Coolidge, but a former President of the United States. I can’t make that kind of use of the office.”
He added, “I can’t do anything that might take away from the Presidency any of its dignity, or any of the faith the people have in it.” (Coolidge would later take an unpaid board seat at the New York Life Insurance Company.)
Truman’s call for support for former presidents garnered sympathy from Democrats in Congress, prompting them to pass the Former Presidents Act in 1958. The bill provides pensions and other benefits to ex-presidents, which have been expanded and increased through legislation in the years since.
But Jimmy Carter is the only former president since Ford to follow in Truman’s footsteps in declining to make money through consulting, paid speeches and other means. Carter insisted that it was “inappropriate” for an ex-president to make money in Ford’s “free enterprise system.” To make money, Carter, already the owner of a peanut farm and other real estate holdings, has written more than two dozen books since leaving office.
The whole debate over the propriety of ex-presidential money-making now seems rather quaint now given President Donald Trump’s decision to maintain ownership of his real estate and branding business while in the White House, and his regular jaunts to his many eponymous properties.
Trump hasn’t even waited until leaving office to monetize the presidency.
Take that Gerald Ford.