Of all the perks ex-presidents enjoy, the best one has to be the automatic upgrade in how people view their contributions and character.
The disdain for a president ending his term fades quickly. Americans start going soft on the guy moments after he returns the keys to Air Force One.
Jimmy Carter messed up everything. Economy? Shambles. Iran? Botched. Killer Rabbit? Escaped.
But ex-president Carter rules. As he hammered for Habitat for Humanity he constructed a new image for himself, and the realization spread that, whoops, maybe all that went amiss in the late 1970s wasn't the peanut farmer's fault. Bingo, he's a national treasure.
Carter did not have to be a tireless advocate for peace and democracy to get an image uplift. Ford golfed and skied through his retirement and yet we promoted him from First Bumbler to the courageous one who ended our long national nightmare.
Nixon lost Vietnam and lied about Watergate, but hey, he partied with Mao and that's what we'll remember. His Red Chinese realism is way more reassuring than, say, illegally destroying an ancient paradise like Cambodia.
Reporters live to strip the dignity off of any man in office but then, with generosity of spirit and amnesia of history, they go soft, as if to say: "Geez, you were such a creep then but now you're like totally cool!" Other than ideologues and assassins, Americans and their media treat ex-presidents like kids treat difficult parents once they either die or stop parenting and start doing something useful, like helping them to pay off a mortgage.
Reagan the polarizer beget Reagan the unifier.
People who ridiculed his faulty memory now forget the Grenada invasion and recall the man who brought mornings back to America. Touching scenes of the Obamas tending to Nancy Reagan at the unveiling of her husband's statue at the Capitol Rotunda sated our hunger for harmony with departed presidents.
With full credit to the two men who followed him into the Oval Office, Bush 41 had a swift post-presidential rebound. An out-of-touch ivy leaguer, perhaps, but old man Bush looked darn good once the horn dog dissembler unpacked on Pennsylvania Avenue. Eight years later, 41 was the "Bush Who Got Iraq Right." His mangled syntax was downright inspiring compared to his son's sneering strut.
The traveling duet of Bush 41 and Bill Clinton, in which we admired their mutual admiration, earned them both pardons for all prior sins and failures. By getting along so nicely during a presidential playdate, they met our need to restore the dignity of ex-presidents.
This need is atypical. Other nations boil their ex-leaders in pig fat or ship them off to war zones to get blown up. Gorbachev can't get a taxi in Vladivostok while Tony Blair cross-dresses in Gaza to evade suicide bombers.
Given his extraterrestrial unpopularity, Bush 43 might be the one who finally turns Americans into cannibals of ex-presidents. We won't easily forget the missing WMDs or the missing economy or the missing city of New Orleans. But wait, did Bush-basher Bill Maher tell President Obama that he needs a dose of Bush's moxie? Does Kim jong il's threat to nuke Hawaii put the term "evil doers" in a softer light? Could Tweets of Ahmadinejad's's thugs clubbing kids in the street validate "islamo-fascism," the term Bush struggled to pronounce and propagate?
With a little help from the Axis of Evil, Bush may be getting his bounce already.