Now that Donald Trump has exited the White House, how much influence will he wield on the political scene? Only time will tell. Our history, however, does offer a possible answer. Very, very few American presidents retained much power upon leaving office. Most passed quietly from the scene, some became respected “elder statesmen,” but not the “decision makers” they had formerly been. Of course this is not an entirely fair inquiry since our greatest presidents, Lincoln and Roosevelt, did not enjoy a post-presidency, and Washington died shortly after leaving office.
Still there are some notable exceptions who should be considered in this survey. Andrew Jackson, who left office in 1837, remained an acknowledged player in the Democratic Party, forcefully supporting the annexation of Texas and the selection of James Polk as the party’s presidential candidate in 1844. Our sixth president, John Quincy Adams, after his term of office, became a nine-term Congressman from Massachusetts and an outspoken champion of the antislavery movement. William Howard Taft, after leaving office in 1913, joined the Yale law faculty, and then in 1920 became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court during a period in which judicial conservatism was in the ascendancy. Though resigning after the disgrace of “Watergate,” Richard Nixon nevertheless managed, in the view of many, to “rehabilitate” himself and to enjoy an extended career as an elder statesman and sagacious analyst of the international scene. It’s been forty years since Jimmy Carter left the White House and his reputation as President still seems to register not much beyond lackluster. Nevertheless, his post-presidency has been remarkable, not in terms of wielding power, but rather for the “good works” he has performed. His peacekeeping, election monitoring and humanitarian efforts have been widely acclaimed, his religious convictions admired, and his writings widely appreciated.
So we finally arrive at the President who, compared to all others, managed to remain influential well beyond his White House years. Teddy Roosevelt, who became president in 1901 upon the assassination of President McKinley, could have run again in 1908 but to his lasting regret publicly announced well before that he would not. But upon breaking with his successor, President William Howard Taft, he chose to return to the political wars. He re-entered the fray in 1910, this time championing a “New Nationalism” and laid out an extensive progressive agenda. He ran for president in 1912 under the banner of the “Progressive Party.” And though he lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, he far exceeded Taft’s tally and gained the largest percentage of the overall vote of any third party ever. He determined to run again in 1916, but failed to gain the support of Republican leaders. Nevertheless, he did obtain Congressional support to raise a separate military unit under his command, to fight in World War I (as he’d done in the Spanish-American War). President Wilson, however, would not approve. Still, as the 1920 presidential campaign, was getting underway, it appeared that Roosevelt had the inside track to his party’s nomination. It would not be. Roosevelt died in 1919 at the age of 61.
So, what does this excursion through our past reveal? It’s clear, if you exclude TR, that no other president has been able to remain the master of events after his term in office ends. The nation moves on; other individuals move up and take control. Donald Trump, in essential ways, is no Teddy Roosevelt. Still, Roosevelt was the consummate showman, was bombastic, played to an attentive press, loved the military, threatened war, and attracted an adoring public. Sound familiar?