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When asked at the end of his first term what he thought we should do with former presidents, Grover Cleveland agreed that shooting them might not be a bad idea. However, the recent opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Center on April 25, 2013, on the campus of Southern Methodist University reminds us that we choose instead to commemorate former presidents, not execute them.

Burton I. Kaufman takes us on a tour of 31 post-presidencies, how they were used, and what they achieved. He argues that the role of former presidents has evolved commensurate with the evolution of the modern presidency and even the United States. Today, the post-presidency has become a quasi-formal office, including perquisites such as office space, a staff, franking privileges, pensions, and Secret Service protection.

Kaufman reminds us that we do not elect a leader for a mere four years, sometimes with an extension. In more recent times, due to longer lifespans and the ability of recent presidents to have a bona fide second career after leaving the White House, we permit their influence for a much longer period of time, even decades. The post-presidency extends even beyond the life of the president, since the presidency has always been greater than any one individual officeholder. In addition, with many presidential records released 30 or more years later, we continue to discover new things about a presidency, even after the particular president passes from the scene.

The work does not focus on all ex-presidents, but on those with a genuine post-presidency—those who did not die while in office or within two years thereafter. We see how the post-presidency today is a billion dollar business: memoirs, books, speaking and consulting fees, presidential libraries, foundations, institutes, a continued influence on policy issues, lobbying (formal or informal), and media appearances. Not all former presidents pursue an active post-presidency, but many do. The most active are able to attain something akin to a president emeritus status, or elder statesman role. Never to face voters again, they are free to pursue their preferred interests.

Post-presidencies have varied as much as the presidencies they followed. Kaufman, author of numerous books on the presidency and presidents, including Jimmy Carter and Dwight D. Eisenhower (The Presidency of James Earl Carter, Jr. [University Press of Kansas, 1993]; and, with Diane Kaufman, Historical Dictionary of the Eisenhower Era [Scarecrow Press, 2008]), shows us how the post-presidency has evolved. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson retired to plantation life but remained active from a distance. Franklin Pierce drank himself to death. Former presidents, such as Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt, could not come to grips with leaving the arena and ran for the top job again. Harry Truman traveled cross-country without Secret Service protection and was mobbed at every turn.

Among recent first retirees, Richard Nixon arguably set the mold for the current generation of former presidents, especially those who left the White House with an incomplete or complicated legacy. Similar to Carter and Clinton, Nixon was a prolific author, constant campaigner for his legacy and policies, and he returned to public life during his twilight years in bipartisan fashion, as a confidante to President Clinton (something, perhaps, that Washington, DC, could use more of today).

Kaufman shows us that the post-presidency affords our former leaders something they never had during their terms of office: time and space. While possessing only a portion of their former status and importance, the post-presidency—free of the pressures of politics and elected office, unscripted and without the daily demands of leadership—brings out something close to the true self of a former president. We are just finally getting to know them, all these years later.