What to do with former presidents is an increasingly serious national problem bound to become more serious, a consequence of the trend toward electing younger persons to the office and also -- eventually, one assumes -- electing women who have a longer lifespan, plus the two-term limit on the presidency.
There is no clear precedent. Non-presidential examples, such as former Sen. Robert Dole's endorsement of Viagra and the late House Speaker Tim O'Neill's plug for luggage, will not satisfy the presidential need.
The goal should be to help ex-presidents finish their work as they defined it: to achieve their rightful place in history even after their moment in history has passed. We must give attention to work interrupted by defeat, or by term-limitation.
The popular judgment is that, of recent former presidents, Jimmy Carter has made the most useful and becoming adjustment to the after-life. First there is his work for Habitat for Humanity, a program designed to encourage volunteers to provide housing for the poor. Second is his lending his status to supervising elections in various countries around the world.
Carter, when asked why houses built by Habitat for Humanity seemed to withstand the Florida hurricane winds, noted that with the volunteers "you use a lot of nails." President Clinton might consider a comparable project to advance his program for repairing schoolhouse doors and window casings, possibly under the name, "Habitations for the Humanities."
President Carter suffered two interruptions. He proposed a special postal rate for letters to mothers and fathers, to brothers and sisters, possibly to lovers. It was suggested that handwritten letters could be turned in for refunds or rebates. The use of email may make this procedure obsolete.
A second minor project of the Carter administration that was left uncompleted, at least in the judgment of the succeeding Reagan administration, was that of starling and pigeon removal in greater Washington.
Early in the first Reagan administration, the General Services Administration announced a project for the elimination of what was known as the "Federal Triangle Flock" due to the fact that the Carter administration had let down its guard and allowed pigeon proliferation. The Reagan effort (which one might dub the "Pigeon Defense Initiative," or PDI), included electric noise makers, mechanical devices, and an ill- fated effort to reestablish peregrine falcons, natural enemies of pigeons. Regrettably, this total defense by the GSA failed. Former President Carter may want to take up where his administration left off.
Former President Gerald Ford seems inclined to accept the role of a kind of ceremonial ex-president, in the mode of President Eisenhower, combining golf and occasional appearances as a spokesman to or for his party. This is a becoming role for him, as he left little unfinished work. If he were to be labeled in the manner of President Reagan as the "Great Communicator," or Lyndon Johnson as the "Great Manipulator," Ford would merit being called the "Great Terminator," a deserved and creditable title.
He did terminate Richard Nixon's presidency when Nixon resigned. He did terminate the Vietnam War by the withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975. Doing what he had to do, Ford pardoned Richard Nixon and offered amnesty to persons who had challenged the Vietnam War.
This leaves only former President George Bush as a current problem, and President Clinton as a prospective one.
Ex-President Bush might take up the unfinished programs from his administration, especially in the domestic field. There are a least three such projects. One is the provision in the Clean Air Act which allows a company that does not use its full pollution allowance to carry the unused allowance as a capital asset and to sell it to another company that has exceeded its allowance. This is a kind of secular application of the medieval and later practice of selling indulgences.
A second clean air project initiated in the Bush administration was the Accelerated Vehicle Retirement Program, commonly referred to as "Cash for Clunkers" or the "scrappage" program. The working principle was to encourage owners of high-pollution vehicles to voluntarily retire their vehicles sooner than they would otherwise do through rebates and other incentives. Only a few states have developed the Accelerated Vehicle Retirement Program, and they have not been very cost effective. In a test period in Colorado, the state reported a reduction of 204.6 tons of carbon monoxide at a cost of $2,294 per ton, and 41 tons of hydrocarbons at a cost of $11,438 per ton.
A third project for ex-president Bush follows from a provision in the Immigration and Nationality Act, which, beginning in 1991, permitted the annual entry of up to 10,000 "employment creation" immigrants and accompanying immediate family members, if the applying immigrant invests not less than $1 million in a new commercial venture, employing 10 US citizens. Only a $500,000 investment was required in depressed areas. Canada has a similar program requiring an investment of only $250,000. The Canadian program has been more successful than the American one.
In view of ex-President Bush's experience as head of the CIA, he might also take on the recently uncovered program of paying TV stations to modify their program content so that the programs are less likely to encourage drug use.
It is more difficult to find assignments for President Clinton. His unfinished works include big items, like the comprehensive test-ban treaty, membership in the World Trade Organization, health care, the stabilization of the financing of Social Security, and peace in the Middle East and Ireland -- all issues the incumbent president will have to tackle.
Clinton might be asked to take responsibility for support for presidential libraries by the sale of the pictures of the ex-president taken at the NAFTA support rally and copyrighted, according to press reports. The picture might be supplemented by other saleable articles such as facsimiles of favorite presidential golfing and jogging caps, and other articles of clothing, especially T-shirts bearing memorable phrases such as: "I am not a crook," 'Whip inflation now," "I will never lie to you," "Read my lips," 1000 points of light," "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," "I believe in the two-party system," etc., and also by the sale of tapes, script, and videos.
President Clinton, when out of office, should be protected from employment by Disney -- not to join Disneyland or Disney World, but "Disney's America." This latest Disney, it is said, would move Disney technology and ideology beyond animals, beyond fantasy, and beyond robots to the presentation, interpretation, and the experience of American history in the Disney mode -- history as hyper-reality. Hyper-reality is a tempting prospect for an ex-president with time on his hands.
Eugene J. McCarthy was a teacher and congressman before he became a Democratic-Farmer-Labor senator from Minnesota from 1959 through 1970. His latest book is No Fault Politics: Modern Presidents, The Press and Reformers (Times Books 1998).