Ex-Presidents, Inc.

How Former Commanders in Chief Cash In

by Matthew Algeo

When he leaves office kicking and screaming at noon on January 20, President Trump will join one of the most exclusive clubs in the world: the ex-presidents of the United States of America. Membership has fluctuated over the past fifty years, from zero (1973–1974) to five (most recently 2017–2018 with Carter, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama). But one thing has remained constant: the perks are good.

Exes are entitled to a generous government pension package: about $210,000 a year plus allowances for staff, travel, expenses, and office space — for life. It can easily add up to more than a million dollars a year. And that’s not even counting the free lifetime Secret Service protection.

But that’s peanuts compared to where the real money is: book deals and speaking fees. When Barack and Michelle Obama left the White House in 2017, they signed a joint book deal said to be worth some $65 million. Bill Clinton can command $250,000 for a single speech.

Nowadays, ex-presidents (and their spouses) are essentially small corporations unto themselves. Even Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, the least-lucre-loving former first couple, are estimated by the business news portal 24/7 Wall Street to be worth $8 million. The Clintons, our richest formers (for now), are said to be worth $76 million and have essentially transformed themselves into a global brand.

It wasn’t always this way. When Harry Truman left the White House and returned to his home in Independence, Missouri, in January 1953, his only income was a military pension from his service as an officer in the First World War: $111.96 a month. (He did not receive credit for his nearly eight years as commander in chief.) Truman turned down business opportunities that would’ve made him rich — like becoming the spokesman for a brand of soap — because he said he didn’t want to “commercialize” the presidency. He likewise refused extravagant speaking fees.

Although he did eventually sign a book contract, Truman’s expenses were substantial. He had a policy of responding to every letter he received, a task that required him to rent an office and hire an assistant. The postage alone in his first year out of office cost him $10,000.

By January 1958 Truman was so strapped for cash that he was forced to sell off his family’s farm in Grandview, Missouri, to make ends meet. (The site is now a shopping center: Truman Corners.) Later that year, Congress established a presidential pension of $25,000 annually, in part to spare Truman and the nation the indignity of a former president living in the shadow of the poor house. (The only other living ex at the time, Herbert Hoover, was a millionaire who lived at the Waldorf-Astoria. He didn’t need the money, but, to avoid embarrassing his friend Truman, he accepted the pension and quietly donated it to charity.)

Over the years the presidential pension has grown — it is now pegged to the salary of Cabinet members — and so have the extras.

Ironically, the last president to follow Truman’s example of refusing to commercialize the presidency was his bitter political enemy Richard Nixon. (As a congressman, Nixon relentlessly pursued charges that communists had “infiltrated” Truman’s administration.) As an ex-president, Nixon refused to sit on corporate boards or accept exorbitant speaking fees. His income came primarily from publishing (he wrote nine books after leaving the White House). In 1985, he even gave up his Secret Service detail and hired his own bodyguards.

It was Nixon’s successor who really turned the ex-presidency into a gold mine. Gerald Ford cashed in on his status in a way none of his predecessors ever did. He accepted seats on the boards of more than a dozen corporations, including American Express and 20th Century Fox, receiving lucrative compensation for little work.

Ford commanded speaking fees in the range of $15,000 or more and worked the speaking circuit relentlessly. He even lent his name to a series of commemorative coins. By the early 1980s he was capitalizing on being a former president to the tune of a million dollars a year — and was unapologetic about it. “I’m a private citizen now,” he said; “it’s nobody’s business.”

At the dedication of the Reagan Library in 1991, the incumbent president, Bush I, was photographed with his four immediate predecessors, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan — the first ever gathering of five presidents. Afterwards, Bush and the four formers all signed a limited number of copies of the photograph and sold them — to raise money for their libraries they insisted. One memorabilia collector estimated that each of the men netted more than a million dollars in the deal.

In 1961, Truman was asked to sign a photograph of him standing on the dais with Hoover, Eisenhower, and Nixon at Eisenhower’s first inaugural. The other three had already signed it, but Truman refused. “I wouldn’t sign a picture with that son-of-a-bitch Nixon in it,” he explained. To emphasize the point he cocked his fist.

What about Donald J. Trump, our next future former? How will he cash in on his status as a former commander in chief? The mind reels at the possibilities. There will be the obligatory book deal, of course, for a book he almost certainly won’t write himself. A talk show, maybe even a cable TV channel. And, if his campaign’s still-online shop is any indication, a blizzard of assorted knickknacks and gewgaws: baseball caps, T shirts, dog collars, pint glasses, pins, notebooks, etc.

And, on top of all that, Trump will receive his presidential pension and the associated perks. He could hire Don Jr., Eric, Ivanka, and Jared as his assistants and rent an expensive office in a building he owns — and the taxpayers would pick up the whole tab.

Does a man (who claims to be) worth billions really need this golden parachute? Does any ex-president really need it anymore?

It’s tempting to consider abolishing the presidential pension. But what if a future ex-president happens to share Harry Truman’s reluctance to capitalize on his or her status? Unlikely, perhaps. But, just in case, Congress should keep the pension — but require ex-presidents to release their federal income tax returns each year in order to receive it. If an ex-president doesn’t want his or her tax returns to be made public, he or she can simply decline the pension.

Frankly, the American people have a stake in seeing their exes’ tax returns. They deserve to know how much their former chief executives are profiting from their status as ex-presidents. If Donald Trump chooses to stamp the presidential seal on a new line of Trump steaks, more power to him. But if taxpayers are underwriting these tawdry ventures with a lucrative pension, they deserve to know how much income they generate.

Or, as is more likely in Trump’s case, how much money they lose.

© 2020 by Matthew Algeo

Matthew Algeo is an author and journalist. His latest book is All This Marvelous Potential: Robert Kennedy’s 1968 Tour of Appalachia (Chicago Review Press). His website is malgeo.net.

Husband, father, writer. I have a degree in folklore! Unlicensed historian. Known to dabble in public radio. https://www.buymeacoffee.com/malgeo

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