The modern-day presidency is one of the most powerful positions an individual can have in the entire world. Presidents serve as symbolic figureheads of a country. Their role encompasses many aspects, from leading the government to administering laws through their executive authority.Given the great multitude of functions that the president must undertake, the office of the presidency requires immense hard work and an unparalleled sense of responsibility. American author and Nobel Prize in Literature winner, John Steinbeck, once described the President’s role by saying,
“We give the President more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, more pressure than a man can bear.”
Some of these responsibilities stay with the president even when their term in office has ended. Former presidents cannot go back to living everyday life. Instead, they need to abide by an array of policies and standards set by the Former Presidents Act (1958).
The Perks and Rules of the Job
Before the Former Presidents Act of 1958, former American presidents were left on their own once their term had ended. Some former presidents, like Washington, ended up pursuing private businesses, whereas others, like Roosevelt, enjoyed their time in retirement by writing.
However, some ex-presidents did not fare as well, and their lives were ridden with financial struggles. Hence, the Former Presidents Act was conceptualized to provide perks such as financial support, security, and residence once a president’s term in power had ended.
Policymakers understood that given the symbolic role these leaders have played, they could not just be disregarded by newer governments. Alongside various perks, there are also a handful of strict rules that former presidents need to abide by with diligence.
While the current president has a direct say in national security issues, former presidents have a limited but unique role to play as well. Generally, former presidents are viewed as individuals who can provide excellent political advice on national security issues, given their past experiences in office.
Therefore, former presidents are often given national security briefings so that they are well informed on the current threats and problems the country may be facing. When required, the current president can reach out to former presidents for any advice. In a similar vein, former presidents can also reach out to the current president and actively provide advice.
In a sense, the presidency becomes a lifelong job. Perhaps the role is reduced for former presidents. Still, they continue to be a guiding presence for future presidents in addition to being ceremonial figureheads as part of a long legacy of American presidents.
A Monument to the President
The legacy of the presidency also includes the knowledge these former presidents can impart to the public. One way of imparting that knowledge, recommended by the Presidential Libraries Act of 1986, is to donate presidential papers and any other historical materials that a former president may possess to create an official presidential library.
These presidential libraries are made so that the public can access the intimate details of a president’s tenure. The details in the documents within these libraries would provide unique insights into how the president’s office functions.
Sometimes, former presidents decide that they want to be buried on the premises of their presidential library as well. In a sense, the presidential library becomes a monument to the legacy of the former president. It becomes the physical manifestation of everything that they have left behind for the public.
Alongside official documents, former presidents also have to make public all their old communications while in office. These communications include every official communication that has originated in the president’s office. The Presidential Records Act of 1978 introduced this rule after Richard Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate scandal was revealed to the public.
Generally, every bit of communication needs to be archived and made available within five years of the presidency. The Presidential Records Act has recently encompassed any electronic transmission through emails that a president may have engaged in.
In 2017, former president George W. Bush revealed to the public on The Jay Leno Show that former American presidents are surprisingly not allowed to travel on open roads. After the unfortunate assassination of the late John F. Kennedy in 1963, the security detail of presidents was revised to introduce additional measures.
One of these measures was that both current and former American presidents cannot at any time ever drive on open roads. Current American president Joe Biden once remarked that one of the few downsides of his presidency has been that he cannot freely drive his 1967 Corvette on the open roads.
The Secret Service and Permanent Security
Presidents face many security risks. Due to the nature of their role, former presidents face a threat to their lives at all times. Hence, the government generally provides a permanent secret service detail to former presidents.
Usually, former presidents choose whether they want to accept or reject a security detail, but they usually take it. In addition to that, former presidents also get the option of deciding the nature of their security detail, such as how extensive they want it to be and whether they have any personal preferences regarding their protective detail.
The list of rules that a former president must abide by extends far and long. However, it is essential to understand that these rules go hand in hand with the post-presidential role of a former president.
In the United States, a president always remains a president, even if their official time in public office has ended. They are ever crucial to the legacy of American democracy and become sources of guidance for the future change-makers of society.
Hence, abiding by a few rules is a small inconvenience when measured against the enormity of the former president’s role in American politics.