5 Best Ex-Presidents

Some Presidents enjoy history-changing terms of office and find themselves elevated to the Pantheon of greatness. Other Chief Executives, however, do as much (and sometimes more) once they leave office as they ever did in power. Here, then, for your Friday History List enjoyment, are the top five ex-presidents:

5. Herbert Hoover – With his presidency devastated (along with the nation) by the Great Depression, a personally repudiated Herbert Hoover was trounced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1932 election. Because his image was so tarnished, Hoover largely stayed out of the public eye in the 1930s, resurfacing in 1941 to speak out against American entry into the Second World War, and a possible alliance with the Soviet Union against Germany (he correctly foresaw that helping the Russians defeat Hitler would give them control of much of Europe). After the war, President Truman sent Hoover to Germany to assess its need for economic relief and the state of U.S. occupation; one of Hoover’s innovations was a school meals program for German children Hooverspeisung (Hoover meals). His Hoover Commissions in the years 1947-1949 and 1953-1955, promoted efficiency in the United States Government. The author of over a dozen books, he oversaw the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a public policy think-tank that had been created in 1919, and did much fund-raising for the Boys Clubs (now the Boys & Girls Clubs of America).

Herbert Hoover

4. Thomas Jefferson – After having served two terms as president, in 1809 Thomas Jefferson retired to Monticello, his plantation in Virginia. Continuing in the spirit of his “Renaissance man” personality, Jefferson studied the classics, worked as an architect, and was a prolific writer of letters, most notably to his former rival John Adams. For many of these years he was occupied with the creation of the University of Virginia, doing most of the architectural design himself. He served as president of the American Philosophical Society from 1797 to 1815.

Thomas Jefferson

3. John Quincy Adams – Defeated overwhelmingly by Andrew Jackson in 1828, career public servant John Quincy Adams reentered the arena almost immediately, becoming in 1830 the only U.S. president to be elected to the House of Representatives after leaving office. He would faithfully serve in Congress, first as a National Republican and later as a Whig, until his death 17 years later. In the House, he was often the lonely antislavery voice, using parliamentary devices to bring up the subject in spite of the Gag Rule. In 1841, he successfully defended the rebellious slaves of the Spanish slave ship Amistad before the Supreme Court of the United States (Amistad is a great movie, by the way, you should see it). Adams did the work pro bono.

John Quincy Adams

2. Bill Clinton – President Clinton has remained active in both party politics and world affairs since leaving office in 2001. A popular public speaker in Democratic circles, Clinton has also published two books, My Life (autobiography) and Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World. His William J. Clinton Foundation promotes and provides for a number of humanitarian causes, such as HIV/AIDS programs and the Clinton Foundation Climate Change Initiative; it also funds the Clinton Global Initiative (global public health, poverty alleviation and religious and ethnic conflict). Clinton has traveled to Kazakhstan to help securing mining contracts and to North Korea to negotiate the release of American journalists.

Bill Clinton

1. Jimmy Carter – Defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980 after what many have considered to be one of the worst presidencies of the 20th century, Carter immediately got to work. In 1982, he established the Carter Center in Atlanta, to advance human rights and promote democracy by mediating conflicts, and monitoring the electoral process in support of free and fair elections. It also works to improve global health through the control and eradication of diseases, to diminish the stigma against mental illnesses and to improve nutrition through increased crop production in Africa. Carter has traveled the world since his electoral defeat, meeting with world leaders and sometimes negotiating agreements in support of world peace. In 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. The author of over two dozen books, he is also well-known for his work with Habitat for Humanity.

Jimmy Carter

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Sheila Dixon and The Doggedly Persistent Undercurrent of Race

Much is being made lately of the fact that many of Mayor Sheila Dixon‘s city constituents have come to her defense as she is tried for theft. Not surprisingly, the folks that are rallying around her are those with whom she has had contact, people for whom she has delivered subsidies and contracts from city government. Neighborhood groups and charities that subsist on taxpayer largess continue to profess faith in the mayor. The Maryland Minority Contractors Association Inc. has even started its own surreal campaign on the behalf of Dixon and a city councilwoman also under indictment, which they’re calling S.O.S. (Save Our Sisters). No one should be surprised at any of this.

It also helps if you’ve been able to convince your supporters that they are an embattled minority, and that you are their defender. This is where the undercurrent of racial politics comes into play, even though it shouldn’t, as blacks represent a majority in the city and Dixon’s likely successor is another African-American woman. For some of the Friends of Sheila, loyalty may be more about relationships built over years in city government, and more to the point, what the Mayor can deliver, should she be acquitted. In the real world, friendship and connections trump the quest for justice every time.

Beyond that, however, for many city residents, especially those in the African American community, what they see is one more black politician being hunted down and cornered by the white establishment. (The symbolism is intentional.) This is the same “defense of community” reflex that has made O.J. Simpson and former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick martyrs. Many of the people of Washington, D.C.  refused to judge Marion Barry’s actions, regardless of what the videotapes showed, and then, when he had finished his prison term for a drug conviction, promptly returned him to the office of mayor. He still serves his constituents on the City Council today.

This is why Dixon’s attorneys used six challenges to exclude whites from the jury (three finally made it) and state prosecutors used three challenges to exclude blacks (seven ended up in the jury). Even if no one wants to speak openly about it, there is a doggedly persistent undercurrent of race in these proceedings, an undercurrent that threatens to bring out the worst in all of us.

And let’s be fair: as unreasonably supportive as the African American community may be to a crooked politician who got caught with her hand in the cookie gift card jar, there is almost certainly a rush to judgement by whites anxious to bring her down, which serves only to intensify the “us vs. them” mentality and the defensiveness of the mayor’s supporters. No matter what picture we may try to paint in polite company, the issue of racial identity still cuts deep in Baltimore, and in the United States generally. Sadly, race will no doubt play a role in the verdict, and then the reaction to that verdict. After the dust has settled, expect the losing racial group to entrench its opinions even deeper. Welcome to post-racial America, everyone.

Crooked Histories: Maryland, along with a handful of other states, has a particular history of official corruption. Maryland Governors Marvin Mandel and Spiro Agnew both faced trials, convictions and in Mandel’s case, imprisonment and eventual vindication.

Illinois, however, had established itself as the king of official malfeasance long before Rod Blagojevich became a household name. His predecessor, George Ryan served a prison term for corruption, as did a number of other former governors from that state. Powerful Congressman Dan Rostenkowski was forced from office after having been convicted of mail fraud, and I haven’t even mentioned the city of Chicago. Not far behind is the state of Louisiana, the home of governors Edwin Edwards and Huey “Kingfish” Long.

So, Maryland is not alone as it endures the spectacle of yet another public official on trial for impropriety. And it is not alone in having its dishonest politicians continue to enjoy broad public support, even as embarrassing revelation follows embarrassing revelation in the press. As a matter of fact, I remember something on a much larger scale happening about ten years ago, in a case that brought together whites and blacks in common defense of a sleazy pol. Remember a guy named Bill Clinton?

See? This Dixon mess isn’t so bad after all.