In fact, Carter’s missionary zeal has done more than inspire envy; it has caused his successors headaches. Unfettered by the constraints of the White House, he has found his post-presidency the ideal pulpit from which to push his peace agenda. When George H. W. Bush was building a coalition to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, Carter lobbied members of the United Nations Security Council to vote against U.S. policy. When it appeared that North Korea was trying to develop nuclear weapons, Carter traveled there as a private citizen and told the country’s leader, Kim Il Sung, that the U.S. would take the threat of sanctions off the table. President Clinton was furious.
Bill Clinton began thinking about his post-presidency the day he became president, according to Joe Conason, the author of Man of the World, a biography of Clinton. But nothing prepared him for his first day out of office. Newly resettled in Chappaqua, New York, Clinton ventured to the local deli for a cup of coffee. A crowd of reporters surrounded him, demanding to know why, on his last day in office, he had pardoned the fugitive financier Marc Rich.
“Suddenly, there was no phalanx between him and the media and the public,” Conason says. “He felt powerless. He felt unprotected.” And alone. Hillary Clinton was starting her new job as the junior senator from New York, Conason notes. “So he holed up in his house, not knowing exactly what to do.”
After a few desultory months, the Marc Rich controversy faded, and Clinton ventured back into the spotlight. “Bill Clinton, since he was a little boy, wanted more, more, more,” Jon Meacham says. “Whether it was power, knowledge, women, or good works—it goes both ways, light and dark.”
The light: Through the Clinton Foundation, he got sugary drinks out of public schools and funded relief programs after the tsunami of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He poured money into hospitals in Africa, particularly in Rwanda (he is haunted by his failure to stop the 1994 genocide there). The dark: Early on, he jetted around with, and received money from, billionaires with sordid reputations. The Clinton Foundation raised $2 billion for charities, but some donors—the Saudi royal family, Blackwater—raised eyebrows.
Bill Clinton was also, of course, the first to fully realize the post-presidency’s promise as a global moneymaking operation. Since 2001, he has earned some $150 million for speaking and writing books—prompting Michael Duffy to observe to me: “Being president is a good career move.”
If Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton seemed to cling to the vestiges of the presidency, George W. Bush happily shook them off. In a 2010 interview with Texas Monthly, he told Mark Updegrove that when he woke up in Crawford, Texas, on January 21, 2009, he opened the newspapers and was delighted to realize that the stories inside were no longer his problems: “So I gathered up [my dogs,] Barney and Beazley, got in the pickup truck, drove over to my office, and started writing anecdotes for my book.” James Glassman, who was then the director of the George W. Bush Institute, recalls a private dinner at Bush’s home in 2010, during which Condoleezza Rice and Karl Rove chatted about the upcoming elections. Not Bush. “He was not the least bit interested,” Glassman told me, laughing. “It was stunning how little attention he paid to the political world.”