Millionaires-In-Chief

Declines in stocks and other assets have hit many retirees very hard. But not the retirees our Jim Axelrod takes a look at...

Back in Texas on his first day as an ex-president, George W. Bush made his plans perfectly clear:

"We may be retired, but we're not tired out. I'm going to write a book, and I may give some speeches."

Our 43rd president intends to follow the game plan of our 42nd president … and who can blame him?

Since leaving office in 2001, Bill Clinton has earned more than $100 million, in book royalties and speaking fees.

And he's not alone.

Being an ex-president these days means being part of a very exclusive, very lucrative club. But it wasn't always that way.

"It's somewhat unfathomable, quite frankly," said author Leonard Benardo. "We look at Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, later Jackson, Grant, all ending their lives in relative poverty or debt. And it boggles the imagination."

Benardo and Jennifer Weiss have written a book about the lives of ex-presidents, "Citizen-In-Chef" (HarperCollins). The idea of profiting from the presidency, they say, would have shocked our founding fathers.

"Early on it would seem to be what the founders called 'un-republican," or un-virtuous, to make money following one's presidency, to engage in commercial pursuits," he said. "And very few did."

George Washington struggled to make ends meet … and he was one of the more prosperous early ex-presidents.

"He was cash poor," Benardo said. "He had a 2,200-square-foot distillery, became one of the largest whiskey distillers, in fact, in Virginia."

George Washington, the Father of Country, was making whiskey?

"That's correct," said Benardo.

Many of our early presidents - Jefferson, Madison, Monroe - had money issues after leaving office.

"They all did, actually," Jennifer Weiss said. "And in fact, when we think of Jefferson's final act, the University of Virginia, many people don't realize that was all done with borrowed funds. And his lifestyle really caused him to leave the White House and lead a life of destitution."

Fast forward to the 20th century.

When Harry Truman's term was up, he paid for his own train ticket back to Independence, Missouri, where he moved into his mother-in-law's house … and mowed the lawn himself.

Although there was nothing set up for a Chief Executive once he departed the Oval Office, Truman refused to go on corporate boards. "He felt that that was somehow wrong for a former president," Benardo said. "He had this idea of the kind of nobility and dignity of the office of the presidency."

How quaint. Due in part to Truman's circumstances, in 1958 Congress voted to provide a pension for former presidents, as well as money for offices and staff.

A few ex-presidents later, Gerald Ford demonstrated the folly of thinking that financial safety net would curb a former Leader of the Free World's ambition to cash in.

"He basically sold himself to the highest bidder," said Weiss.

Ford sat on every corporate board that would have him - as many as 7 at the same time.

In 1989 Ronald Reagan received $2 million to give a couple of speeches in Japan.

George H.W. Bush made millions working for the Carlyle Group, a high-powered Washington, D.C. consulting firm.

But Bill Clinton has raised the game to a whole new level.

"An ex-president is gold, celebrity gold," said Richard Laermer, who runs his own marketing firm. In the modern age, he says, presidents are like rocks stars, and rock stars make money.

"The days when you expected the president to just go sit on the front stoop and rock in his chair, those days are gone," Laermer said.

And they're never coming back, because as Laermer explains, "There's too much money to be made."

The key to preserving presidential dignity, Laermer says, is to get rich almost as an after-thought, while pursuing your true mission - whether it's building homes for the poor, distributing aid to tsunami victims, or fighting AIDS.

"It's the image that he puts forth as he says what he says and does what he does," Laermer said, "and as long as it stays close to the way people perceive him, he can make as much money as he wants to make."

Unless, says author Jennifer Weiss, the money gets so big it becomes the mission.

"In the society they live in, they have the right to make money, certainly," she said. "We've seen that now ex-presidents have spent a lot of time doing good on an international scale. Will their exploitation of the presidency, in any way, diminish that possibility? Will they just be seen as mercenary business people? It's a good question …"


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