President Carter was answering a reporter's question about his future plans when he said, "I'll be living the life of a former president." But that leaves another question. What does it mean to live the life of a former president? Or what should it mean?
Mr. Carter said it would be "inappropriate" for a former president to work for a profitmaking corporation such as his family's peanut business. This kind of talk could give profitmaking a bad name, and just when the country needs enlightened profitmakers as seldom before. Indeed, more than one debtridden former president would have been grateful for a few more profits. They did not have the luxury of choice provided by the president pensions and expenses for ex-presidents.
We can imagine what Mr. Carter meant. For example, he wouldn't want to risk any conceivable ethical confusion of governmental and business interests, something on which he always said he would accept no nonsense from members of his administration. Maybe he remembered how former President Coolidge was haunted by the lapse of using an insider's chance to make profits by buying Standard Brands stock at a figure lower than when it went on the open market.
Detractors have sometimes compared Carter to Coolidge in other ways. But any comparison breaks down in the light of what Coolidge told Will Rogers, that he kept fit in the presidency "by avoiding the big problems." President Carter has not avoided the big problems, difficult as they have been to solve. And we hope that he will continue to make his problem-solving experience and determination available to the country.
Long after his incubency, Herbert Hoover took the responsibility of heading a federal commission on the elimination of waste in government and another on the elimination of inefficiency -- both maters that are again high on the political agenda. Former President Andrew Johnson served in the Senate.
Former President Washington's legacy included a method for rotating crops -- a pertinent topic again as concern for preserving farmland grows. He had not demurred from returning to land management.
Jefferson hailed his departure from the presidency as a prisoner emerging from shackles to undertake the scientific and other pursuits so important and enjoyable to him. He promoted public education, became the father of American architecture. He wound up with so few profits that he tried to sell off his lands by lottery until voluntary contributions saved him from such indignity.
Incidentally, now that Mr. Carter is talking about a Carter presidential liberary being built in atlanta, it is a kind of footnote that Jefferson went in the other direction. He eased his financial situation for a number of years by selling his own personal library to the Library of Congress.
For Grant, living the life of a former president meant spending a few thousand dollards left from his presidential salary on a grand tour of Europe for more than two years. He did go into business, but it didn't turn out to be profitmaking. He used his souvenirs and even swords to secure a loan. He went bankrupt.
Former President Cleveland returned to the practice of law. He had no means to avoid seeking gainful employment. But neither did he have a greed for profits.
For Grant, living the life of a former president meant spending a few thousand dollars left from his presidential salary on a grand tour of Europe for more than two years. He did go into business, but it didn't turn out to be profitmaking. He used his souvenirs and even swords to secure a loan. He went bankrupt.
Former President Cleveland returned to the practice of law. He had no means to avoid seeking gainful employment. But neither did he have agreed for profits.
Maybe there is a clue here to life after government, whether for presidents or others. There is nothing wrong with profitmaking as such. It is the lust for money or the bending oif principles for profit that has to be resisted.
Now that presidents receive the public funds to maintain themselves, profitmaking does not automatically become an inappropriate activity. But, to the extent it becomes an unnecessary one, living the life of a former president could become an even greater contribution to the general good.