Washington — Why don't we make more use of our ex-presidents? There are three of them now; Mr. Nixon is a special case, but two of them could be put to dignified and valuable service for the Republic. They are a valuable national resource that is being squandered.
It recalls what happened to Herbert Hoover. He left Washington in a storm of unpopularity and the Capital forgot him almost before his train pulled out of Union Station. The poor man lingered in New York City for a while, still thinking that Franklin Roosevelt might call him for advice in the economic emergency. The call never came. He didn't come back to Washington for 12 years.
When he did come the telephone rang at his hotel: it was the White House. It was feisty Harry Truman. He addressed Hoover as "Mister President"; more than that, he asked Hoover's permission to come over and pay a call. Hoover was startled and overcome. He told Mr. Truman that it would be improper for the latter to pay him a visit --man replied that he had expected that answer and that in anticipation of it he had ordered an official car -- it was on its way now to bring Hoover over to the White House for a talk. It is said that Hoover wept.
For this gracious and generous act people will remember Harry Truman and also , perhaps, the result of it. Truman put Hoover to work. He named him head of the celebrated Hoover Commission (1947-49) to study the reorganization and simplification of the executive branch of the government. Nobody knew more about the subject than the ex-president and nobody could head the commission with more prestige and nonpartisanship. The commission was a success.
Most people don't know it, but the US Senate on Oct. 1, 1963, adopted a special rule giving ex-presidents the privilege of the floor: they can come in at any time. They can't vote but they can make a speech. An effort was made, it is reported, to get Gerald Ford to state his views on the Panama Canal treaties and on SALT II (the strategic arms limitation treaty). At a critical moment, on a national subject, a speech from an ex-president might have powerful impact. From the dignity of his position an ex-president would be able to rise above pettiness and partisanship if he wished.
Other democracies don't put their great men on to the shelf. Three former prime ministers are in the British House of Commons, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath , and James Callaghan. They don't have a feeling of degradation in participating in the ranks where they were once in charge. They are at liberty to wield what influence they can.
It has been proposed in Jimmy Carter's case, at least, that he run for Congress. Well, why not? And Jerry Ford, too. The idea startles people because it is so contrary to customary practice where we are as profligate of political assets as we are of oil and coal. Doubters who muse over the idea may wind up half-approving (assuming Messrs. Ford or Carter could get elected), but they shrug their shoulders at the chances of its happening: the problem is to set a precedent in this sort of thing. But is it a precedent?
Not at all. Crusty John Quincy Adams, after leaving the presidency (knocked out by that populist intruder Andrew Jackson), was elected to the House by the proper people of Quincy and served 17 years, playing a powerful role in the effort to restrain slavery. That was the House; but how about the upper chamber? There's a precedent for an ex-president there, too: Andrew Johnson was still popular in Tennessee after he left the White House and was ultimately elected to the Senate.
As things stand the biggest thing for former presidents seems to be to write their memoirs. Ulysses S. Grant staved off bankruptcy by writing his. Lyndon Johnson's got a cool reception from critics on the ground that they were one-sided. Richard Nixon reportedly earned $2 million from his. Now Mr. Carter is writing an account of his incumbency, using the material which he dictated, as I understand, at the close of the day in a kind of oral diary, subsequently transcribed. It might add to the dignity of Washington to have a couple of elder statesmen about, playing an experienced and patriotic role in affairs. Or if some problem needs a commiss ion -- crime, immigration, federal reorganization -- Mr. Reagan might reach for an ex-president.