IN an age in which one conspicuous buzz phrase is utilization of human resources, three former Presidents are not utilizing their talents and experience in public service. Indeed, there is no sound reason why there cannot be public life after holding the nation's highest office. And a good model was provided by John Quincy Adams, who served in the House of Representatives after his White House years came to an end in 1829. Adams was a special breed. When he was minister to Russia (1809-14), an English observer described him as ``most doggedly and systematically repulsive. With a vinegar aspect, cotton in his leathern ears, and hatred to England in his heart, he sat in the frivolous assemblies of Petersburg like a bull-dog among spaniels; and many were the times that I drew monosyllables and grim smiles from him and tried in vain to mitigate his venom.''
After the 1830 congressional elections, Adams wrote, ``I am a member-elect of the Twenty-second Congress. My election as President of the United States was not half so gratifying to my inmost soul. No election or appointment conferred upon me ever gave me so much pleasure.''
For 17 years -- until his death in 1848 -- Adams earned his keep as a public servant. He was not young when he entered the House of Representatives (64 years old), but he maximized his political experience, earning the title of ``old man eloquent.'' He could freely speak his mind regarding the policies of Presidents Jackson, Van Buren, and Polk. He could take on and carry out special assignments, such as the chairmanship of a committee that gave reality to a Smithsonian Institution.
Most important, Adams could take exception to the efforts of Southern congressmen to prevent or ``gag'' the House from considering petitions requesting the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. Although the gag rule passed in 1836, Adams so mastered parliamentary procedure as to find ways to introduce the petitions.
Finally, Adams devised a rationale for pursuing his post-presidential career in public service, one that American citizens, former presidents, and aspiring or even unsuccessful candidates would do well to ponder. ``For myself,'' Adams wrote, ``taught in the school of Cicero, I shall say, `Defendi respublicam adolescens; non deseram senex.' -- `I will not desert in my old age the Republic that I defended in my youth.'' '
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.