George W. Bush is in the perfect spot to set an example for all our ex-presidents.
Come Jan. 20, he'll be an ex-chief executive of the United States. That's a nice addition to the CV, but where do you go from there? Especially if your job performance has been subpar recently.
Well, if he's looking for a role model to help him restore his image after he leaves office, he should look beyond Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. The former is still active on the world stage, promoting his Clinton Global Initiative roadshow, while the latter continues to pump out books and perform good deeds.
Like Bush, Adams was born with an unquestioned sense of family entitlement. His father, John Adams, helped draft the Declaration of Independence and served with Thomas Jefferson and George Washington in the First Continental Congress. The elder Adams was also posted to Europe as a special envoy of the Revolutionary American government and went on to become the second president of the United States in 1797.
Also like Bush, due to his father's extraordinary career, John Quincy Adams divided much of his youth between cities. For Adams it was Paris; Amsterdam; St. Petersburg, Russia; and London. The experience served him well when he returned to the US. And in 1824 he was elected as the sixth US president. Though Bush's prepresidential experience was pretty much confined to Texas, the two still have a lot in common.
So where's the lesson for our latter-day Bush in this?
Well, what distinguishes John Quincy Adams from every other US president is the job he pursued after leaving the White House. Instead of launching himself on the 19th-century equivalent of the elder statesmen schmooze circuit, Adams sought election to the House of Representatives. After losing his bid for presidential reelection in 1828, Adams chose, by running for Congress, to effectively demote himself.
Despite this downgrading of his job description, Adams was delighted. "No election or appointment conferred upon me ever gave me so much pleasure," he wrote in his diary.
In his 17 years in the House, Adams cried out against the Mexican War, battled the infamous Gag Rule, which prevented any discussion of petitions against slavery, and championed the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution.
Bush should do the same. That is, he should return to Texas and run for Congress. Surely, he'd get elected – even though he has one of the lowest approval ratings a sitting president has had – due to his years as governor back in the 1990s.
But Bush should also make it conditional, as Adams did when he ran for Congress in 1831. Adams allowed his name to be put forward on two conditions that present-day candidates would probably find hard to contemplate: That he would never solicit the votes of his constituents and that he would speak his mind at all times.
This should come pretty easily to Bush. Okay, so he's not a natural orator, able to deliver memorable phrases off the cuff. Who is these days? But he has shown that he's well able to do the vision thing, and with a few smart Congressional aides on his team he can continue that tradition in the House.
Also, as with Adams, serving in Congress would take Bush out of the shadow of his equally accomplished father. Freed from the unique pressures that come with being a president, Bush could go on to make his mark on the national stage in a way that has eluded him as his second term draws to a close.
The collegial atmosphere of the House would suit Bush. Countless aides and confidants testify to his skills as a "people person." And as one representative among 534 others, this talent would stand him – and his Texas constituents – in good stead. Bush's eight years as president would translate into yet another big plus for Texas and the country when important issues arise in Congress.
These days, the wisdom of the Founding Fathers can sometimes get lost in the hubbub of party politics. John Quincy Adams rose above the din when he brought his experience and insights to the House of Representatives nearly 180 years ago.
Maybe it's time for George Bush to follow in his footsteps and give Congress a shot as well.
• Steve Coronella is a freelance writer.