There was a lesson to be learned from the recent passing of former president George H.W. Bush, though I found nary a mention of it amid the eulogies for an overrated president.
The lesson is this: If you want to be remembered as a successful commander in chief, then you had better live a long life and enjoy a lengthy retirement.
Bush is being rightly remembered for his statesmanship and service to the nation, but the idea that he was a successful president is baffling. A great man? His combat service alone puts him squarely into that category. A great president? An examination of his administration fails to bear that out.
In the end, though, Bush was the beneficiary of living a quarter century past his failed reelection bid in 1992.
As a rule, history has been kinder to the presidents who have lived 10 or more years after leaving office than the ones who died during or soon after office. The reasons are obvious. A long-lived president has a chance to sit with historians and shape the retrospective narrative or conduct post-presidential endeavors that can buoy one’s image.
A dead president has no such opportunities.
Here are a few historical examples to underscore the importance of sticking around long enough to shape one’s reputation and historical record.
James Polk, the 11th president
He won the Mexican-American War, completed the annexation of Texas and cleared the way for expansion to the Pacific Ocean; but few Americans remember Polk among the more successful presidents. Why? This one-term wonder died of cholera three months after leaving office, making his the shortest retirement of any former president. Polk was forgotten too soon.
Warren Harding, the 29th president
Harding was, for his era, a racial progressive who undid some of the bigoted policies of predecessor Woodrow Wilson; but a corrupt cabinet erased any hope of leaving a positive legacy. Harding surrounded himself with grifters who lined their pockets at taxpayer expense. His 1923 death from a stroke, while in office, only cemented his legacy as one of the worst, if not the worst, president in U.S. history.
Herbert Hoover, the 31st president
The Great Depression happened under his watch and Americans so blamed him for it that shanties were sarcastically termed, “Hoovervilles.” After losing badly to FDR in his 1932 reelection bid, Hoover seemed destined for the presidential dustbin. Fortunately for Hoover, he lived to be 90 and used had a 31-year retirement (both are since-fallen records) to rehab his image through philanthropy and public service.
Jimmy Carter, the 39th president
Carter’s name is virtually synonymous with Habitat for Humanity and the Nobel Peace Prize, which is fortunate because when he left office he was remembered mostly for letting Iran illegally hold the U.S. diplomatic corps more than a year. Carter is 94 years old and passed Hoover for the longest retirement in presidential history, which gave him decades to offset his deserving reputation as a near-failure of a president.
Does age matter in the Oval Office? Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton comprised, in 2016, the oldest tandem of nominees in history but age appeared to be a non-issue among voters.
Age still matters when it comes to presidential history, however. Whether Trump or his successors, who may include the already-venerable Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Nancy Pelosi, survive long enough to polish their historical record remains to be seen.