Not Going Quietly

“They say the No. 1 killer of old people is retirement,” says Budd in Kill Bill: Vol. 2.  “People got a job to do, they tend to live a little longer so they can do it.”

Might this explain the apparent indestructibility of Dick Cheney?

One would think that four decades in politics and five heart attacks would constitute enough excitement for one career, at which point a person might opt to take it easy for the balance of one’s natural life.

(Hillary Clinton, for her part, was only half-joking when she recently said, “I am looking forward to finishing up my tenure as Secretary of State and then catching up on about 20 years of sleep deprivation.”)

Yet there was Cheney, speaking with Charlie Rose last week as if not a week had lapsed since he departed the Naval Observatory and the halls of power, offering his views on everything from President Obama’s Cabinet appointments to the legacy of the Iraq War.

At all points, the former vice president made it plain that his official departure from Washington, D.C., in 2009 did not mean he was done discussing the business therein.  “Retirement” is a word with which he has yet to establish relations.

For all sorts of reasons, such is the case for an increasing number of Americans.

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has drawn uncommon praise for his recent announcement that he will relinquish the keys to St. Peter before the Angel of Death removes them by force, becoming the first head of the Catholic Church in some six centuries to do so.

The notion of a high-ranking official hanging it up when he feels his job is done used to be regarded as the highest of virtues, exemplified by George Washington and, before that, Cincinnatus.

The practice has very nearly gone extinct in the meanwhile, particularly in the United States, where true retirement of high office holders has progressively gone out of style.

In contrast to the papacy (or judgeship on the U.S. Supreme Court), the presidency is not a lifetime gig.  Before Franklin Roosevelt, U.S. presidents limited themselves to two terms by tradition; after Franklin Roosevelt, by way of the Twenty-second Amendment, it became the law.

Accordingly, for all but the eight chief executives who happened to die in office (four of natural causes; four of unnatural causes), the question has always presented itself:  What does the most powerful man in the world do with his time once his power is relinquished?

America’s living ex-presidents constitute what is sometimes called the “most exclusive club in the world.”  There are currently four such persons—Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and the Georges Bush—and collectively they exemplify the myriad approaches to the post-presidency that one might take.

Unlike his deputy, our most recent retiree-in-chief, George Bush 43, has all but vanished from the scene, writing an obligatory memoir and promptly hauling himself away into a genuinely private daily existence.  His father, Bush 41, has kept a similarly low profile, devoted largely to jumping out of the occasional airplane and fishing in Kennebunkport.

Bill Clinton, meanwhile, has proved as irrepressible as ever, remaining in the political sphere by way of his wife, as well as accruing international goodwill through his self-titled foundation and support for various causes and disaster relief efforts in the last decade.

Then there is Jimmy Carter, now with the longest post-presidency in history, who has hardly shut up since being booted from the White House in 1981, writing 21 books and becoming a spokesperson for everything from Habitat for Humanity to the eradication of pancreatic cancer.

However, it is in his post-presidential political activities that Carter has generated the most controversy—and from which Dick Cheney seems to have drawn the most inspiration—by regularly offering critiques of U.S. foreign and domestic policy, solicited or not, and not always appreciated by the public at large.

Is such behavior by such a distinguished figure right and proper?  Or is it, rather, inappropriate and undignified?  Do Carter’s and Cheney’s unique insights into the executive branch necessarily license them to hurl tomatoes at those who follow in their footsteps?  Or do the awesome responsibilities of high office make such criticisms especially petty and beneath the stature of those who utter them?

One thing of which we can be sure, as demonstrated by George Washington and all his successors, is that a public figure can be judged by history as much for his behavior out of office as for his actions in office.  A president’s (or vice president’s) final legacy is a matter that is settled long after retirement, sometimes not until after he has shuffled off this mortal coil, and sometimes not at all.


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