The Legacy and Loot of Former Presidents

by Jim Longworth

Former President Jimmy Carter showed up on the set of “The Daily Show” this past week wearing what appeared to be a tubular shaped object around his neck. He was in New York to attend an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History titled “Countdown to Zero: Defeating Disease,” and the tiny prop around his neck was a life saving example of what the exhibit was promoting. The portable pipe filter was developed and distributed under the auspices of the Carter Center and is being used by people in blighted areas such as the South Sudan, where the only available water source is often a stagnant pond full of bacteria and the dreaded Guinea worm. Now, thirsty populations in third-world countries can simply place one of the pipes just below the surface of a contaminated pond, and drink water through the device, which filters out worms and germs. The pipe has reduced incidents of Guinea worm ingestion from several million to just a few hundred.

Carter, a long time peanut farmer, left the Presidency in debt, but in retirement has supported himself and his causes with proceeds from 14 books and with profits from a family land partnership in Georgia. Since 1981, the Carter Center has been on a mission of “Waging Peace, Fighting Disease, and Building Hope,” and Carter’s hands-on activities have included everything from building houses with Habitat for Humanity, to monitoring free elections abroad. Carter’s story inspired me to take a look back at what some other former Presidents have done (and are doing) in their retirement years, and how they have fared financially along the way.

Upon leaving the Presidency, George Washington returned to Mt. Vernon and managed his considerable holdings, including a distillery, which produced its first batch of whiskey on the day he left office. He did very little in the way of public service but did answer President Jefferson’s call to take over the Army again should a war with France start. Calculated for 2012 purchasing power, 24/7 Wall St., which offers “Insightful analysis and commentary for U.S. and global equity investors,” estimates Washington’s net worth was $525 million.

Jefferson and Madison started out with wealth but both encountered heavy debt in retirement, a fate that would befall many of their successors. However, both men continued to serve their country, Jefferson by founding the University of Virginia, and Madison by following his predecessor as President of UVA.

John Quincy Adams managed to hold onto his wealth in retirement, but, in a way, he never retired from public service. After leaving the White House, Adams was elected to Congress where he served until his death.

Like Jefferson before him, Millard Fillmore’s legacy is the founding of a college. That institution is known as the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Fillmore was not a man of great means, nor a particularly strong President, but his commitment to higher education during retirement was a noble endeavor.

Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt spent their retirement years trying to return to the Oval Office. Cleveland was successful in securing a second, non-consecutive term as President, but Teddy fell short in his independent bids against Wilson and Taft. At least finances weren’t a problem for Roosevelt. 24/7 Wall St. estimates his net worth at $125 million based on 2012 values.

After losing his re-election bid to Wilson, William Howard Taft was appointed as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He was the only Commander in Chief to serve in that capacity after leaving the Presidency.

In a way, Herbert Hoover, a Republican President, was more like Democrat Jimmy Carter when it came to using his retirement years to help improve quality of life for others. In 1947 alone, his war on childhood hunger fed 3.7 million children.

Harry Truman didn’t particularly distinguish himself as a humanitarian after leaving the White House, but his lack of funds did prompt Congress to pass the “Former Presidents Act,” which gave retired Presidents a pension and secret service protection.

Truman received $112 per month, and he managed to clear about $37,000 from his memoirs. He refused to be on any corporation’s payroll, and he never accepted money for endorsements, believing such activities would diminish the office of the Presidency.

As a career military man, Eisenhower never amassed any wealth to speak of, and spent most of his later years playing golf. In that regard, his retirement was akin to that of George W. Bush, who now spends his free time painting animal pictures. Bush’s Dad, however, has distinguished himself as a true statesman since leaving office, often seen joining with Bill Clinton in support of one humanitarian cause or another. And while Bush the elder benefitted from inherited wealth, Clinton made his money the modern way “” by giving speeches and writing books. In fact, since 2001, Clinton has earned over $75 million dollars on the lecture circuit, and he received $15 million dollars as an advance on his book, My Life. That, plus his $200,000 per year pension, makes it easy for the former President to be free to travel around the globe for his Foundation.

It’s also a safe bet that President Obama will enjoy similar success after leaving the White House. USA Today estimates Mr. Obama’s current net worth at $10 million, and he will, undoubtedly, add to that by earning astronomical speaking fees beginning in January of 2017. The question is, will the former community organizer from Chicago follow in the humanitarian footsteps of Jimmy Carter, or will he just sit back and paint cats with The Decider? Time will tell. !

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).