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Life After Power: Seven Presidents and Their Search for Purpose Beyond the White House

Jared Cohen
Published by Simon & Schuster in 2024

The following is an article by Todd C. Ream published in the Journal Gazzette on March 9, 2024.

Additions to language often originate with the young.

Some terms and phrases launched by adolescents even work their way into widespread circulation and are recorded by the editors of the Merriam-Webster and Oxford English dictionaries. Other terms and phrases never garner such recognition beyond the crowd-sourced pages of Urban Dictionary.

With “sus” (short for “suspicious,” a definition confirmed by a sample of teenagers) being the most widely circulated slang term in 2023, it may only be a matter of time until the editors of Merriam-Webster and Oxford English take notice.

Not all such additions, however, originate with the young. One phrase growing in usage in recent years emanates from individuals who “failed retirement.”

While once viewed as a welcomed time during which one was conferred with a gold watch and the opportunity to do whatever one wished, retirement now comes with anxiety for growing numbers of people. In essence, “Will I be able to shift gears from the pressure-packed days of work to the tranquil days of retirement?”

Factors leading to the relevance of such a question include people living longer and understandably believing they continue to have contributions they can make.

While far from retirement, Jared Cohen, president of global affairs and co-head of applied innovation at Goldman Sachs as well as the author of books such as “Accidental President: Eight Men Who Changed the World,” believes the lives of former U.S. presidents may be of aid and comfort to individuals worried about failing retirement.

Select stories of that transition comprise his latest book, “Life After Power: Seven Presidents and their Search for Purpose Beyond the White House.”

In one day, presidents go from waking up at the White House to waking up at home (wherever they choose to define it). Even for individuals with far less access to power and influence, such an abrupt transition can understandably prove disorientating.

Cohen’s implied thesis is if these seven people could avoid failing retirement, others can, too. No two stories are the same. Perhaps the questions that need to be asked, however, lurk amid the details across these stories.

As the subtitle notes, Cohen focuses on the post-presidencies of seven men — Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Grover Cleveland, William H. Taft, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush — and their stories define the seven chapters populating the book.

A concise preface and introduction quickly lead into these seven stories. Cohen acknowledges that a gap in the literature exists in terms of U.S. presidents when it comes to what they did with their lives after leaving office. As previously echoed, Cohen’s larger purpose is defined by his appreciation “that everyone — not just aspiring future presidents — can take away life lessons about navigating our next chapters from the stories of the post-presidency.”

While admittedly biased by greater familiarity with the details of their presidencies, the chapters concerning Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush are arguably among the most compelling. In different ways and from different political parties, both left office with an abysmal approval rating. Those same ratings of their post-presidencies are exactly the reverse.

For example, whatever challenges plagued Carter’s presidency, none compared to the seizure of more than 50 American personnel in the U.S. Embassy by Iranian students in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979. Some 444 days later, the hostages were released. On that same day, the defeated Carter returned to his modest ranch-style home in Plains, Georgia (population 231).

While Cohen recounts the soul-searching Carter did during those first years of retirement, he also argues “it was the beginning of a much more meaningful time in his life.” Cohen details how Carter’s efforts via the Carter Center, Habitat for Humanity and Carter’s church, Maranatha Baptist, compelled people “to admire Carter’s tenacity and commitment to good works, demonstrated for four decades after the White House.”

If people admire the activity Carter demonstrated, Cohen argues people admire George W. Bush for the opposite reasons.

In particular, “George W. Bush closed the book on his last day [in the White House] and never looked back. He moved on. … His time in the public eye was over, and he walked away.” Cohen argues the respect Bush showed for the institution of the presidency offered a “display of character that counts for something.”

Part of how Bush invested his time and energy was by painting “people who represent America, but who are often overlooked.” Cohen is quick to note that veterans and immigrants are among Bush’s subjects. For a president whose tenure was defined by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the ensuing War on Terror, such efforts are viewed as valuable yet radical departures from Bush’s tenure.

Perhaps what these stories and others Cohen recounts in “Life After Power” show is that a variety of ways exist in terms of how one can live in retirement. Cohen confirms in his short conclusion that the afternoon of life (a phrase Cohen borrows from the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung) can afford one unprecedented ways to continue to contribute even if doing so means those ways are radically different than ones pursued in previous years.

Cohen and the presidents whose lives he chronicles are to be thanked for that insight. In time, perhaps the editors of the Merriam-Webster and Oxford English dictionaries will need to grapple with whether to include a phrase representative of what it means to flourish in retirement.