What to do with ex-presidents? Burton Kaufman opens his utterly absorbing new book The Post-Presidency from Washington to Clinton with that simple question, and he spends the next 500 pages (and a further 100 pages of close-packed notes) giving the subject a more thorough examination than it's ever received before. This is a permanent addition to the very best presidential history books to study and consult.
It's likewise a book to enjoy. Kaufman is an indefatigable guide through his vast mazes of material, but he's also a very cheerful one, constantly sparking the narrative with quick and sometimes happily debatable summaries and judgements. His topic is a comparative rarity in human history: chief executives (of whatever designation, be it king or sultan or emperor) tend not to relinquish power voluntarily while they're still alive. Augustus Caesar kept promising to set aside his "First Citizen" status and return to the role of ordinary Roman citizen, but he never got around to doing it - power, often likened to an aphrodisiac, has consistently proven too difficult to surrender. Hence the stark break with the past represented by the fledgling American republic's determination that its presidents should be short-term office-holders.
The first of those office-holders, George Washington, was so popular that he could easily have scotched the idea, but he chose instead the example of Cincinnatus out of Roman folkloric history, the magistrate who quits his office when the emergency's over and returns to his plough.
Washington's act of laying down power - in his case, stepping aside so that John Adams could become the country's second president - was the talk of the western world. Napoleon, in bitter exile, commented, "They wanted me to be another Washington."
It's Kaufman's very convincing contention that Washington's example had enormous staying power - that it set a pattern whereby ex-presidents quietly left the stage of public life entirely, slipping into silent retirement with all their former privileges renounced. The Post-Presidency charts the weakening of that staying power, the alteration of that initial Cincinnatus conception of presidential retirement.
He doesn't strictly need to recount so much about the presidencies themselves to pursue his thesis, but readers will be very glad he does just the same - the book's much broader scope makes it all the more fascinating, and it allows Kaufman to spend some welcome time with the second-rate presidents who usually get crowded out of overviews like this by the marquee names.
One of Kaufman's most interesting subjects is John Quincy Adams, the country's sixth president, who's rightly characterised by the author as an enduring mystery: "About five feet, seven inches tall, nearly bald, a little paunchy, with dark eyes, a square and chiselled face becoming more rounded with age, sideburns, and a crown of white hair, Adams was one of the most enigmatic figures ever to occupy the White House."
Adams lost the presidency to Andrew Jackson in 1829 - and promptly entered the US House of Representatives in 1830, where he spent the next 17 years embodying the very polar opposite of Washington's quiet vanishing act.
This stunning turn - unique in American history - provided Adams with opportunities his time in the White House never did. "Now in his element," Kaufman writes, "Adams' congressional career became inextricably linked to his strategically brilliant and unrelenting response to attempts by Southern lawmakers to limit the right of public petition in cases involving the issue of slavery through what became known as the gag rule."
But even though Adams was viewed in his own time as something of a chimera, his example tracked the movement of national sentiment away from the Washingtonian ideal of the disinterested public servant who returns to his plough and shuns the spotlight.
One of the lesser-known presidents Kaufman champions, Millard Fillmore (our author defiantly says it would be "unfair to relegate him to the dustbin of American history"), proposed pensions for former presidents and frequently repeated his view that it was unreasonable to expect that ex-presidents ever could - or ever should - become "ordinary citizens" again.
It was steadily becoming impossible anyway. As our author points out, "As the presidential office became more prominent, so did the prominence of those who held that office." President Benjamin Harrison, for example, managed an extremely successful law firm after his own presidency, doing high-profile trial work virtually until his death in 1901. And Harrison's one term from 1889 to 1893 was bracketed by what is surely the most remarkable post-presidential feat of them all: Grover Cleveland ran successfully in 1885, lost in 1889 - and then ran again in 1893 and won, the only US president ever to win non-consecutive terms.
For all the refreshing care Kaufman devotes to lesser-known presidents, however, it's scene-stealers like Adams who inevitably control the narrative.
As noted, the presidency was becoming more prominent, and the swelling readership of newspapers, magazines, and books in the American market in the decades after the US Civil War helped to feed that phenomenon - and fed off it. One of the most heartbreaking post-presidential stories, that of former Union general Ulysses S Grant, provides Kaufman's book with an emotional punch no less powerful for being expected. Grant, diagnosed with cancer and worried for his family's financial survival, fought to finish his memoirs before he died, working with the same determination he'd brought to the battlefield: "Grant won his grim race against time, often writing between 25 and 50 pages a day when he was not too sick to write or was not being visited by family and friends, including former Confederate foes who came to pay their respects." He finished his book (which did indeed net his family a fortune) just a few days before his death in July 1885.
An equally prominent place goes to the turbulent ex-presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, who came to power upon the death of President William McKinley in 1901 and refused to seek re-election on the ticket in 1908 but was constitutionally incapable of fading away. "For a phenomenon like Roosevelt," Kaufman writes, "who demanded public attention and relished power, who romanticised physical challenges and idealised the heroic, and who more often than not blurred the distinction between what best served him and what best served the public, a secluded retirement to Sagamore Hill was not an option." Eventually Roosevelt formed a third party and ran against his former friend, President William Howard Taft, in 1912, thereby weakening the field and giving the election to Woodrow Wilson.
Roosevelt's ex-presidency was full of dramatic treks through uncharted jungles in Africa and South America, but if anything, Taft's post-presidential career was even more remarkable. A former Sixth Circuit Court judge, Taft had always loved the law and would have been content to stay on the bench for his entire life, had it not been for the ambition of his brothers and his wife.
Advances in routine medical care in 20th-century America made it inevitable that ex-presidents would be around longer than their Gilded Age counterparts, and this reality informs the strong concluding chapters of Kaufman's book. Here we get the unrepentant Richard Nixon writing a best-selling memoir and hitting the lecture circuit. Here we get ex-president Jimmy Carter, of whom our author is perhaps inordinately fond: "The former president's desire to help the poor and bring about world peace led him to continue to travel around the world," Kaufman writes. "In doing so, he demonstrated his determination - just as he did as president - to speak out and act in support of what he believed was right, even when it met with disapproval at home and abroad." The loose cannon private diplomacy Carter continues to exercise - much to the consternation of every sitting president since he left office - is mentioned uncritically.
The book ends with a thrillingly spirited assessment of Bill Clinton - "Intently ambitious, he was considerate but manipulative, caring but narcissistic, diplomatic but predatory, intently focused but chaotic, good-natured but hot-tempered, and unguarded to the point that it almost cost him his office" - and with the door left open to entirely unforeseen changes to come.
After being returned to the White House, Barack Obama will only be 55 when he leaves office in 2017 and he could easily live another 40 years. Kaufman had better stay on the job.
Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.