Few people who paid any attention at all over the past eight years were
surprised that when it came to office space the big loveable lug would
push it to the limit, originally making a tentative commitment for fancy
Manhattan digs that would have cost — so the thumbnail mathematicians in
the media say — about as much in rent as the other four former presidents
combined get from the taxpayers for office space.
The indignation and the retreat/advance to the possibly more politically advantageous heights of Harlem were fun to watch.
But it’s a little disappointing that almost nobody has gone a tad further
and wondered aloud why the taxpayers are on the hook at all for the
continuing activities of any former president.
It wasn’t always so — in fact the notion that former presidents needed to
be subsidized on a lavishly imperial scale for the rest of their lives is
a quite recent development in American statism.
Former President Truman retired to his family home in Independence,
Mo., and held forth only when some reporters wanted a human-interest
angle and accompanied him on one of his daily walks through town. He
didn’t have a taxpayer-paid office, and although he was a relatively big
spender for his time, he would probably have been shocked if somebody had
suggested that he might be entitled to such a subsidy.
I know, I know. Truman, like the guy in office right now, was a shrewder
politician than many gave him credit for and fairly consciously polished
his homespun man-of-the-people image for political and personal benefit.
And like every former president since Herbert Hoover — with the
interesting exception of Richard Nixon — he built a presidential library
that has since been donated to the government, which then assumes most of
the operating expenses. So while presidential libraries are typically
built with private funds, the taxpayers get the privilege of paying to
operate these monuments to the egos of our past emperors in perpetuity.
Richard Nixon is a special case, one with which I have some familiarity.
His library and birthplace in Yorba Linda is in the Orange County
Register’s circulation area, and I attended the opening and a number of
subsequent events. Because of the special circumstances surrounding Mr.
Nixon’s departure from office and remaining political sensitivities
despite his full-court-press effort to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of
history, it has been judged generally imprudent to suggest that the
taxpayers should subsidize the library. So the Nixon library was built
entirely with private funds and continues to operate with private funds.
One of the consequences, as far as I can tell, of having to depend on private
support, is that the Nixon library is generally more interesting and
visitor-friendly than most of the other libraries. Displays in the museum
are changed regularly, events of historical or political significance with
prominent speakers are held regularly, and the library even rents out
parts of the facility for events put on by community organizations. The
library staff, led by John Taylor, has made a virtue of necessity,
reminding folks from time to time that the library is not a drain on
taxpayers, developing special events to attract visitors, and generally
acting a lot more entrepreneurial, in the best sense, than you might
expect a presidential library to be.
When I talked to John recently, he did remind me that presidential
libraries other than the Nixon library do serve what might be viewed as a
defensible government function. In the wake of Watergate, Congress passed a
law declaring that presidential papers, files and all that belonged to the
taxpayers and, therefore, to the government; prior to that they had been
viewed as the personal property of the occupant of the office and
presidents had taken them when they left.
Considering the quantity of paper the modern presidency generates,
however, simply storing, let alone cataloguing and preserving presidential
papers creates a storage problem of some magnitude. In essence, then,
former presidents get their rich friends to build a library that serves as
a warehouse for papers belonging to the government, and the government
takes them over and provides some operating funds. It might be that the
taxpayers are out less through this system than if the government had to
build even rudimentary warehouses for presidential papers, let alone
facilities with the capability of making them available to scholars.
The question of whether presidential papers really ought to be viewed as
the property of the government as Congress has decided, at least for now
or as the property and responsibility of the former president might still
be a matter for legitimate debate. Historians probably lost some access
because of the way former presidents handled their papers in times past.
But was that loss offset by the fact that the former president and his
estate rather than the taxpayers had to assume responsibility for storing
and caring for the papers? I think it’s at least an open question.
It should also be an open question, at least, whether the taxpayers should
be providing funds for office space, office help and related expenses for
former presidents at all — or whether there should be a time limit on
such subsidies. Perhaps you could make a case that a former president will
inevitably be required to pay some attention to matters that spill over
from his presidency and associated costs that therefore might justifiably
be charged to the taxpayers. But does that mean the taxpayers have to be
on the hook for generous office operations for the rest of a former
I haven’t run down the precise figures yet (maybe by next week), but
former presidents get in the neighborhood of $200,000 a year (a
conservative estimate) to run offices after they have left office. Billy
Boy obviously wanted to push the envelope on taxpayer-subsidized offices
— the sense of entitlement these people display is almost breathtaking —
but the question should arise whether the taxpayers should be on the hook
for any of those expenses.
The benefit to taxpayers of such an operation
is dubious at best. Former presidents get a generous pension, they have
the capacity to demand huge speaking fees, and most of them still have the
capacity to raise money from supporters even after leaving office.
Shucks, they might even think about going out and getting a real job.
If their activities include office expenses, why shouldn’t they pay for
them themselves, or raise a little extra money by semi-voluntary methods?
Why should the taxpayers not only subsidize their monuments to themselves
called libraries, but pay for their computers and secretaries forever?
The ex-presidential edifice complex, of course, is one of many symptoms of
the replacement of the old republic by the central-state empire in
America. The old myth was that democratic governance was something every
citizen could be involved in, that certain public-spirited people would
take some time from lives of accomplishment to serve their country for a
spell, then resume whatever private life — changed in character by their
sojourn, of course — made the most sense to them.
Now we have career politicians, people who have never held a productive
job (defined as one supported by the voluntary as opposed to the
involuntary transfer of funds) in their lives, who expect to live lavishly
at taxpayer expense forever. Former President Clinton is an especially
shameless example of this new breed with a sense of pampered entitlement,
but he’s not the only one. We’ve been building toward the Imperial
Ex-Presidency as a logical aftermath of the Imperial Presidency at least
since the New Deal.
Will Clinton’s profligacy cause us to rethink the entire system of making
politicians a privileged class entitled to live like kings and queens at
Or will we sputter in frustration, focus anger on the
Schlickmeister rather than the system and accept being looted as simply the way things have to be?