Conservatives aren’t the only ones with reasonable gripes about the news that Barack and Michelle Obama have signed a multiyear production deal with Netflix.
Forget the increasing politicization of entertainment for a moment. Why are the taxpayers still laying out vast sums every year for pensions, health insurance, staff and office expenses for ex-presidents?
The Former Presidents Act was passed in 1958 in response to the plight of Harry Truman. A man of modest means with no savings, the 33rd president thought putting himself on a corporate payroll, endorsing products or otherwise profiting from his time in the White House would be dishonorable. Even the money he earned from writing his memoirs after paying ruinous taxes was minimal.
So Congress stepped in and provided the Trumans with pensions, health care and money for an office and staff. It also extended lifetime Secret Service protection to ex-presidents’ families.
But 60 years later, the law no longer makes sense — with the obvious exception of the need for Secret Service protection. The notion that those leaving the White House resume life as private citizens has been rendered obsolete by the celebrity culture of our age.
Ours is a very different world from the one that enabled the Trumans to take a cross-country road trip without a Secret Service entourage after he left office. Indeed, without great personal wealth to fall back on and with his honorable notions about how to conduct himself, Truman might have been our last citizen-president.
Now former presidents and their wives can count on multimillion-dollar deals on books that are ghosted for them. They can also routinely score vast sums in honorariums from corporations and institutions whose leaders want to hobnob with a former president. And, as Bill and Hillary Clinton demonstrated, they can also pose as philanthropists while living the high life by skimming money donated to faux charities created in their names.
Each ex-president also now benefits from the creation of a presidential library and museum. While originally conceived as a way to preserve their papers, these institutions have taken on a monarchic aspect. Like Egyptian pharaohs building pyramids to honor their own memory, each succeeding president’s museum is bigger and more elaborate than that of his predecessor.
While the Obamas say they won’t use their powerful perch at Netflix to snipe against President Trump or conservative outlets like Fox News, we can now look forward to even more TV programs and films that’ll be skewed to promote the destructive policies his administration pursued.
But they might have to worry about more than just conservatives’ opinion. It’s not clear whether the public affection for the Obamas as a couple will survive their transformation into entertainment moguls. Even if their Netflix income goes to charities they champion, that, too, will enhance their clout and make their other activities more lucrative.
Some ex-presidents have behaved more egregiously than others. The comparison between the greed and sense of entitlement of the Clintons and that of both the older and the younger President George Bush is telling. The Bushes’ more seemly patrician-like restraint after leaving office has helped rehabilitate their reputations after exiting office with low approval ratings. Looking to the future, the mind boggles at what we have to look forward to from an ex-president Donald Trump.
But what isn’t in doubt is that being an ex-president has become the best job in America.
In the 19th century, the Founders’ ideas — influenced by the ancient Roman republic — about presidents being merely “elected magistrates” whose hold on power was transitory was taken seriously. Ex-presidents returned to the status of private citizen and, without exception, left the trappings of pomp behind them.
Now former presidents are treated like dowager empresses to whom the nation owes not merely deference but a living in spite of the fact that their status as an ex-commander in chief has become an ATM machine with no withdrawal limits.
We can’t go back to that quaint and more egalitarian era. But Congress can repeal or amend the Former Presidents Act so as to end the outrageous situation in which ex-presidential families living the lifestyle of the rich and famous are also being subsidized by the taxpayers.