Age has a way of mellowing people in the political world. After a long career in the sewers of partisan politics, most well-known figures are happy to transition into an elder statesman role. They devote themselves to non-partisan issues and bury the old hatchets in order to end their careers in public service on a positive note.
The recent history of retired presidents shows how far a graceful retirement can go toward rehabilitating a bad career. Jimmy Carter, widely considered to be an atrocious President, has made himself into an American Mother Theresa analogue. His face and name are synonymous with Habitat for Humanity and international monitoring of elections through the Carter Center. Gerald Ford, another human punchline of a President, devoted himself to the Ford school of international affairs at the University of Michigan as well as the Betty Ford Clinic. Even Nixon salvaged some measure of respect by focusing on his expertise in foreign policy, being called upon for advice and diplomatic missions by every president who followed him. Harry Truman became excellent friends with Herbert Hoover and championed legislation to establish presidential libraries. Hoover, for that matter, was appointed to oversee the distribution of food to the needy in post-WWII Europe and headed the appropriately-titled Hoover Commission on reducing bureaucratic waste. The Hoover Institute at Stanford University is also the single most well-respected source of public policy from the right.
Even losers find ways to endear themselves to the public. Former Senate enemies and epic presidential failures George McGovern and Bob Dole were jointly awarded the prestigious World Food Prize for their organization dedicated to establishing school lunch programs in poor countries. Walter Mondale became an Ambassador. Michael Dukakis teaches political science at Northeastern University in his home state. Barry Goldwater and John Kerry returned to the Senate as quieter, gentler people. Adlai Stevenson became the US Ambassador to the United Nations, a post he held during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thomas Dewey was offered a Supreme Court seat by Lyndon Johnson but turned it down. Wendell Willkie became one of FDR's most important political allies during WWII. Al Gore's post-government career has been controversial only because James Inhofe insists that the environment is a partisan battleground.
A couple of presidents are conspicuously absent from this list. Bill Clinton has had a hard time leaving the spotlight for numerous reasons. The Democratic Party was adrift from 2000-2004 and he remained its leader by default. His wife's political career has also kept him in the game. Ronald Reagan physically fell apart upon retirement, but even in becoming a recluse he managed to advance awareness of Alzheimer's research. So those two get passes. The name most conspicuous in its absence is the elder Bush.
After 1992 George Bush essentially fell off the face of the Earth. He briefly surfaced to raise money for Katrina victims (at Clinton's request) in 2005. His other major accomplishment has been to organize a yearly fishing tournament in the Florida Keys. Now, I understand that Pappy needed to lay a bit low for the past eight years lest his unpopularity affect his sons' political aspirations. That fails to explain the void between 1992-2000. He has essentially spent sixteen years lounging around at his family's dozen homes around the country. No dedication to lovable non-partisan causes (hunger, literacy, digging up landmines, saving tiny puppies, oranges for adorable babies with scurvy, etc). No statesmanship or half-assed efforts at diplomacy. He isn't even involved with the public policy school at Texas A&M which bears his name.
Pappy's example makes it even more difficult for me to picture George W. Bush having a remotely dignified ex-presidency. Can anyone honestly picture this guy devoting himself to charity? Being sent overseas to further diplomacy? Promoting peace? Monitoring a foreign election? Engaging in the academic side of public policy? I mean, this guy wasn't even interested in public policy (or governing, or diplomacy, or anything) during his presidency. It's hard to picture him developing such interests in retirement.
My best guess is that, like the overgrown fratboy he has always been, he's going to cash in on his title in the most crass and embarassing ways we can imagine. He'll be like one of those doctors who wins the Nobel Prize in Medicine and then uses it to hawk diet supplements on infomercials. He'll load up on honorary/no-show appointments to corporate boards of directors (Gerald Ford had a few of these). He'll lobby the Pentagon for defense contractors. He'll lend his name to the kind of partisan hackery that masquerades as a "cause" on the right (preventing voter fraud, achieving energy independence through oil drilling, abstinence-only education, etc). But these are only things that are conceivable at the moment; I fully expect W to take it places we never imagined possible. He will amaze us with how crass, how tacky, and how thoroughly disinterested in public service he is. It will not surprise me one bit to turn on my TV some day and see this fucker selling me a limited edition presidential Sham-Wow.
Perhaps I'm underestimating the man. If he's anything like his dad, though, anything listed in the previous paragraph would qualify as almost impossibly ambitious. He is likely to spend his retirement the same way he spent 50% of his presidency – sitting on his ass in Crawford, the public thankful for every moment it doesn't have to look at him.