How Past Presidents Spent Their Time After Leaving the White House

Former commanders-in-chief did everything from hitting the links to thinking about how to get back to the West Wing

Barack Obama; Bill Clinton; George W. Bush
From left: former Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Photo: Theo Wargo/WireImage; Myrna M. Suarez/Getty Images; Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

With the January inauguration of Joe Biden looming ever closer, Donald Trump finds himself at a familiar professional crossroads for a departing president: how to live out his retirement.

Trump's plans for the future are still murky, with the 45th president reportedly mulling everything from a new life in Florida to another run for office.

One thing is almost certain: Trump won't retreat from public view — breaking with the tradition of some of his predecessors, for whom life after serving in the highest office meant taking on a private role, even if only for a while.

In another way, however, Trump will be in good company as each former president approaches the role differently.

"Whenever we talk about the presidents, we have to remember: We have a really small sample size," presidential historian Jeffrey Engel, founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, tells PEOPLE. "Especially in the 19th century, most were old men" — so their post-presidential lives were rather short-lived.

Former presidents of more recent history — with social media and 24/7 news and the ubiquity of public attention — don't have the luxury of leaving the spotlight entirely behind, though some have retreated somewhat. Still others have used their years out of the White House to reshape the public perception of how they ran the country.

“If you just look at the way country is when [a president] leaves office, that’s what you get stamped with: if you leave in a depression, history wont treat you kindly, for instance,” Engel says.

In that sense, the manner in which the recent presidents have conducted their retirements offers a window into what they thought their presidency really was — and what they hoped it could have been.

Below, a look at how the most recent Oval Office occupants spent their time after leaving office.

Richard Nixon in the White House
Richard Nixon. Bachrach/Getty

Richard Nixon

After resigning in disgrace on Aug. 9, 1974, Richard Nixon was succeeded by then-Vice President Gerald Ford, who pardoned his predecessor a month later in a shocking move Ford said was in the interest of national healing.

According to the University of Virginia's Miller Center, however, any relief Nixon felt from the pardon was outweighed by other struggles, including a series of surgeries and financial challenges brought on by mounting legal bills in the wake of the Watergate investigation.

He managed to recover financially thanks to selling his memoirs for more than $2 million — ironic, all things considered, Engel notes: "The whole reason there is a Watergate problem and a taping system is because Nixon was taping his meetings to help with his memoirs."

He also gave a famous series of 1977 interviews with British television host David Frost, for which he was paid $600,000. (That chapter was also the subject of 2008's Oscar-nominated film Frost/Nixon.)

He began a re-entry into politics around the same time as those interviews, making his first public speech since leaving the presidency in Kentucky in 1978.

"Nixon spent the rest of his life trying to rehabilitate his reputation but in a very savvy, Nixon-like way," Engel says. He gradually began advising other presidents, such as Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, on matters of foreign policy.

Nixon died from complications of a stroke on April 22, 1994, and was eulogized by then-President Bill Clinton, who refrained from speaking about his tarnished record in office.

Gerald Ford
Don Carl STEFFEN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty

Gerald Ford

After serving one term in office, Ford lost his reelection to Georgia peanut farmer and former Gov. Carter. Ford went on to write a number of books and nearly went back into public office, entering into discussions with Reagan about running as vice president on the Republican ticket. That was short-lived, though, after Ford angered Reagan by telling journalists of the plan.

"When they said it out loud, it suggested Ford would be a co-president, which was not an image [Reagan's people] wanted to project and it's also impractical," Engel explains. "When someone busts in the door saying, 'Mr. President, Mr. President,' you only want one person saying, 'Yes?' "

Despite his loss, Ford went on to develop a close friendship with Carter and also continued influencing the Republican Party. In 1999, Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom for leading the country out of the tumultuous Watergate era.

Ford died at his home on Dec. 26, 2006, at the age of 93, after a number of health issues.

Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter. Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto/Getty

Jimmy Carter

Though he lost his own reelection bid, to Reagan in 1980, the 39th president has lived a history-making life since the White House. "Carter," says Engel, "became the Christian missionary he’s already wanted to be."

Still residing in his hometown of Plains, Georgia, Carter became deeply involved in charitable causes, including Habitat for Humanity, and continued teaching Sunday school at the local Maranatha Baptist Church into his 90s.

Now the oldest living president, the 96-year-old is also a champion of human rights and founded the Atlanta-based Carter Center, an organization focusing on the alleviation of human suffering in 1982.

He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 with the committee lauding his "decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development."

Carter has periodically waded into politics as well, recording a video along with his wife, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, for the Democratic National Convention in August. The video offered an endorsement of presidential candidate Joe Biden, whom Carter congratulated after he was announced the winner of the recent election. Carter had also criticized Trump.

He has suffered from a series of health issues in recent years, undergoing brain surgery in 2019 and spending time in the hospital due to various medical issues.

ronald reagan
Universal History Archive/Getty

Ronald Reagan

Life after the White House was mostly calm for Reagan who, as the Miller Center details, spent his first six years out of office involved with both his memoirs and his eponymous presidential library in Simi Valley, California.

He spent most of his remaining years in California, where he was a governor and a Hollywood star before then. In his post-presidency, he split his time between his Santa Barbara ranch in Santa Barbara and his offices in Century City.

But in 1994, his life took a dramatic turn.

In November of that year, he announced to the world in a heartfelt letter addressed to his "fellow Americans" that he'd been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

"I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, " he wrote.

The letter continued: "At the moment, I feel just fine. I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this earth doing the things I have always done. I will continue to share life's journey with my beloved Nancy and my family. I plan to enjoy the great outdoors and stay in touch with my friends and supporters."

Reagan died on June 5, 2004, and was buried at the Reagan Presidential Library.

George HW Bush
Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty. Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty

George H. W. Bush

The 41st president had perhaps the most normal return to private life, back at his home in Houston with his wife, former First Lady Barbara Bush. Both became active citizens in the local community, with President Bush volunteering at a church, spending time fishing and sitting on several local boards.

After leaving office, the couple divided their time between Houston and the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Though he tried to stay out of politics, it was often a challenge for the elder Bush, particularly after his son George W. Bush was elected president in 2000.

"H. W. Bush because had to deal with the 'problem' of the fact that he’s now the father of the president," Engel says. "So he went from having a very active and peripatetic life — jetting off, having fascinating experiences, sort of the ideal post-presidential life — to having to sort of shutter down."

Engel, who accompanied the elder Bush on a trip to Beijing around 2005, while writing a book about him, notes that the former president found himself constantly being scrutinized while his son was in office.

"He still went places and did things, but he couldn’t be public about it all, because it all got reported ... Everything he said … people wondered, 'Gee is he talking about his son's administration?' "

H. W. Bush died in November 2018 at 94, nearly eight months after his wife died that April.

President Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton at Elijah Cummings’ funeral. Joshua Roberts-Pool/Getty

Bill Clinton

Though he left the White House in 2001, after serving two terms, Clinton has been an active presence in the political sphere. Upon leaving Washington, D.C., he moved to Chappaqua, New York, the home-base of his wife, former first lady and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton.

In New York, he maintained an office and remained involved in issues of public concern through the Clinton Presidential Foundation, founded in 1997 and renamed the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation in 2013. (The foundation has sometimes been an albatross around the neck of the Clintons, dogged by scrutiny from conservatives even as it has undertaken global humanitarian work.)

"Clinton has continued to talk about contemporary events after his presidency and tried to make his foundation very public in its policy contributions," Engel says.

Now 74, former President Clinton had a number of heart health issues after leaving office, undergoing quadruple bypass surgery in 2004, a procedure to repair a partially collapsed lung in 2015 and receiving two coronary stents in 2010.

John Lewis funeral
President George W. Bush. Alyssa Pointer/AP/Shutterstock

George W. Bush

"I believe no one has ever sprinted out of the Oval Office faster [than W. Bush]," Engel says. "He was thoroughly exhausted, to the core and to the bone."

The younger Bush — who served for two terms — presided over Middle East war, the beginnings of the Great Recession and the September 11th attacks, all of which took a toll, at least mentally. He left the presidency under a cloud of national discontent epitomized by the resounding defeat of his would-be Republican successor, Arizona Sen. John McCain.

The younger Bush made pledges to stay out of politics upon leaving office, and he has kept his promise — no surprise, according to Engel: "That pledge was made with a bit of a smirk. What he was really saying was, 'I actually have no desire to say anything about politics.' "

After leaving office in 2009, Bush returned home to Texas, where he's spent time developing a new hobby — painting, often in service of various humanitarian causes — and presiding over the creation of the George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University.

As Engel points out, Bush’s charity work has been quite extensive as well, though he's been more quiet about it than some other former presidents. He hosts an annual 100k mountain bike ride to fundraise for wounded veterans and has also traveled to Africa to raise awareness for cervical cancer.

The now 74-year-old published his memoir, Decision Points, in 2010 and published a biography of his father, titled 41: A Portrait of My Father, in 2014.

Barack Obama on Jimmy Fallon

Barack Obama

One of the youngest outgoing presidents in history, Obama left office in 2017 at the age of 54. His first year post-presidency was spent like many retirees: He vacationed in the Caribbean, perfected his golf swing and spent time with his family.

In 2014, he launched the Obama Foundation, which will eventually unveil a presidential museum and public gathering space in Chicago.

Though he at first remained silent about many of his successor’s policies, that changed in the run-up to the 2020 election, particularly amid the spiking death toll brought on by the novel coronavirus. In August, he offered perhaps his most stunning rebuke of Trump yet, in a speech aired as part of the virtual Democratic National Convention in which he said democracy was at stake.

"When Obama spoke at the DNC — and frankly, in apocalyptic terms — that was really unusual, for a president to be that dire in their criticism," Engel says, adding that "from Obama's perspective, it was generally warranted."

Now 59, Obama recently released the first of a two-volume presidential memoir, A Promised Land, which reportedly sold 1.7 million copies in its first week, far outpacing other recent such books.

Engel says: "We’ve had presidents who wrote memoirs to make money ... but one gets a sense that Obama would write, even if he were not getting paid."

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