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Former presidents seem to fade away

WASHINGTON—They meet, it seems, only at times of tragedy or death.

They sit solemnly, often in church—as they did Tuesday in Washington's National Cathedral to pray over their fallen colleague Gerald Ford—shake hands briefly, exchange small talk, then go their separate ways.

Former presidents know things that few others on the planet know, have made choices that few, if any, are wise enough to make alone. Yet once out of office, they play no formal role in the decisions and policies of our government.

A sitting president rarely consults them. Even George W. Bush, who gave George H.W. Bush a lift to the cathedral Tuesday while Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton caught other rides, refuses to concede that he talks about work even with his own dad.

In fact, on the most pressing issue of his presidency, Bush once brushed aside the suggestion that he'd consult his father about invading Iraq, though his father was the only person in the country who'd ever faced the same decision.

There are exceptions.

Harry Truman brought Herbert Hoover out of political exile in 1945 to help save Europe from starvation after World War II. Hoover had done the same after World War I and had unique expertise.

John F. Kennedy publicly consulted Dwight Eisenhower after the failed 1961 U.S. invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The circumstances were unique: The invasion was planned on Eisenhower's watch.

Clinton brought the elder Bush, Ford and Carter into a 1993 White House event to support the North American Free Trade Agreement, though that was more photo op than policy consulting, since they already agreed on it.

This is not to say that presidents don't make private calls to their predecessors. Several consulted Richard Nixon on geopolitics, for example.

Yet those examples are noteworthy because they are so few and far between.

As a rule, serving presidents tend to think of their predecessors at best as sentimental reminders of an irrelevant past and at worst as rivals or critics.

That's especially true of presidents who've defeated incumbents. Presidents don't tend to invite in the men they threw out, and their invitations might be scorned anyway.

They sometimes get along later. Ford and Carter became friends and worked together after both left office; Carter accompanied Ford's body back to Michigan on Tuesday. The elder Bush and Clinton also became friendly, working together on tsunami relief.

But that takes time—and distance from current policy.

"The American people would like nothing more than to see all their wise men trudge down to the White House to solve all their problems," presidential historian Richard Shenkman said. "But it's very difficult in reality."

One reason is that former presidents retain their outsized egos even when they lose their title. Some might read an invitation for advice as a summons back to power.

Clinton, for example, might have welcomed help from Carter with North Korea. But when it became clear that Carter wanted to set the policy, it confused foreign governments, sent a mixed signal to the American public and infuriated Clinton and his staff.

Also, seeking too much help from a former president risks diluting presidential authority—especially if the two presidents end up with different positions and word gets out.

That may be one reason that Kennedy didn't invite Eisenhower in during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Finally, there's the fact that former presidents aren't in what Shenkman called the "intelligence loop." Even after briefings, they don't know all that the president knows. And that opens them up to being used as props.

Such as when Lyndon Johnson called in Eisenhower for "advice" on the Vietnam War.

"Johnson did it for political reasons," Shenkman recalled. "He wanted Eisenhower's blessing on the war. But he hadn't been briefed adequately on the intelligence. His advice was not much better than somebody reading the paper, and he ended up being used by Johnson to score points with the public. It wasn't very helpful."

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Currently there are three living former presidents: Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

The last time there were no living former presidents: 1973-1974.

Periods featuring the most living former presidents:

2001-2004: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton.

1993-1994: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush.

1861-1862: Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan.

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Steven Thomma is chief political correspondent for the McClatchy Washington bureau. Write to him at: McClatchy Newspapers, 700 12th St. N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005-3994, or e-mail sthomma@mcclatchydc.com.)

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