Chicken little forecast

Still Chugging Along

Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.

Lessons From Former Presidents

Featuring Jared Cohen

Are we defined by our jobs? What happens to ex-presidents after they leave office? And how does that apply to the current political landscape as we head into the 2024 election? Today, we’re joined by Jared Cohen, author of the book ‘Life After Power: Seven Presidents and Their Search for Purpose Beyond the White House,’ to explore how these leaders transition, redefine their identities, and sometimes find higher callings post-presidency.

Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript

[Audio Clip]

Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and this is our weekly podcast, What Could Go Right?, which looks at the world with an eye toward things being solved rather than things being broken. Unlike other episodes, I am running solo today, and not with my co-host, Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network, although we will do a news segment at the end while we look at things that have gone on in the world that you may not have been paying attention to in the midst of all the bad things that are going on in the world.

One thing we don’t look at, understandably, because we are focused so relentlessly on what’s happening right now, is what happens to people who have been in positions of high prominence and high office after they are no longer in those positions. One of the most powerful roles in American society is, of course, the American presidency. We understand we don’t often pay attention to what these individuals are on the other side of their presidency, again, because they’re no longer in the limelight. But it is a fascinating topic in a world that’s obsessed with power to look at what individuals do when they no longer have the same power, or they no longer have the same identity. And that is a story that is relevant to all of us.

So we’re gonna talk to today someone who’s written a book about what people who occupied the presidency do when they no longer occupy the presidency. What do you do with that? My guest today is Jared Cohen, who is the author of Life After Power: Seven Presidents and Their Search for Purpose Beyond the White House. He’s the author of an earlier book called Accidental Presidents, which was about people who became president accidentally, i.e., vice presidents who assumed the office of presidency accidentally or unexpectedly.

Jared has a fascinating career separate from his life as an author. He is now President of Global Affairs at Goldman Sachs. He is an adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served for a period of time on the policy planning staff under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but also as an advisor to Condoleezza Rice. So he has been bipartisan in his public service. And before that, he was the president of Jigsaw, which is a subsidiary of Google, focused on internet and security and bringing the internet to parts of the world that are having a hard time getting it. So we’re gonna talk to Jared today about these questions, about his new book, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Jared Cohen, such a pleasure. We’ve talked a lot, but not much online, so this will be a public version of a lot of private conversations. And I remember you talking about the germination for this book somewhat following a motif of quirky, odd, eccentric people who have been in the Oval Office, either as—your first book, Accidental Presidents. In this case, less quirky people than what lives people live on the other side of having been elected to the highest office, or I guess in a few cases, initially, assuming the highest office without having been elected.

I have to say, to me, this has always been one of those fascinating conversations in general about what do people do after. I was joking with someone the other day about wanting to write a novel or a book that begins with a CEO on a plane to Davos who is fired in mid-flight and then lands, and he’s just whoever he was before he got on that plane, before he had that office. And in an odd way, once you’ve been president and the rest of your life is being an ex-president, it’s gotta be an odd phenomenon and a strange feeling of you’ve been in this position of utter centrality and then you’re just a guy—at least in the United States, it’s always been guys—who used to be president.

Jared Cohen (JC): I mean, it’s literally the most dramatic retirement you can possibly imagine, and it’s the most seemingly unrelatable retirement you can imagine. I think that’s what’s so surprising to me, is that despite presidents seeming pretty far from the world that the rest of us live in, when we sort of think about questions of what’s next, they fall so hard from such a political stratosphere, and as they come back down to earth, they actually become much more relatable figures and there’s a lot that we can learn from each of them.

ZK: So on that vein, who handled that transition in your estimation the best, and who handled it the worst?

JC: I’ll start with the one that handled it the worst ’cause it’s always good to start with something juicy. To me, the biggest ex-presidential disaster is John Tyler. He becomes a traitor to the Union, defects during the Civil War and gets elected to the Confederate House of Representatives. And to add insult to injury, he dies before being able to take his seat and Lincoln denies him a state funeral.

But there’s a sort of larger question of—you know, I picked seven presidents that I focus on in the book. I do Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Grover, Cleveland, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush. And so the question is, why those seven? As I looked at the 45 men who’ve been president 46 times, and you kind of discount the ones that died in office, the ones that died shortly thereafter, or the ones that are kind of too recent to evaluate or still in office, I was surprised that you were kind of only left, in my opinion, with seven that were really worth writing about. For most presidents, the transition from the most powerful job in the world to ordinary civilian life has not been a pleasant one. All those early presidents, they ended up with massive financial troubles. They were big landowners. A lot of them struggled to separate themselves from their past job. They finished their last chapter of life, settling old scores. A number of them developed drinking problems and depression challenges. And it’s a pretty dark story.

But the seven that emerge that I focus on, what I find interesting is each of their post-presidencies looked completely different. I mean, there were common threads across all of them, but each of them represents a different archetypal model for how to get after this elusive question of “What’s next?”, and I think that’s the part of this book that I found the most interesting to write is because you’re left realizing there’s no blueprint here. This question of “What do you do next?”, it’s a very personal one. You can look to other examples and you can look to who’s done it, but at the end of the day, the answer is some kind of customized experience based on your personality, based on your ambition, your interest. And what I wanted to do with the book was basically offer seven different models that people could kind of mix and match and apply to themselves.

ZK: So it’s an interesting question of—By the way, Tyler is fascinating to me for one reason, which is that I think until recently, he had two living grandchildren, which is extraordinary.

JC: He still has one grandson.

ZK: Right. And now he has one living one, which is utterly amazing. He was president in 1840.

JC: He was born while George Washington was president.

ZK: And he has a living grandson. I mean, that is extraordinary. Absolutely extraordinary, just as a connective tissue to the past kind of thing. So you didn’t write about Grant, right?

JC: Ulysses Grant is one that I grappled with a little bit. So Ulysses Grant, in his post-presidency, he leaves office in scandal after two terms. He hits the lecture circuit mostly outside of the United States to escape the scandals. He’s still the most famous man in America as a general, but was a disaster as a president. And he comes back to the political scene in 1880 to try to run for a non-consecutive third term. He ends up losing on, I think it was the 34th ballot, to James Garfield who showed up at the convention as the campaign manager to the person in third place and ends up as the Republican nominee for president. That’s the end of Grant’s political career.

The reason Grant’s post-presidency is interesting—and I make reference to it in the book, but I don’t feature it—is he really is the first president to write a presidential memoir. And to this day, his two-volume memoir on his life is the gold standard of presidential memoirs. Thomas Jefferson was the first president to write an autobiography. He just didn’t write about his time as president. He tackled an autobiography because the story of the revolution was being written and he was worried that that story was gonna be told in a way that was less than flattering to him. And what’s interesting about Grant’s two-volume autobiography is he rushes to finish it while he’s dying of cancer. And his public bout with cancer, which played out in the newspapers and magazines of the day, was a pretty significant milestone because it gave the public visibility into this sickness and to his vulnerability in a way that they had never really encountered before.

And by the way, it’s one of the reasons that when James Garfield is shot and laying in his deathbed for 180 days, there’s so much trepidation about the public narrative. And then you fast forward to Grover Cleveland, who I write about in the book. Grover Cleveland, when he comes back for a second term, discovers that he has cancer. And he was a man who always insisted on people telling the truth. And he was so worried because of what played out so publicly with Ulysses Grant—and obviously, his terminal and fatal demise—that the public would go into a total state of panic if they knew that the president had cancer because they were staring the worst economic depression since the dawn of the republic right in the face.

ZK: So let’s talk about Grover Cleveland for a moment because it may come as a surprise to many that Grover Cleveland is currently the most important historical correlate and model for Donald Trump, not an association that usually makes, right? I mean, if you go up to the proverbial person in the street and you say, “What is the first thing you think of when you say Grover Cleveland?” They wouldn’t say Donald Trump. And I think the reverse is also true.

JC: Look, this is a fascinating thing about books. They take a long time to write and you never know how they’re gonna end up being relevant to what’s happening. And when I started writing this book in 2020, I wasn’t thinking about the 2024 election. And here we are in 2024, and it appears as if for the first and only time since 1892, you’re gonna have a rematch between two presidents who were the nominees of the two major parties. The only other time that’s happened is in 1892, and even then it was different because Grover Cleveland lost in 1888, but he didn’t lose the popular vote, he just lost the electoral college. So already that’s a difference in the experiences.

The fact, by the way, that this is only gonna be the second time in history that this has happened tells you that our political evolution in terms of our system, it’s really gone off-script. And this feels like a disruption of the natural trajectory. Another way that this is different is you have the two oldest candidates in history as the presidents who are engaged in this rematch. And so this isn’t just election for whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump is gonna be the next president. This is an election for whether or not Joe Biden or Donald Trump is gonna be the next ex-president. And unlike Herbert Hoover who had a 32-year post-presidency, or Jimmy Carter, who was an active post-president for 42 years before he went into hospice care, there’s not gonna be a long post-presidency after this. And so for both men, the election is of tremendous consequence.

And I think in the spirit of going off-script, you asked the question, how are we in a situation where you have a rematch for the first time since 1892, the two oldest candidates in history? I think it begs the question that Alexander Hamilton asked in Federalist 72, which is, what do we do with ex-presidents? More than 200 years later, we have an answer to that question. Ex-presidents can either be an ally and a symbolic supporter of their successors, or they can be their successor’s most formidable adversary. And Hamilton worried, by the way, he asked the question in the Federalist papers, is it good for the stability of the republic in our government to have half a dozen men who’d served as president basically wandering amongst us like discontented ghosts? And I think that Hamilton’s words have particular resonance today.

But what’s interesting about the Grover Cleveland example—So, again, in each chapter I look at one president whose post-presidency represents a model. And I think Grover Cleveland is the model for those who wanna make a comeback. A lot of people wanna make a comeback. Few end up actually doing it, and even fewer are successful. And if you look at history, former presidents have historically made very bad presidential candidates. We had Martin Van Buren try as a Free Soiler in 1848. He failed miserably. Millard Fillmore tried as a Know Nothing candidate in 1856. He failed miserably. We talked about Ulysses Grant trying for a non-consecutive third term. He didn’t even get the nomination. Theodore Roosevelt tried as a Bull Moose in 1912. He split the Republican Party and handed Woodrow Wilson presidency. Herbert Hoover contemplated it in 1936 and 1940, but his campaign never picked up steam. And so it’s just the historic training data for former presidents running for office is not great. But the only other time a former president actually got the nomination for a major party, they did win the election.

ZK: And of course, unlike Pope Francis, who assumes the papacy when his predecessor for the first time resigns and then lives in Vatican City, Pope Benedict, it’s not like ex-presidents kind of get a little room in the White House and shuffle down for breakfast and give advice, I suppose that would be one way to deal with the ex-president question. [laughs]

JC: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting, we had talked about Grover Cleveland. Grover Cleveland had a very funny saying when somebody asked him what to do with ex-presidents, and he sort of joked they should be taken out to a five-acre lot and shot. And then he sort of corrected himself in a joking manner, and he said, in second thought, five acres seems like too much and president of the United States has already suffered enough, which tells you how much he lamented the office.

Emma Varvaloucas (EV): We’ll be right back after this break.

Welcome back to What Could Go Right?

ZK: So back on the inadvertent sudden relevancy of Grover Cleveland, when he gets reelected in 1892, had he, like Trump, spent a period of time plotting his comeback? Did this happen? What was the pathway there? And did he get reelected on a nostalgia tour for what had happened between 1884 and 1888?

JC: Well, first of all, when Grover Cleveland is elected president in 1884, he is the first Democrat elected to the White House since James Buchanan before the Civil War. So his election in general kind of marks a turning point in partisan politics in the US. Cleveland didn’t really like being president. He entered office as a bachelor. While he was president, he courted a young woman who he had actually been the legal guardian of after her father died in a very 19th century type accident, which was a horse and buggy collision. And at 21 years old, she gets married to Cleveland in the White House and becomes the youngest first lady in history. All that’s to say Grover Cleveland fell in love and wanted to start a family.

And when the election of 1888 appears on the horizon, the big issue of the day is the tariff. And Grover Cleveland had a very different position than many in his own party, and even more on the Republican party, which is he didn’t want a high tariff. He didn’t think it was needed. And so he basically made a calculated decision to throw away the presidency and stand on principle. And people told him he was throwing away the presidency, and he didn’t care. He said, what’s the point of being president if you don’t do what’s right? He lost the presidency and he’d never been happier than when he threw it away, personally and professionally, and he had no intention of going back.

Now, the young First Lady, Frances Cleveland, told the White House butler upon their departure not to move any of the furniture or do any redecorating because she planned to be back there in four years. While he sat in quiet retirement, again, very, very happy, he couldn’t help but to see what his successor was doing to the country, who had the first billion-dollar budget. He saw significant rumblings in his own party and the Republican Party that the US was at risk of going off the gold standard, which he thought would devastate the country. The issue of tariffs was persistent. And as an anti-imperialist, he was growing increasingly concerned about the tide to annex the islands of Hawaii. He ends up making a decision to make a comeback, not because he wants to be president again, but he believes there’s nobody else in his party other than spoilsmen who he doesn’t want to see as president or candidates, like William Jennings Bryan, who were kind of runaway populists who wanted cheap money over sound money.

And so he reluctantly allows himself to enter the fray again. And he gets reelected. By the way, it’s the third time in a row that he wins the popular vote. So he never lost the popular vote, but his comeback is a cautionary tale. He was successful in getting the office back, but there’s some real lessons learned there, which is a lot changes in four years. It’s out of your control. And by the time he takes the oath of office, he inherits the worst financial crisis since the beginning of the republic. He inherits a crisis in Hawaii where a group of settlers and the de facto US ambassador there deposed the Hawaiian Queen and essentially took over the islands, and then he feels a lump in the roof of his mouth and realizes that he has cancer and it might be terminal.

So all these three things combined mean that the very issues that he came back to fight for, he couldn’t get to until he dealt with all of these issues that he inherited. And by the time he leaves office for the last time in 1896, he is at a low point in terms of his popularity. He’s personally unhappy, he’s tormented by his legacy, and his second post-presidency, he encounters demons that he didn’t encounter the first time. And I think in those final twilight years of his life, I think Grover Cleveland reflected on the fact that maybe the comeback wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be.

ZK: Skipping forward into the 20th century, first I wanna do a little like we did with Grant, which is the question of something you didn’t write about. So how did you make the decision about not including Nixon?

JC: So if I look at Richard Nixon, I think his post-presidency was complicated. I’m not sure that he-The book is called Life After Power: Seven Presidents and Their Search for Purpose Beyond the White House. I’m not sure that Nixon ever found his sense of purpose. If I compare Nixon with Herbert Hoover, two men who left office with their reputations in tatters, I think Hoover’s story of recovery, albeit under very different circumstances, is a much more inspired, compelling, and prescriptive story of recovery. Doesn’t make Richard Nixon’s post-presidency uninteresting or not worthy of study, but it just wasn’t one that I felt like was sort of an archetypal model that the rest of us could draw on as we contemplate what to do next.

ZK: Because I mean, the thing that’s interesting to me about Nixon is not anything he did per se, but it’s how he managed and massaged and essentially drove a revision of his reputation, which is, I guess from the perspective of what you’re talking about, not interesting in the things that were done, but given that—and as you indicated before about both Trump and Biden who are likely old enough such that there’s not gonna be a lot of decades of them able to control their legacy, I guess unless the singularity is nigh and life extension therapy suddenly become magical. But that is an interesting aspect of the modern presidency, not as much the earlier presidency of presidents being laser-like focused on defining their historical reputation.

JC: Yeah. And here’s where I think George W. Bush becomes very interesting. So why did I choose to include George W. Bush? When I looked at the active living presidents, one of them stood out, in that George W. Bush is the only one whose popularity has basically doubled since he left office. And he’s achieved that by investing less energy and time into it than any of his contemporaries. And I wanted to kind of understand why. Now, the simple answer is he’s aged well among Republicans in the era of Trump. But I think that oversimplifies it. I think that George W. Bush managed to do something that no other ex-president has done, which is completely move on from politics. A lot of them say they’re gonna move on, Obama says he’s gonna move on, but then every now and then, they weigh in or during campaign season, they take to the trail, they occasionally criticize their successors.

George W. Bush has not once since leaving office publicly named one of his successors or criticized his successors. He’s completely stayed out of the political fray. And so the question is why. I mean, part of it is he’s not a particularly introspective man. And so when the chapter of politics was done, he kind of closed the book on it and moved on, and critics of him, they don’t like that aspect of his personality, but that’s who he is.

But I spent two days up in Kennebunkport with him in 2020 interviewing him about his post-presidency. And we talked a lot about this question of legacy. And he has a really quarrelsome, almost adversarial view of the concept of trying to shape legacy. It’s not that he thinks legacy doesn’t matter, and it’s not that he doesn’t care about legacy, but he just cannot fathom why somebody would waste time in the present trying to influence how they’re remembered long after they’re gonna be gone. His view is, that’s just not how legacies get shaped. He talks about how and jokes about how they’re still writing books about the other George, meaning George Washington. By the time they get around to him, he’ll be long gone. Or he tells the story of giving a speech in Japan and just sort of reflecting how long it took for Japan’s reputation and Japan’s image and identity to transform after Hirohito. And he thinks that the best way to enhance your legacy is to let history take care of it. And so he’s busy living in the present. His friends talk about him as a man who’s at peace.

If I think about why he’s so popular today, just statistically and in terms of the polls, he has this reverence for the George Washington principle of one president at a time, and he adheres to it in a more disciplined way than anybody who’s come before him. And yes, that’s aged well in the era of Trump, but he’s also kind of discovered and architected this post-presidential voice through painting that allows him to still advocate for things that people like seeing him associated with—veterans, the story of American immigrants, et cetera. And he’s able to do it through painting in ways that don’t undermine his successors. And I think that it’s endeared him to the American people in a way that even those that did not like his presidency, they have a fondness for his post-presidency.

And you contrast that with Jimmy Carter, who had a similar popular renaissance, albeit with certain bumps in the road. The two could not be more different. Carter did everything he could to insert himself into the conversation. He undermined successors on both sides of the aisle. And Bush in a lot of respects has been the anti-Carter.

ZK: Yeah, no, it has been remarkable how Bush has been sort of studiously, morally not commenting on anything. There was a period where I think he did cross that self-drawn line a little bit with Trump, right? He did say a few things or indicated a few things, although not nearly as aggressively as Carter had by any stretch of the imagination. And it is a peculiar thing about George W. in that, I mean, honestly, I think we, in the age of Trump, have alighted a lot of the destructiveness of things that were done in the George W. term. We’re still in many ways paying for the after-effects of the US invasion of Iraq, which is on that administration’s head as just a fact. So there’s a degree to which his post-presidency while honorable is in the face of something that—Well, I guess nothing is indefensible, anyone can defend anything, but we are paying the price of a massive war that destabilized a region in a way that, again, has not only not resolved itself, but in many ways gotten considerably worse.

JC: It’s an interesting question though of how ex-presidents get saddled with the baggage of what happened while they were in office, right? In Carter’s twilight years, people don’t talk about the Iran hostage crisis anymore. They don’t talk about economic recession in the ’70s. And Carter managed to outpace the legacy of the troubles that brewed while he was in office. I think some of that is a function of the fact that the vast majority of people who have come to know Carter weren’t alive for President Carter, right? And so I think that that has something to do with it.

But then you look at somebody like Herbert Hoover. Hoover lived for 90 years. He’s defined by three and a half years in office. As recently as I think last week, Herbert Hoover ends up back in the news again where Trump says, I don’t want to be like Herbert Hoover and inherit a depression, Biden—they’re still using Hoover’s name. And out of all the presidents of the United States, the one who had the hardest time, and still even many years after he’s expired, the one who still has the hardest time running away from the baggage of what happened while he was president, remains Herbert Hoover. And yet Hoover had one of the most remarkable post-presidencies of any man that’s ever served that office.

ZK: And why do you think he—what was it about him that made it hard for him to walk away? Because he had been a career public servant. He had not been, really, a career politician. I mean, it’s easier in some sense to see those people who have lived and breathed the verdict of voters and benefited from the positive verdict as opposed to Hoover, who really was—the presidency was at the end of an atypical career.

JC: If you look at Herbert Hoover before he was president. He was an orphan who rose to become a self-made millionaire. So he was an acclaimed businessman. He’d traveled the world. He was the man who fed all of Europe after World War I earning the name the Great Humanitarian. He was the man who swooped in after the 1927 great Mississippi flood to provide relief mostly to the African American community. So he was a revered bipartisan figure. When he’s elected in 1928, he basically waltzes into the White House. At one point, the Democrats wanted him to be their nominee for president. And then the Great Depression happens and all of a sudden this self-made millionaire who was once an orphan becomes the symbol of the greedy, aloof wealthy class. He loses his status as the Great Humanitarian. All of his good works are forgotten.

And okay, that’s not surprising given the breadth of the Great Depression. What’s surprising is we’re still talking about Hoover. As an example, the name Hoovervilles and Hoover Carts still get resurrected to this day. And so the question is, how does that happen? Look, I think FDR in his four times getting elected, he had a guy who worked for him whose main task was to architect an image around Herbert Hoover. And it’s one of the great smear marketing campaigns in American history that just stuck.

I mean, Harry Truman, even while working, Truman resurrects Herbert Hoover when he inherits the presidency after FDR’s death for one simple reason, which is he’s looking at the end of World War II on the horizon and another starvation crisis worldwide and there’s only one man in the world who knows what it’s like to be president and how to feed the world. And neither Truman nor Hoover had any love lost for FDR, so he resurrects him, and Hoover once again feeds the world this time after World War II, not World War I. He recaptures his image as a great businessman executive being called upon by both Truman and Eisenhower to reorganize the executive branch of government. And he achieves that bipartisan status again as an elder statesman in 1960 when Joe Kennedy, JFK’s famous father, calls on Hoover to reconcile Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy to help present to the world a picture of bipartisan and national unity.

So what’s interesting is Hoover does, in his lifetime, recapture his good name. More importantly, in his lifetime, he does find a path back to service. To use the concept by Arthur Brooks, he was a man who needed to be needed, and by the end of his life, he was needed by everybody. The problem is when Hoover died, his name got smeared posthumously and it continues to—I mean, I think he would be shocked that in 2024, so many years after his presidency, now not just the Democrats, but the Democrats and the Republicans in some respects are still running against his name and what it meant.

ZK: Yeah. I mean, there has been some I think Hoover revisionism. Amity Shlaes wrote a book a bunch of years ago making the case for him of having been a more competent executive. And clearly there have been people who have indicated that there were things that Hoover was doing in 1932 that Roosevelt actually continues. It’s not necessarily the kind of break that was later magnified in the ways that you just talked about.

I guess there’s a final couple of questions. One is recent post-presidents, particularly Obama and Clinton, and obviously not George W., which you just talked about, have gone more in the cashing in on the presidency. And I suppose that is a negative way of putting it. They’ve done so somewhat differently. Obama’s done it more in terms of production deals. His Netflix deal is translating fame into mediums of communication. We’re not gonna have that with Biden and Trump, clearly, by virtue of age, again, unless some sort of massive life extension technology intercedes. Is all this provisional, meaning how presidents do their post-presidency life? I mean, we’re not likely to have another John Quincy Adams or another William Howard Taft, right? We’re not likely to have a president become the head of the Supreme Court. We’re not likely to have another president become a major political figure in Congress. But I wonder what you think about, is this kind of a natural evolution for presidents who are young enough to turn what is essentially the fame of the presidency into a brand?

JC: Look, I think that if you look at the story of the post-presidency, it’s evolved in terms of, you know, it started off as basically a financial death sentence. I mean, most of the early ex-presidents were penniless by the time they died. It’s only much, much later on in the mid-20th century that you get presidential pensions, that you get Secret Service protection for life. It’s only later that it becomes the norm for presidents to write memoirs with big advances to get libraries that are augmented by both public sector support and private sector report.

The sort of exit package, let’s call it, has evolved over time and it’s now become a quite generous exit package. And I think what you see Obama doing is broadening what that exit package looks like. And by the way, Gerald Ford did this as well, as did George H.W. Bush when they took certain corporate boards. That was seen as a broadening of the exit package.

My view on this is the commoditization of the presidency after one leaves office is something we should expect. It’s something that’s evolved. How icky it feels I think is a function of the other things that an ex-president does with that platform. The idea of a post-presidency is a very democratic concept. We don’t have former presidents in authoritarian systems, or if we do, they’re behind bars or suffering some other kind of ill fate. But in a democracy, they symbolize something and there’s something majestic about it. And I think that the American people, while they don’t vote for an ex-president, ever since Jimmy Carter kind of turned the idea of being a former into a lifelong appointment, the American people actually have expectations of their ex-presidents. And when those ex-presidents deliver against those expectations, I think the public cuts them some slack. And when they underperform against those expectations, I think the exit package just becomes additional fodder for critique. It’s a function of how our system is. People capitalize on stations that they’ve had in the past, not something that the early presidents had the benefit of, but I think it’s almost certainly gonna continue.

ZK: You know, you mentioned, I guess as we wrap up, Arthur Brooks, who’s also a member of The Progress Network, and I wonder if that points to some lessons you found yourself learning in writing this and researching it about the passage of time about what to do. David Brooks, no relation wrote this book, The Second Mountain. What do you do in the next chapter or what is traditionally seen as the final chapter or the last chapter of one’s life in a meaningful way? And I wonder if that was something—I mean, you’re kind of in the midst of everything, but if that was a unexpected lesson of how does one age gracefully, how does one embrace different cycles of a life and a career? I mean, that certainly occurs to me, but I’m wondering if any of that became more palpable for you as you were writing the book.

JC: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. As I think about the seven presidents I wrote about in the book, when I started the project, I thought I was writing about the last chapter of life and what you do for your final act. By the time I finished the book, I realized that I was writing about transitions, and transitions that can happen many, many times throughout life. And by the way, at different stages of life, the experience of a president may relate to somebody more at a different stage of life. And I found myself kind of reflecting too on out of each of their examples, which one do I find the most powerful?

I think the one that for me really stood out the most was John Quincy Adams because John Quincy Adams, that chapter focuses on kind of what it looks like to have a really great second act. And we typically think of second acts as a mid-career thing, not a last chapter of career thing, but John Quincy Adams’s presidency, kind of an intermission between I think two of the greatest acts in American history. The first one was the one that was shaped for him by his famous parents that set him on a course to become president. And it was clear what he was chasing and everything was geared towards that. His second act looked very different, which is he’d already been president, he’d already been Secretary of State, he’d already served in the Senate, and as an ex-president, he goes on and gets elected to the House of Representatives, and he enters the House of Representatives with no mission, no cause he’s espousing, he just doesn’t know how to do anything else than serve. And he kind of meanders there for a few years, and all of a sudden, in a much lower station, he finds a much higher calling, which is the cause of abolition.

And he stumbles into it because he keeps getting these petitions, and the petitions are for abolition of the slave trade in Washington, emancipation of slaves. And he’s just reading these petitions ’cause that’s just what you did in Congress then. But when he sees the reaction from the slavocracy in Congress, he takes it as an affront to the right to petition. And abolition at the time in the early 1830s was seen as a real fringy issue. But the right to petition was something very principled for him. And so the more they tried to stand in the way of the right to petition, the louder he got about it. The louder he got about it, the more people kept sending the petitions in. And what I find so remarkable about his story is he just wakes up one day and realizes two things. One, he’s an abolitionist, two, he’s completely mainstreamed the mission and he’s completely mainstreamed the movement probably a decade before he was ready to.

And this is significant because John Quincy Adams, a man who was first appointed to serve in George Washington’s administration, goes on to be elected nine times in the house. And he dies in his ninth term on the house floor where he’s serving alongside a young freshman congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln. So this living connection between the founding generation and Lincoln’s generation was not just about connecting two seemingly disparate chapters of history, but his very existence at the center of it, I believe, accelerated the cause of abolition. And it inspired a young Abraham Lincoln and Lincoln later reflected on how a lot of his thinking around the need for a constitutional amendment to achieve emancipation, a lot of that came from what he learned watching John Quincy Adams.

ZK: Well, thank you for the book, Jared. Again, it’s, it’s probably gonna be a little while before we reflect again on a post-presidency other than Obama and George W’s and Clinton’s as well. But I mean, Bill Clinton’s probably—I don’t know how much more of a chapter there is to write if one were gonna write a chapter about that. But I think this idea of what do you do about transitions, as you talked about, is quite potent. It’s something quite relevant to everybody, whether they’ve been president or not. And frankly, of course, the vast majority of us have never been president and never will be. But this question of how do you transition from one identity to another, how you do so with grace and with equanimity and also with service is something I think is quite relevant and a reminder of also what our political process should be other than what our political process often is. So go buy the book. It is well worth reading for those of you who wanna read it, given this conversation, Life After Power, and it has just been published. So thanks, Jared.

JC: Thanks, Zachary.

EV: We’ll be right back after this break.

Welcome back to What Could Go Right?

ZK: So at the risk of repeating this endlessly, I do find this question that Jared talked about at the end of transitions, about what you do when you are no longer in a role that was an all-encompassing identity, a fascinating and relevant one, obviously far more relevant than just what our presidents do because if that were the only lesson of this book in this study, it’d be a lesson that a handful of people could ever meaningfully digest and apply to their own lives. But the lesson about what do you do when you have identified yourself, when you have become self-identified and identified in the eyes of others with a role in society, and that role is no longer your role? Who are you? What is one’s identity?

Now, there is a lesson here that we didn’t get into in the conversation with Jared, which is don’t become overidentified with your role. Don’t define yourself by what you do. Define yourself by who you are. That is so much easier said in a world where, particularly in the United States, we have this idea that one’s professional life, one’s work should be coincidental with one’s identity, that one’s work is one’s self and one’s self is one’s work, and that those fluidly merge together. That’s probably not the best formula, but it’s a very American one. But if that has been one’s life, if you have defined yourself by your work—I am X, I am a president of this company, I am a vice president of that company, I’m an employee of that startup, I am a teacher, I’m a social worker, I’m a policeman, I’m a chef—if who you are is what you do, and then for whatever life purpose—retirement, accidents, economic ups and downs—you are no longer the person who does X, it certainly behooves all of us to have an identity that transcends that X and is greater than that. Otherwise, you’re left feeling like you have no identity. And I’m sure it’s incredibly difficult if one has been in a position of high office and centrality to have that go away or to have that no longer be the case. But as a life lesson of try to figure out who you are and not define who you are by what you do, that’s probably a good thing for all of us.

So on that note, let us turn to some of the news of the week that you may have missed that we think is worth highlighting. Well, nice of you to join us, Emma.

EV: Oh, you know, I thought I’d get outta my sick bed and come here for the news section.

ZK: You missed a good conversation that I had with Jared, but you were there in spirit, if not in voice.

EV: Oh, thank you. I’ll catch up. I’ll definitely listen to it. So if I have anything to say at the end, I’ll just dub it in. [laughs] So are you ready for the news section?

ZK: I am so ready for the news section.

EV: Okay, let’s start with HPV.

ZK: Of course. I mean, why wouldn’t we?

EV: I mean, why not start with HPV? So people might remember, we had the first HPV vaccine back in 2006, and since then, we’ve been waiting for the girls—

ZK: And for those of you who don’t know—sorry, I’m interrupting Emma.

EV: Go ahead.

ZK: Just for the jargon alert. HPV is human papillomavirus.

EV: That’s right. And untreated, it can cause cervical cancer. Other than the genital warts that it can also cause, which are not pleasant, I’m sure, but-

ZK: So attractive.

EV: -not life-threatening. The more important thing is that it can cause cervical cancer. So back in 2006, we developed the first HPV vaccine, and since then we’ve been waiting to see how effective it is in the girls that took it before they were sexually active because if you take it before you’re sexually active, you’re gonna have better protection. So now there are all these studies coming out for girls that have aged into becoming women. And the great news is that it’s working very well. So studies out of the US and also Sweden that had cervical cancer rates being cut by 50%, by 65%, and there’s even a new one out from Scotland for girls who took the vaccine even earlier, so when they were 12 to 13 years old versus 15 or 16 years old in the ones that were from Sweden and the US, and their rates had dropped to basically zero.

Audio Clip: A new study out of Scotland found no cases of cervical cancer in women who are fully vaccinated. The CDC estimates that 13 million Americans are infected with HPV every year.

EV: So there might be a possibility that if we continue on with this world of giving girls HPV vaccine when they’re around 12, 13 years old before they’re sexually active, we might actually end cervical cancer.

ZK: Well, that’s good news, especially if you can get people to actually take it, which I guess is a whole other question of education and culture.

EV: I was 16 when it came out and I remember there was a lot of, ooh, do you wanna take this? It’s this, it’s that, back then. So hopefully with these study results, we’ll pass through that. Keeping on the global health topic, what new disease? [laughs] Zachary, can you tell me what the first disease eradicated in human history was?

ZK: Ooh, I feel like this is one of these, like, there should be Jeopardy music behind me going [sings Jeopardy theme] and I have to phrase my answer in the form of a question. The first disease eradicated in human history. What is smallpox?

EV: Yes, very good. Excellent. You win, I don’t know, 5 bucks. I got 5 euro back here. We might be on the cusp of eliminating the second. Do you wanna take a stab at this one? This one’s kind of hard.

ZK: Tuberculosis.

EV: No. Well, no, not close. It is Guinea worm disease.

ZK: Yeah, that wasn’t in my top three.

EV: Yeah. That’s the nasty one where the worm emerges out of your body after the larva have hatched inside of you. So really nasty. We had around 3.5 million cases back in the ’80s. And this is something, maybe you talked about this with Jared, that Jimmy Carter developed his life to after he was president. We are down to 13 cases in 2023. There were also 13 cases in 2022. So that’s human transmission. The ones for animals are a little higher, but we’re focusing on human transmission. So very difficult to eradicate a disease, get it down to absolute zero. But we are super close.

Audio Clip: In 2006, more than 20,000 people in South Sudan suffered from Guinea worm. That was about 90% of all the world’s cases, but last year, it just had two cases. It’s a fantastic turnaround. And much of the credit goes to this man, Makoy Samuel Yibi, the head of South Sudan’s Guinea Worm Eradication Program.

We are not going to stop until the last case is eliminated in South Sudan.

EV: And last bit, we’re gonna move to climate change. So carbon emissions from fossil fuels hit a blank year low in the European Union. So carbon emissions are akin to emissions as they were what decade? What would you guess?

ZK: Oh, back to the [sings Jeopardy theme]

EV: Yeah. I don’t know. I feel like quizzing you today.

ZK: Carbon emissions are back to 2012.

EV: 2012. No, the 1960s.

ZK: Wow.

EV: Yeah.

ZK: I was seriously off on that one.

EV: Yeah, I was pretty impressed. So carbon emissions from fossil fuels hit a 60-year low in the EU, hitting levels similar to the 1960s. And over half of that drop came from cleaner electricity in the block. And as always, that comes with a caveat that climate analysis say that emissions are not falling fast enough to meet climate targets.

ZK: Yeah, I mean, the work of Andy McAfee, who’s also a Progress Network member, has been pretty consistent about the rate at which developed world and developed economies emissions are falling is way more rapid than you would think from public discussion. I mean, I suppose it’s back to the news of things changing for the better takes a much longer time to penetrate public consciousness than news of things getting worse, which seems to enter public consciousness almost instantaneously. Bad news travels fast, good news travels slow. So this is also one of these cases where, yeah, it’s counterintuitive because you think the intuitive is it’s all getting worse very quickly because that’s what the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, all of it acts as if these things are aggressively getting worse and there’s an accumulation of them getting worse. Meaning we’ve got decades to unwind so year by year, things do in fact get worse, but the rate at which they’re getting worse, and in fact the rate at which they are getting better, as you just illuminated, is much more rapid than we think.

EV: Yeah. So I think that we’re not gonna get the bow on that until it’s like rates are falling fast enough to meet climate targets, but-

ZK: Right.

EV: -we don’t know if we’re gonna—

ZK: Which may never quite happen.

EV: Right. So, until then. So that’s what I have for today.

ZK: Well, that’s a good series of stuff. Thank you all for listening. Sorry for the solo part of the hour with me and Jared due to Emma’s unfortunate unscheduled absence. But we will continue our regularly scheduled routines next week. As always, please sign up for The Progress Network newsletter, What Could Go Right?, which you can do at It’s free, it’s easy, it’s weekly, it’s good, it’s uplifting. It points out some of the stories that we try to highlight on the podcast. And tell your friends, tell your family, tell your dogs, tell your cats. Tell whoever you think might be interested in a daily dose, or in this case, a weekly dose. We also do a daily dose of good news on Instagram. Follow us on Instagram. I’ve heard that a lot of people use that app. And let us know your thoughts through whatever social media and/or internet channel and/or carrier pigeon way that you wish to communicate with us. And we will do our best to respond. So thank you, Emma. Thank you all. We’ll be with you next week.

EV: Thank you, Zachary. Thanks, everyone.

What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit Thanks for listening.


Meet the Hosts

Zachary Karabell

Emma Varvaloucas


Introducing: What Could Go Right?

Featuring Zachary Karabell & Emma Varvaloucas

Negative news can be overwhelming, but it's important to question whether it accurately reflects our world. Join "What Could Go Right?" to hear positive stories from various experts and challenge the negative narrative. Let's strive for a more balanced view of what's happening today.

Whether you need a change of perspective or change of heart, check out "What Could Go Right?" from The Progress Network, with Zachary Karabell and Emma Varvaloucas.

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