Currently a US president gets a pension of $200,000 per year as well as funding for office space and custodial staff. Zaid Jilani writes about the origin of presidential pensions. He said that there had always been some concern about needing to enable former presidents to live in dignity and engage in acts that benefit the country without having to sell themselves to earn money.
The first attempts were private ones.
The first proposal for a presidential pension system came from steel industry magnate Andrew Carnegie, who was the world’s richest man when he retired in 1901. In 1912, Carnegie offered to privately fund a $25,000 annual pension for future ex-presidents, arguing that our chief executives should be able to “spend their latter days free from pecuniary cares in devoting the intimate knowledge they have gained of public affairs to the good of the country.”
Then-President Teddy Roosevelt, the trust-buster, criticized the proposal — not because it wasn’t enough money, but because it was too much. “My interest isn’t in pensions for ex-presidents but in pensions for the small man who doesn’t have a chance to save, and who, when he becomes superannuated, faces the direst poverty,” he said.
Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, refused Carnegie’s offer, and the idea of a presidential pension whatsoever went nowhere for decades.
Harry Truman had a small pension from his prior military service but that was it, yet he refused job offers that offered big financial rewards, saying “I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency.”
It was in 1958 that Congress acted to provide the presidential pension system that we have today but it was with Gerald Ford that the practice of ex-presidents cashing in on the prestige of the office to make big bucks by serving on various boards and giving speeches became the norm. Hence you have the spectacle for former presidents like Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, and Bill Clinton selling themselves for huge sums of money.
One recent ex-president who didn’t cash out, of course, is Jimmy Carter. Perhaps not coincidentally, in a Quinnipiac University poll released in November, a plurality of Americans said Carter has had the best post-presidency.
Carter “seldom accepts speaking fees and when he does he typically donates the proceeds to his charitable foundation,” noted the Associated Press; Carter has instead built a comfortable life by writing dozens of books.
Bill and Hillary Clinton have earned an estimated $139 million from speeches, with an estimated $35 million from the financial sector.
One of those paid speeches last summer was before America’s Health Insurance Plans, the primary lobbying group that plowed money into trying to defang and defeat the Affordable Care Act.
You would think that earnings of $139 million would be more than enough to retire on. But Bill Clinton still continues to give these speeches even while his wife is running for president, giving the usual hard-luck story favored by the Clintons that “I gotta pay our bills.”
$200,000 per year should be ample for anyone to live a very comfortable life, especially if you can choose where to live as the pension would. But nowadays it looks like ex-presidents want to live like royalty or celebrities or corporate CEOs and so they feel the need to earn millions upon leaving office.