Life after politics

Barbara Kay, National Post · Wednesday, Jun. 30, 2010

My husband and I spend June near a certain adorable coastal town in Maine. It isn't exactly St. Barts-- but it does often yield a notable celebrity sighting: Not infrequently at lunchtime, having piloted his sleek outboard motorboat down from his fabulous compound in nearby Kennebunkport, former U.S. president George H.W. Bush may be found comfortably ensconced at a certain venerable lobster pound overlooking the town's harbour.

Last weekend, entertaining friends from Boston at same, we were seated adjacent to the Bushes' table. Espying us, one of their party, wife to a Bush nephew, jumped up to greet our guests, good friends of hers. A jolly round of introductions ensued. "We're from Canada," I told Barbara Bush. "Oh, we love Canada," she enthused.

The encounter set us to musing later about the afterlives of world leaders, and what they do with their time and energies once they're ushered off history's spotlit stage.

In Canada, the always-inscrutable Trudeau left the political arena without a backward glance, almost as though politics were a hobby he'd greatly enjoyed, but then tired of. But for others, politics is in the DNA, as witness Jean Chretien's naughty interference lately in attempts to direct the future of the Liberal party.

Ditto M. Parizeau, that increasingly irrelevant and comical Jacques-in-the-box, a sore loser who drives the Parti Quebecois leadership crazy with his usually counterproductive blowhard interventions (his latest two weeks ago, instructing the PQ on yet another "plan" for independence). Why can't he just tend his vineyards in France?

Or couldn't he follow Lucien Bouchard's example? Bouchard, ultimately disgusted with politicking, tamed a huge ego and became an intermittently public, non-partisan Wise Man of Quebec (if only anyone would listen).

Or emulate Paul Martin, his ambitions so long deferred and, once fulfilled, so quickly truncated. Without fanfare, working with a tiny staff and his own hands-on guidance, Mr. Martin has worked hard behind the scenes to develop the very promising Martin Aboriginal Initiative to encourage education and leadership amongst aboriginal youth.

Like Chretien, former Reform Party leader Preston Manning has been consumed by politics all his life, but rather than wheel and deal for personal profit using the social capital accrued in leadership, he channelled his knowledge, experience and passion in the most positive possible way: the Manning Centre, a greenhouse for nation-building ideas and responsible political leadership. Only weeks ago, Mr. Manning co-launched a program in political management at Carleton University.

U.S. presidents can at least be more certain of their political life spans, so in principle should be prepared for the falling curtain. Some were. Ronald Reagan rode off into the sunset with the same serene appetite for life's next chapter (sad as it turned out) as he had every other chapter of his life.

Even though he was a one-term president, Bush 43 went gracefully: He didn't rain on Bill Clinton's parade. In fact he formed a nice friendship with him, joining with him in uncontroversial and helpful ways to further aid efforts after Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

"Dubya" has been similarly self-effacing in post-presidency. He seems happy to be back in Texas, and hasn't issued a peep of criticism of Barack Obama.

Bill Clinton has no ranch or coastal compound to divert him, but is incapable of being diverted from politics anyway. He sees himself as merely on sabbatical from White House occupancy. Meanwhile, he never shuts up on the talk circuit and making himself visible, applying his diplomatic skills wherever they're needed, and sometimes (as during Hillary's campaign) where they aren't.

Jimmy Carter was a very sore loser, with a pitbull tenacity for inserting himself back into history. Habitat for Humanity is all very well, but he is far better known as an extreme anti-Zionist and a useful idiot for anti-Western forces. He continually undermines his successors in sly and dishonourable ways.

Stephen Harper will, I am sure, make a great ex-leader (though that'll be a long way off, I hope). I predict his essential wonkishness will resurface and he will take the high Manning-Martin road of innovative public service. Obama, who will be a very young -- 51 by my reckoning -- former president, still ambitious with a very big ego to rein in and no interest in riding horses, driving motorboats or clearing brush: well, I'm not so sure. Whoever the next U.S. president is, I'd advise her to watch her back.