WASHINGTON (AP) In the first 200 years of the United States, just three presidents survived more than two decades after leaving office. The odds have improved considerably since then.
Jimmy Carter is 88 now, and 32 years out of office. No one has survived longer after leaving the White House. George H.W. Bush, 89, passed the two-decade mark this year. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are going strong.
With the increasing longevity comes expanding opportunities for influence.
George W. Bush in recent weeks made headlines by speaking out for immigration reform and appearing in Africa at a wreath-laying with President Barack Obama to remember victims of terrorism. Clinton, with his philanthropic work and a wife who's a potential presidential candidate in 2016, is never far from the news.
The elder Bush, although frail, was at the White House last week for a ceremony promoting the volunteerism program he started as president. And Carter, noted for his years of work to advance human rights, spoke out last week against "legal bribery of candidates" in the U.S. in the form of unchecked political contributions by outside groups.
"There's a whole class of people who leave the White House and continue to take a hyperactive role in American life," said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley of Rice University. He pointed to former presidents including John Quincy Adams, who was an outspoken opponent of slavery as a member of the House, and Theodore Roosevelt, who created the Bull Moose Party and tried to regain the presidency.
Recent chief executives have tended to start their post-presidential years relatively quietly, taking time to regroup and give the new guy space to operate. They focus on raising money for their presidential libraries/centers. They write memoirs. Their poll numbers improve as time passes and memories of hard-fought presidential battles soften.
Bush, whose presidential center in Texas was dedicated in April and whose 2010 memoir, "Decision Points," was a best-seller, has seen his poll numbers rebound. He says he wants to make a difference in the world but steer clear of politics and avoid meddling in Obama's business.
Bush's presence in Africa during Obama's visit to the continent offered a reminder of his efforts to fight HIV and AIDS there. But his comments on immigration reform seemed to have zero impact on fellow Republicans in the House of Representatives, whose wariness of anything that appears to be amnesty for people in the U.S. illegally is a challenge to the progress of sweeping, Obama-supported legislation on the issue.
Brinkley says Carter, who left office with disastrous job approval ratings, "game-changed" the ex-president's role with his vigorous public policy activity and freelance diplomacy.
The joke is that Carter, who left office in 1981, used the presidency as a stepping stone to his ex-presidency. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
Clinton, with his foundation work, seems intent on following Carter's model. After Clinton and the elder Bush worked closely on humanitarian aid for victims of Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in Indonesia, Clinton joked, "People began to joke that I was getting so close to the Bush family, I had become the black sheep son."
Obama will exit the White House at age 55, some 15 years younger than when Ronald Reagan took office. He'll soon need to consider how his next act will play out over what most likely will be decades.
"Who wants to think their better days are behind them when you're in your mid-50s?" asks Brinkley. "You try to say, 'How can I make a bigger impact?' You're seeing Clinton do that, and you'll see George W. Bush do it, but in his own Texas-style way."
Associated Press writer Nancy Benac and AP researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.
Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/nbenac
This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings