Home > opinion > The silence of ex-presidents

In the final years of Manmohan Singh’s prime ministership, his critics made much fun of his reluctance to speak out on the issues that bedeviled his government—or indeed, on any issue at all. Having the misfortune of being the first prime minister of the social-media age, he was mocked on Twitter with such unflattering monikers as “Maun-mohan Singh", a play on the Hindi word for “silence".

But if silence tarnished Singh’s tenure in office, it has redeemed him in retirement. With rare exceptions, the former prime minister has maintained a studied “maun" on his successor’s performance, keeping a dignified distance from the political hurly-burly, even when members of the current dispensation have slung mud at him.

There’s a lesson there for Barack Obama: If quietude can be a failure in a leader under the political spotlight, reticence is a virtue in one who has exited from the stage.

The American president has never been short on words during his two terms in office; now he suggests that even after his departure, he will dispense with long-standing convention and criticize Donald Trump.

If an issue “goes to core questions about our values and our ideals, and if I think that it’s necessary or helpful for me to defend those ideals, then I’ll examine it when it comes," Obama said at a press conference in Lima, Peru, at the end of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Obama suggested he was reserving his right to reprove the Trump presidency as an “American citizen who cares deeply about our country".

But Obama surely knows he will never be an ordinary American citizen. Unless he issues his opinions in the form of anonymous letters to the editor of The Washington Post, any criticism by a former president, and especially from the most recent occupant of the White House, will carry political weight. The temptation to exert may be great, but the wise course is to refrain.

If the example of Singh is too obscure, Obama has several excellent ones much closer to home, starting with that of his own predecessor.

In retirement, George W. Bush has kept his own version of “maun" on political and administrative issues, even though the Obama administration has blamed him for a great deal. As a result, even Democrats who detest everything Bush said and did as president now give him credit for being an exemplary ex.

Bush set the tone immediately after Obama took office. In a speech in the spring of 2009, he pointed out that, “There’s plenty of critics in the arena. I think it’s time for the ex-president to tap dance off the stage and let the current President have a go at solving the world’s problems." Obama, Bush said with a rare flash of eloquence, “deserves my silence".

Four years later, Bush was still holding fast to his resolve. His fellow Republicans had kept up a highly personal campaign of vilification against Obama, which included questioning his birth certificate (that particular campaign was led by a certain Donald J. Trump), his faith and his patriotism.

Bush was having none of it. “It’s a hard job," he told CNN. “He’s got plenty on his agenda. A former president doesn’t need to make it any harder. Other presidents have taken different decisions; that’s mine." (For some reason, superannuated vice-presidents seem to be governed by other rules: Dick Cheney felt no compunctions about attacking Obama, and it is hard to imagine Joe Biden exercising much restraint in his retirement.)

Bush was following in the footsteps of his father, who did more than just keep mum after retirement, he actually developed a warm friendship with the man who denied him a second term in office, Bill Clinton.

The relationship deepened after Clinton himself left office, when the two travelled together in pursuit of humanitarian causes: they grew so close, Clinton joked that he was “the black sheep son" of the Bush family.

Other modern American presidents who have forged friendships—or at least relationships of mutual respect— include Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover, and John F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower.

One of the exceptions to the rule was, ironically, the man who has earned more kudos for his post-presidential work than for his time in the White House. Jimmy Carter has kept up a steady stream of criticism against every president who has followed him.

The criticism has never been personal, and Carter has targeted fellow Democrats as much as Republicans: Clinton and Bush Jr. have borne the brunt of his anger. A devout Christian, he was especially harsh on Clinton’s moral failings during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Carter has also inveighed against Obama’s policy on Syria. If anything, Carter’s overuse of his pulpit as a past president has undermined the impact of his criticisms, allowing Obama to brush it off without much thought.

It’s hard to see Trump being so blasé. The president-elect has exceptionally thin skin: even when he should have been enjoying his victory over Hillary Clinton, he made time to tweet his dissatisfaction with the coverage he was receiving from The New York Times.

But sparing Trump’s feelings is not the reason Obama should keep his opinion to himself. The dignity of the office demands that the courtesy be extended even to the most undignified person imaginable.

Bobby Ghosh is the editor-in-chief of HT Digital Streams.

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