Why Are Former Presidents Supposed to Shut Up About Their Successors?

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Since leaving office, Barack Obama has made a few veiled criticisms of Donald Trump. Conservatives are pretty unhappy about this. It’s tradition for ex-presidents to maintain a dignified silence about their successors, after all.

This is mostly true, but when did it become a tradition? It certainly hasn’t been one forever. Herbert Hoover was a constant presence on the radio blasting FDR during the Depression, and Harry Truman remained a gadfly after he left office.

Eisenhower changed things up. After beating Hitler and serving two terms as president, he decided to adopt the elder statesman role. Then Kennedy died before leaving office, LBJ slunk back to Texas a broken man, and Nixon resigned in disgrace. By hook or by crook, the “tradition” of ex-presidential silence was two decades old by the time Reagan became president. It’s mostly held ever since.

Is there a good reason for this? The pretense seems kind of precious to me. Why treat sitting presidents like china dolls who can’t take some heat from their predecessors? Ex-presidents are among the greatest politicians alive, and usually the effective leaders of their party, at least for a while. They typically command a throng of admirers. The most natural thing in the world would be for them to maintain a robust political presence if they want to. Why shouldn’t they?

Ditto for losing presidential candidates. This is usually less of an issue, since most people don’t really want to listen to losers. But not always. Hillary Clinton should never run for office again—and she’s said she won’t—but why shouldn’t she stay loudly involved in politics if she can help lead the loyal opposition until Democrats coalesce around a new party leader?

Does anyone know the answer about this tradition? Is it really just an Eisenhower thing that somehow congealed into conventional wisdom? Do other countries have anything similar?

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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