A former presidents club: A modest proposal

There is one certain way to assure that our presidents act strictly in the public interest, and earn their honored place in American history: Limit presidential terms to one year.

Presidents could not be reelected, so incumbents would have no need to kowtow to special interests. The role of money in elections would be dramatically reduced, as the investment would become too transitory. Funding would be provided from public funds in equal (modest) amounts to candidates. Between transition-time and lame duck-hood, second-raters couldn’t do too much harm.

Then, once they join the ex-presidents club, the now-veteran presidents can be true statesmen (or -women), as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have demonstrated recently. Carter was inefficient in office for four years, but became a world voice for humanity for decades thereafter. Bill Clinton shamed himself in office (accomplishing much in his eight years, but staining his image and hampering his second term); but he has been a valuable international presence fostering worthy causes ever since.

There is precedent for my presidential proposal. When Harry Truman was president (looks better in retrospect, doesn’t he?), he appointed ex-President Herbert Hoover to be responsible for coordinating relief efforts in post-war Europe, a successful cap to Hoover’s unsuccessful presidency.

Campaigns would be issue-oriented. We could elect Nobel Prize-winning economists when, like now, economic issues are the prevailing public problem. Generals in wartime, and National Institutes of Health expert physicians at times when public health problems are most relevant. Retired Supreme Court justices when thorny legal issues are the contemporary problem. One-term presidents could be one issue, one-time and throwaway officials, who would then, like Kleenex, be tossed, but recycled into a more prestigious and productive role.

The one year-one term president also would open the office to many more candidates, beyond the tired old list of senators and governors. Among them might be people who have special talents for public good but no temperament for politics. Imagine Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, perhaps Arianna Huffington or the late Kay Graham, even popular citizens whom the public adores and trusts, such as Oprah, or Yogi Berra, or George Clooney as president for a year and ex-presidents forevermore.

A year wears out an ordinary president, so in a one-year term they could go all-out, knowing a more relaxed retirement is around the corner on their public calendar. No nepotism would be allowed under my proposed scheme. People would be more relaxed about voting for qualified members of heretofore-banished groups, Mormons or women, for example, when their terms, like others, would be limited. Folks might run the risk if the terms were just one year. We’d have no time or reason for expensive and useless foreign travel, state dinners, inauguration balls, nor material for long-winded, self-justifying presidential memoirs to read. Just the serious work at hand, at home, and then a career out of the White House, doing good things.

When I floated this proposal recently at a secret meeting of cable television executives, the reaction was hostile. “At a time when employment is down, this notion would put all our TV pundits out of work,” one media rep complained. But the more I think about it, the better I like the idea. Are you ready for a constitutional amendment? Want to buy a “One Year President” bumper sticker?


Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington attorney and author who served in the Department of Justice in the Kennedy administration.

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