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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