POLITICS: White House

Michael Barone: Five living presidents -- with interactive timeline

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Click in the upper-right corner of the interactive to move through the timeline. Politics,Beltway Confidential,White House,Michael Barone

Yesterday we had a chance to see five living presidents on stage at the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center: Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Looking back in history, there are relatively few times when we have had five living presidents and only a few years when we have had six living presidents. But such occasions have been much more frequent in the last quarter century than ever before.

When has this happened before?

1825-1826. The living presidents were John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams. They never got together: the older Adams, Jefferson and Madison were living in their homes in Massachusetts and Virginia, and Adams and Jefferson famously died on the same day, July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years from the date celebrated as the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

1857-1862. Not a propitious time for presidents current and former: The Union fell into Civil War. The living presidents were the long-retired Martin Van Buren and John Tyler; Millard Fillmore, the American (“Know-Nothing”) party nominee in 1856; Franklin Pierce, who was unable to get himself renominated that year; and James Buchanan. They were joined by Abraham Lincoln on March 4, 1861, but John Tyler at least was certainly not in attendance: He became a member of the Confederate Congress and died in 1862, a few months before Van Buren.

1989-1993. Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were all alive and active to varying extents; all attended the dedication of the Reagan Library and were photographed together there – apparently the first gathering of five living presidents.

1993-1994. This was the second period, after 1861-62, with six living presidents, with the above five joined by the much younger Bill Clinton. I remember suggesting the convening of a six-president gathering to the social director at the Clinton White House. It never happened, but perhaps an effort was made; if so it seems unlikely that Reagan was in a condition to have attended (he announced his Alzheimer’s disease in a public letter in November 1994).

1994-2001. Richard Nixon’s death was followed by a long period with five living presidents, with Reagan remaining out of public view.

2001-2004. The third period with six living presidents: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The period ended with Reagan’s death in 2004; I believe the five survivors attended his funeral.

2004-2006. The number of living presidents was reduced to five after the death of Gerald Ford in 2006.

2009 to present. We’re in a period once again with five living presidents, whom we saw together in Texas yesterday, with Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush both nearing 90 and Bill Clinton and George W. Bush not that much farther away from 70.

By the way, there have been periods when there were no living former presidents, starting of course in 1789-1797, when there was no former president. The other such periods were 1799-1801, after the death of George Washington; 1875-1877, after the death of Andrew Johnson; 1908-1909, after the death of Grover Cleveland; January to March 1933, after the death of Calvin Coolidge; and 1973-1974, after the death of Lyndon Johnson. The latter two periods were times of political crisis, as the Great Depression raged in the last days of Herbert Hoover’s presidency and as Richard Nixon was enmeshed in the Watergate scandal. They had no former presidents to turn to for advice.


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