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The Presidents Retirement Club

The world's (formerly) most powerful men tackle an age-old question: Where do I go from here?

Bill Clinton didn't want it to end. So enamored was he of being president of the United States that, late in his second term, he studied the constitutional amendment that bars a president from serving more than two terms, to see if he could find any loopholes. "I love this job," he said at the time. "I think I'm getting better at it. I'd run again in a heartbeat if I could."

Slideshow: The Post-Presidential Life

Some jobs are harder to leave than others, but few transitions are as dramatic as leaving the presidency. It's a role that can get your face etched on coffee mugs, middle schools and, occasionally, mountainsides. Dwight Eisenhower compared leaving office to death. (Worse than death, argued Richard Nixon.) Jimmy Carter called the prospect of a long retirement "deeply discouraging."

So how do they manage what comes after? How do the men who have sailed on that vast ocean of presidential privilege adjust to the (comparative) shallows of post-presidential life? And what can the rest of us learn from their experience?

One thing presidents discover — much to their surprise sometimes — is that they have one another. Even before being inaugurated, each new president is quietly welcomed by his peers into the Presidents Club, the most exclusive fraternity in the world. Despite vast differences in age and ideology, each president has more in common with fellow holders of the title than he does with almost anyone else. "You understand the weight of the decisions the other guy had to make, and you respect that," George H.W. Bush told us. "We don't talk about it. You don't have to."

That unspoken connection can make for strange bedfellows: Eisenhower acting as freelance adviser for Lyndon Johnson; former rivals Carter and Gerald Ford working on more than two dozen projects together; Clinton calling Nixon late at night to ask him not just about Russia and China but about how to organize his day, when to exercise and when to sleep.

Next: What really happens when the Old Boys meet. »

At first we thought the Presidents Club was more a concept than a real community. As we did research and interviewed former presidents, though, we discovered that they regard the club as real and that it has membership privileges, nicknames, unwritten rules and taboos, souvenirs and even a clubhouse — an unmarked town house on Washington's Lafayette Square set aside for the sole use of its members.

This tradition of camaraderie has roots as far back as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, but it was revived for the modern age by Herbert Hoover, of all people, who suggested the club to Harry Truman at Eisenhower's 1953 inauguration. Today the invitation to join comes even before the new commander in chief takes office. President George W. Bush gathered all the living ex-presidents for lunch at the White House in January 2009 so they could, as Carter told us, "educate President-elect Obama in a nice way without preaching to him."

But club members don't concern themselves only with affairs of state. When ex-presidents get together (which they do more often than you might guess) — at library dedications and White House ceremonies, or at golf games and lunches away from the cameras — they share their reinvention strategies and discuss how to find a new mission, a new metabolism and how to use the influence that remains once they relinquish their power.

The current club includes two 88-year-olds (Bush the elder and Carter) and two who are 66 (Clinton and George W. Bush) — all of whom wrestled for months, sometimes years, with how to change gears after leaving office. Their opportunities and obstacles may be unique, but their strategy can be copied: They sought advice from people they respect, people who understand them. Even the most powerful men in the world don't go it alone.

Next: Why former presidents gravitate to adrenaline-rush exercises. »

Staying healthy is part of the presidential job description. A few weeks after Bill Clinton's 1992 victory, Ronald Reagan advised his successor to go to Camp David whenever he could; Reagan said the air, the rest and the space would do him good. And while in office, George W. Bush jogged regularly and, after a knee injury, went mountain biking with Lance Armstrong, who called him "one competitive dude."

Staying healthy, however, is no less important for nonpresidents — or ex-presidents. After the nonstop pressures of the country's highest office, former White House occupants seem to gravitate toward exercise that provides an adrenaline rush. Carter climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and, at 62, took up skiing. George H.W. Bush famously jumped out of an airplane when he was 85. Clinton would visit the Bush clan in Kennebunkport and was barely able to hold on to his lunch as Bush the elder bounced him over the Maine waves in his speedboat. "He drove like a bat out of hell," Clinton recalls. "He's got these three giant engines that were so quiet … until he revs 'em up right, and then we were practically levitating across the water at the speed of sound. I thought the g-forces were gonna kill me."

Joking aside, Clinton did face a life-threatening health crisis after he left office: He underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 2004. Since then, he has given up meat, eggs and dairy and lost more than 20 pounds.

Among those who monitored Clinton's health most closely during the crisis was George H.W. Bush, who by then had become "the father he never had," as Barbara Bush put it. After the senior Bush heard that Clinton had had follow-up surgery in 2005 to remove some fluid and scar tissue from his left lung, he called Clinton within hours, probing his friend about his condition, asking him what his doctors were thinking, pinning him down about whether he was strong enough to exercise. The bond between the two men grew so strong that the younger Bush made it a punch line, telling one dinner gathering that Clinton had emerged from surgery "surrounded by his loved ones: Hillary, Chelsea, my dad." In fact, the extended Bush clan has bestowed on Clinton a nickname: They call him their "Brother From Another Mother."

Next: Why some former presidents take a more private path. »

The point is not to retire from work," Hoover warned, "or you will shrivel up into a nuisance to all mankind." More than most of us, ex-presidents can afford to spend all their time relaxing. But they don't. Even as they downshift, they look for ways to use their talent and influence. Truman counted on Hoover — his personal and political opposite — to organize a massive famine-relief program in Europe in the immediate aftermath of World War II, before the launch of the Marshall Plan. The ability to serve such a cause, Hoover told friends, added 10 years to his life.

Perhaps no former president has shown the redemptive and rehabilitative power of a well-played second act as much as Jimmy Carter. "There are two periods in our lives when we have exceptional freedom: at college age and when we begin our retirement years," Carter said. "Retirement years are a time to define, or redefine, a successful life." For him this meant writing books. The first, Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life (written with wife, Rosalynn), was very difficult, because part of the research involved rereading 6,000 pages of diary notes he dictated during his presidency — the good days and the bad. But he stuck with it and has now produced a total of 25 titles, including poetry, prayer and children's books. He rediscovered woodworking, took up oil painting and learned Spanish. And as Carter reinvented himself, he reinvented the post-presidency, becoming so effective a global activist promoting democracy and fighting disease that he won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2002.

Others have taken a more private path. George W. Bush spends time painting portraits of dogs, and he works with veterans on physical rehabilitation through mountain biking. "I have no desire for fame and power anymore," he says.

When you're part of a couple, retirement is a two-person job, and recent Oval Office occupants seem to recognize that. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter have been married 66 years. Their secret? "We give each other space," Rosalynn once told a reporter. "That's really important. It was most important after we came home from the White House, because we'd never been at home all day together every day." Nixon urged Carter to be sure and get his wife an office when he left Washington; Rosalynn, Nixon wisely noted, had her own transition to make. When Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson arrived home at their ranch to find their luggage piled in a mound in the carport and no aides racing to carry the bags in, Lady Bird started to laugh. "The coach has turned back into a pumpkin," she said. "And the mice have all run away."

Next: Life after the White House for former first ladies. »

Sometimes, supporting a spouse in retirement means making concessions. The plot twists of the Clinton marriage became a staple of late-night humor while Bill was in office, but now, heading into its 38th year, his and Hillary's union seems a true partnership. Bill Clinton stepped back from public life so his wife could step forward, first as a senator and then as secretary of state. Another president faced a more painful personal challenge: About a year after the Fords left the White House, Betty's family staged an intervention to confront her about her longtime addiction to pain pills and evening cocktails. Much of the Fords' post - White House life centered on Betty's mission: to improve the treatment options for people wrestling with addiction.

Presidential wives also know what isn't going to change. "I will never alter George Bush," Barbara once declared. "He will always [channel] surf on the TV set, and he will always walk into the house and say, 'Hi, Bar. How are you?' And go right to the phone and pick it up." After poking fun at her husband's love of having houseguests and flying at night — so as not to miss a day's work — Barbara said that "with the exception of the TV surfing, I wouldn't change one thing."

Presidents enter retirement with distinct advantages: abiding influence, financial security, the finest medical resources available. They also enjoy no end of opportunity to make new acquaintances, learn new skills and earn acclaim. But it's more complicated than that. Presidents also leave their political lives with plenty of scars, plenty of regrets and plenty of enemies — which means they still have work to do. "We always have sorrows," Carter told us.

So maybe the most important lesson on retirement that the presidential model teaches us is one that both instinct and science support. At some stages of our lives we need our friends more than at others: during childhood, when play lets us practice our parts; at adolescence, when we become ourselves; and then again when the press of work and family has eased. Yes, exercise and eating right are keys to long life, but so, researchers say, are good friends. They help us deal with stress; they encourage healthy behavior; they draw us into new activities, which promote brain health. All that is well established, but the inspiring example the former presidents set is that shared experience can create deep bonds among otherwise very different people. "There is no conversation so sweet as that of former political enemies," Truman said. Or as Clinton put it to us, describing the unusual friendships and shared missions of these eternally striving men: "When your ambition is slaked, it becomes more important to see something good happen for your country than to just keep winning arguments. At some point you're just glad when the sun comes up in the morning, you get up and you want something good to happen."

Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy are editors at Time magazine and authors of The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity.

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