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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?

US President George W. Bush, and former US Presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush, are announced at the grand opening ceremony of the Clinton Presidential Center

Former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush are retired but still working. — Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

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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