The League of Extraordinary Ex-Presidents

Jimmy Carter says he's "superior" to other U.S. ex-presidents. But on the world stage, he's got some tough competition.

Chris Jackson/Getty Images; Toni Passig/Getty Images; ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images; ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images; Mario Tama/Getty Images
Chris Jackson/Getty Images; Toni Passig/Getty Images; ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images; ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images; Mario Tama/Getty Images


Old job: President of South Africa, 1994-1999

New image: After decades leading South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle and a historic presidency, “Madiba” was already a global icon. But in the years since his retirement, Mandela has established himself as the African continent’s foremost elder statesman as well. He has founded the Nelson Mandela Foundation to promote conflict resolution, the Nelson Mandela Institute to promote education and rural development in South Africa, and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund to promote the rights of young people. In 2007, Mandela brought together a group of gracefully aging world leaders including Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to form The Elders, a group that speaks out on human rights issues from Burma to Sudan.

Although Mandela has achieved near sainthood in his home country, it would be wrong to say there are no blemishes on his record. But Mandela has used his post-presidency to address some of these shortcomings. In 2005, Mandela spoke publicly and candidly about his son’s death from AIDS, helping to combat the stigma around the disease that was largely unaddressed during his presidency. In 2008, Mandela broke years of silence to condemn his one-time ally Robert Mugabe for creating an atmosphere of chaos and violence in Zimbabwe.


Old job: General secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, 1985-1991/President of the Soviet Union, 1990-1991

New image: The man who presided over the downfall of the Soviet Union has had a surprisingly impressive second act since leaving the Kremlin. Through his think tank, the Gorbachev Foundation, he has spoken out on issues ranging from nuclear disarmament to water quality in the developing world. His Raisa Gorbachev Foundation, founded in tribute to his late wife, has raised millions for childhood cancer. And, in 1993, he founded Green Cross International, an organization aimed at responding to environmental catastrophes, which now has chapters in 31 countries and has assisted in disaster relief from Hurricane Katrina to coping with the legacy of Chernobyl.

Gorbachev remains unpopular in his home country: He received just half of 1 percent of the vote when he ran for the presidency in 1996, but he hasn’t given up entirely on a return to politics. The former Communist Party head is a persistent critic of the centralization of power in Russia, first under Boris Yeltsin, then under Vladimir Putin. In 2008, he announced the formation of a new, independent political party in collaboration with tycoon Alexander Lebedev. The two are co-owners of Novaya Gazeta, one of the few consistently independent news sources in Putin’s Russia.

Gorbachev has pursued some more eclectic interests as well. He released an album of romantic ballads last year and has appeared in films by Wim Wenders and advertisements for Louis Vuitton and Pizza Hut.


Old job: President of the Czech Republic, 1993-2003

New image: A surrealist intellectual with a strong anti-authoritarian streak, Havel may be more suited to activism and advocacy than political power. Since stepping down as president, Havel has continued to advocate for democracy through the Human Rights Foundation, which he chairs, as well as his frequent op-eds and continued speaking engagements. Along with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, Havel hosts the annual Forum 2000 meeting in Prague, bringing together global political leaders and academics to discuss pressing world problems.

Havel has been active in supporting the Burmese democracy movement, including nominating opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi for the Nobel Peace Prize. (He himself is a perennial Nobel also-ran.) He has also held other world leaders to account on human rights issues, criticizing U.S. President Barack Obama for failing to meet with the Dalai Lama. Last year, Havel joined with other pro-American Eastern European leaders to call on Obama not to ignore Eastern Europe during the “reset” with Russia.

A noted poet and playwright, Havel returned to writing this year with Leaving, his first play in 20 years, which was performed in Europe and the United States. Appropriately enough, it’s about a former president who’s having trouble letting go of the trappings of his office.


Old job: President of Brazil, 1995-2003

New image: Since leaving politics, the sociologist-turned-president has returned to academic life, lecturing at Brown University and conducting research on Latin American politics as a visiting scholar at the U.S. Library of Congress. From 2003 to 2006, Cardoso served as chair of the Club of Madrid, the world’s largest organization of former heads of state (which includes several of the other figures on this list), aimed at promoting democracy and the rule of law. Cardoso has chaired several U.N. commissions on civil society development and, in 2004, founded the Instituto Fernando Henrique Cardoso to promote development and democracy in Brazil.

While he has often criticized his successor and longtime political rival Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the two remain friends, and Cardoso has defended Brazil’s current president against charges of populism from international critics.

Last year, Cardoso joined with former presidents of Mexico and Colombia to establish the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, which released a report calling the war on drugs a failure and pressing for “more humane and efficient drug policies,” even decriminalization. The report has redefined the debate on drugs in Latin America and made it politically acceptable for other former heads of s
tate — such as Mexican president Vicente Fox — to join in the call for a new approach to drug policy.


Old job: President of Ireland, 1990-1997

New image: Robinson stepped down as Ireland’s president four months early in 1997 to take up a new post as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. In 1998, Robinson was the first Human Rights Commissioner to visit China, including Tibet, where she highlighted the work of dissidents. She was also a strong advocate for the creation of an International Criminal Court, and a critic of the Bush administration’s tactics in the war on terror which she believes led to her being pushed out of the job in 2002.  

Since leaving the United Nations, Robinson has founded the group Realizing Rights, which promotes human rights-based approaches to international development, chaired Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations, and served as honorary chair of Oxfam International.

Robinson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Obama in 2009. Despite her charitable work, the award provoked a firestorm of controversy because of Robinson’s past criticism of Israel and association with the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, the initial documents of which equated Zionism with racism, prompting a U.S. boycott. However, a number of Israeli human rights campaigners supported the award. It’s a fair bet that it’s not the last time Robinson’s work attracts controversy.

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