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What Harry Truman Could Teach George W. Bush About Being an “Ex”

Since settling into his Dallas home last month, George W. Bush has made only a handful of forays out into the real world. He’s popped into a hardware store that (in jest, presumably) offered him a job as a greeter. And, with Mrs. Bush, he’s visited a local elementary school and dined at a Tex-Mex restaurant.

But if these outings were intended to project an image of folksy ordinariness, they fell flat. The former president still travels in a motorcade and is surrounded by Secret Service agents. Not exactly how Joe Sixpack runs around town.

If Bush really wants to come across as a regular guy, he should follow the example of Harry Truman, the last president to resume something resembling a normal life after leaving office. Doing so might also improve Bush’s dismal public standing. When Truman left the White House he was as unpopular as Bush is today. But within 20 years, Truman had managed to become a beloved figure. In 1969 he ranked seventh in the Gallup Poll’s annual list of America’s “Most Admired Men.”

How to achieve such a turnaround?

1. Ditch the limo. As soon as Truman returned home to Independence, Missouri, he bought a shiny new Chrysler – and drove himself everywhere. In the summer of 1953 he even drove to the East Coast and back again – a trip of 2,500 miles! Considering the state of the American automobile industry, Bush would score a lot of points if he bought a new Chrysler (or Ford or GM) and drove it himself.

2. Lose the Secret Service. Ex-presidents weren’t entitled to Secret Service protection when Truman left office. Though he was sometimes accompanied by an Independence cop, Truman often traveled alone, removing a major barrier between him and the public. By law, George W. Bush is only entitled to Secret Service protection until 2019. He would score more points – not to mention save the taxpayers millions – if he just went ahead and scrapped the detail now. (If he still feels the need for protection, he could always hire his own security detail.)

3. Take a pass on the easy payday. After Truman left office he was inundated with lucrative business proposals. Although he needed the money – he was not a rich man, and ex-presidents did not receive pensions until 1958 – Truman spurned the offers because he refused to “commercialize” the presidency. He even turned down exorbitant speaking fees, usually collecting only a small honorarium, which he donated to his library. It seems an impossibly quaint notion today, but Bush would do well to emulate it. Besides, he doesn’t need the money. In 2007 he reported assets of more than $7 million, and, as an ex-president, he now receives an annual pension of $190,000 plus expenses.

Removed from the warm cocoon of power, a new ex-president is bound to stumble occasionally along the rocky road to becoming, as Truman put it, a “plain ordinary citizen.” Dwight Eisenhower, long accustomed to minions taking care of quotidian chores such as shopping, reportedly had to be taught how to carry and handle money when he became an ex. (As president, he’d once walked out of a sporting goods store without paying for an armload of fishing supplies. The owner sent the White House a bill, which was paid.)

At least Bush, to his credit, has shown himself to be in better touch than Ike. At that hardware store, he bought flashlights, batteries, a can of WD-40, and some night-lights – and he paid for it all by himself.