When a U.S. president is in office, there are naturally a number of rules and regulations they need to follow – in theory, anyway. But that’s still the case even after their term is over and the next commander-in-chief has moved into 1600 Penn. Yep, life as an ex-president is still pretty restricted – and in some bizarre ways, too.
20. There should be diplomatic trips
The commander-in-chief has plenty of responsibilities over the course of their tenure – including the maintenance of diplomatic relations. Air Force One gets a proper workout, too, with all this traveling. But even after a former president bids goodbye to that plane, the overseas trips don’t come to an end.
You see, past presidents are still looked upon as “goodwill ambassadors” of America, which means they’re required to fly around the world to aid international relationships. But they’re probably not put out of pocket, as each is apparently handed a yearly allowance of $1 million in order to do this. They can get hold of special diplomatic passports to boot. Well, it wouldn’t look good if the former leader of the free world couldn’t get a visa...
19. Two-termers can’t run again
Franklin D. Roosevelt will always be remembered for his New Deal and keeping the U.S. steady throughout World War II. You also probably remember from history class that he served for an incredible 12 consecutive years – all the way up to 1945. Yes, that meant FDR had four terms in office, but he’ll be the only president to achieve that feat.
Expert Mike Purdy told Reader’s Digest why, saying, “Up until Roosevelt, no president had served more than two terms. The 22nd Amendment caps an individual to being elected only twice to the presidency. [It] also provides if someone has served less than two years as president by virtue of ascending to the presidency due to the death or resignation of a president. They could still be elected to two full terms.”
18. Health benefits aren’t a given
Being the president is pretty stressful, as we can see from how leaders age so quickly in office... But the job obviously does have its benefits. There’s access to government healthcare, for one, as it’s pretty important to have the prez in tip-top condition. And this perk can carry over once their time leading the country comes to an end, although it’s not a guarantee.
Why’s that? Well, to reap the benefits of the healthcare plan for life, an ex-president must have worked for the federal government in some capacity for no fewer than five years. If a leader doesn’t make it to their second term, then, they may miss out. Pretty harsh, right?
17. They must stay at the Presidential Townhouse
Obviously, an ex-president can’t stay in the White House once they’ve officially been replaced. But have you ever wondered what happens when they drop by Washington, D.C. after their term concludes? Do they shack up at their former residence? Or do they find a hotel?
Well, the nation’s one-time leaders probably won’t be sleeping over at 1600 Penn. They’re much more likely to bed down at the secure Presidential Townhouse just down the block. The plush pad has been in service since Richard Nixon’s time in office, and apparently it found an avowed fan in George H.W. Bush – though not, allegedly, in his wife, Barbara.
16. You can’t use a phone right off the shelf
Former presidents aren’t typically short of a dollar or two, so you’d assume that they’d be able to get whatever cell phones they want. And while that may be true up to a point – as we bet the bills aren’t going to hit them too hard – they’re actually not allowed to purchase tech of that type on a whim.
Instead, the Secret Service has to vet any phones before past leaders can use them. Political specialist William S. Bike explained as much to Reader’s Digest, saying, “A president or ex-president is supposed to communicate on approved devices.” But not everyone obeys. Bike added, “President Trump ignored this rule and therefore consistently was hacked.”
15. They have a morbid choice to make
Although it’s practically a given that an ex-president will have their own library, this tradition is actually a pretty recent one. For two centuries, in fact, former leaders of the U.S. had no obligation to turn over any documents from their times in office. This all changed with the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which ruled such papers to be possessions of the U.S. Government – meaning they could be made available for public viewing.
If you want to sneak a peek at records from Jimmy Carter’s tenure, then, head right on down to Atlanta, Georgia. Big fan of Bill Clinton? Then you should take a trip to his library in Little Rock, Arkansas. But in decades to come, you may be able to pay tribute in another way. You see, every former commander-in-chief has the choice to be laid to rest on the grounds of their library after they’ve passed away. Clinton and George W. Bush have taken up this offer, too.
14. They must choose a new office
To say that the president has a lot to do would be the understatement of the century. Running the country is no walk in the park, after all. But at least they’re provided with one of the best-looking workspaces in the country. Yep, the Oval Office certainly beats a dreary cubicle!
After that, anything else would pale in comparison, right? Well, perhaps, but an ex-leader can’t command the Oval once they’ve left the White House. Instead, they must choose a new place in which to work. The Administrator of General Services is responsible for fitting this new office out, and it can be located anywhere in the country. That’s certainly better than nothing.
13. They shouldn’t criticize other presidents
Ever come across a co-worker you just couldn’t stand? We bet you breathed a sigh of relief when they finally left for pastures new. Still, next time you talk trash about this old employee with your colleagues, spare a thought for past presidents. They’re expected to hold their tongues when it comes to both their predecessors and their successors – even if the new prez is getting the country into a real mess.
Yes, there’s an unspoken regulation that former presidents shouldn’t speak ill of the current resident of the White House. It’s a courtesy that was first established hundreds of years ago. Not everyone is willing to comply, mind you. In 2018, for example, Donald Trump was on the receiving end of quite the verbal lashing by Barack Obama.
12. They can’t do what they like with classified information
The president will be privy to a lot of classified info while they’re in office. If anyone needs to be in the know, after all, it’s them. But what happens after they depart the White House? Are ex-leaders expected to keep that intel to themselves, or can they open up about it?
Well, according to Mike Purdy, the answer is simple. He told Reader’s Digest, “In what could be a huge breach of national security for the nation, a former president may not sell or share classified information he obtained while president.” Makes sense, right? After all, they’re secrets for a reason.
11. There’s always a Secret Service detail
It’s fair to say that the U.S. president is one of the most heavily guarded individuals on the planet. And we can certainly understand why. Keeping the leader of the free world safe isn’t just crucial for the country, but it’s also hugely important for international relations. Wherever the president goes, then, a Secret Service detail won’t be too far away.
And that level of personal security doesn’t just end when the president leaves office, as the U.S. government provides them and their closest relatives with Secret Service coverage for decades after. Interestingly, though, it’s up to the former leader whether they are guarded in this way or not. Richard Nixon, for one, decided to do without – apparently to save the authorities some cash.
10. Picking up mail isn’t that simple
We may do most of our communication electronically these days, but there’s nothing quite like a good old-fashioned letter. And that lovingly penned note from your grandma comes to you swiftly and easily, courtesy of your friendly neighborhood mailman or woman. But it’s not so simple if you’re a former president.
For starters, each piece of mail addressed to an erstwhile commander-in-chief is examined by the Secret Service. That way, any dangerous packages can be intercepted. And if you think that’s excessive, then you should know that both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton had dubious-looking parcels sent to them in 2018. They’re just the ones we know about, too. So, this complicated level of security is probably for the best.
9. They should receive national security briefings
During the course of their term, the president will sit in on countless national security briefings with their staff. But were you aware that they’re kept in the loop long after leaving office? Yes, ex-leaders are continuously fed information from those high-profile meetings right up until they pass away.
It’s believed, you see, that former presidents could provide some counseling and guidance if the current incumbent requires it. They’ve been in the role, after all, and so should know a thing or two. And this means they don’t always just ride off into the sunset when they wave goodbye to the White House. There’s still work to be done – even from behind the scenes.
8. They can’t break the law
As one of the most powerful people in the world, the president can shirk the odd law or two, right? Perhaps, but the same definitely doesn’t go for ex-leaders. They certainly can’t go about committing illegal acts without fear of repercussion – not least because they no longer have the government to shield them.
Mike Purdy told Reader’s Digest, “Like all other private citizens, a former president may not violate the law. If he does, then he is subject to the same prosecution as any other person. Not only is the president not above the law, [but] former presidents are not above the law.”
7. They get a transition stipend
So, you’ve just left your boring 9 to 5 to set up your own business? Good for you! Of course, making that transition is a lot easier if you’ve got some cash to help you along. And when the president makes way for their replacement at the White House, that’s exactly what they receive.
Yes, for around half a year, the ex-president will have access to finances that aid their move away from their former job. But this doesn’t just apply to the leaders who lose elections. Apparently, presidents who quit their posts in office get the money as well.
6. There’s the option of a state funeral
Just like the rest of us, presidents and former presidents aren’t exempt from having to plan their own funerals. Mind you, did you know that an ex-leader has the option of a state ceremony after they’ve died? It’s not a requirement – more of a final courtesy if their relatives give it the green light.
So, Ronald Reagan’s nearest and dearest did indeed plump for a state funeral after the Gipper passed away in 2004. And the planning for such an affair is remarkably meticulous and subject to its own rules and regulations. For instance, any motorcades reportedly have to travel along the road at exactly 20 miles per hour.
5. There’s no more spontaneity
Spontaneity is a very easy thing to take for granted. Without it, you’ll probably feel as though your freedom of choice has been stripped away from you. And ex-presidents have to deal with this very conundrum after leaving the White House. If they have Secret Service detail, you see, unplanned trips are off the table.
So, how do ex-leaders get around? Well, they first need to inform their protectors where they plan on going. After that, the team will analyze and inspect the safety of the area. But here’s the thing. Sometimes, that process has to be completed months in advance. We bet that’s often infuriating...
4. Military hospitals are always available
It’s always comforting to know that you’ll get expert care in hospital in case of an emergency. That’s one less thing the president has to worry about, as they’re able to rely on the White House Medical Unit – which is always on standby for such a crisis. How about the ex-leaders, though? Do they have similar privileges?
Well, almost. All past presidents have access to military hospitals should they require medical help. They don’t have to be veterans, either, as they’re given what’s called “Secretarial Designee status.” And that perk is available to former presidents’ spouses and young kids, too. Pretty nifty, don’t you think?
3. They have to take a lifetime pension
When we get older, most of us will be relying on our pensions for income. It’s no different for the ex-leaders of America, as the Former Presidents Act states that they must receive compulsory financial assistance for life. And, yes, they still get the cash even if they don’t exactly need the help.
This rule came about following Harry S. Truman’s departure from the White House in 1953. The ex-president had some serious money woes at that time, and it wasn’t exactly a good look for him to go bankrupt. No such fears for his successors, either. In 2020 the yearly presidential pension came in at a cool $219,200.
2. There’s a widow’s allowance
Sadly, many U.S. presidents are no longer with us. And, often, when a one-time leader passes away, they leave behind a spouse – a dutiful ex-First Lady who has to carry on as best she can in the wake of her husband’s death. At least these widows are provided for, thanks to the Former Presidents Act.
Yes, the wife of a late president will be given $20,000 each year for the rest of their own life. This figure is broken down into a monthly payment by the Secretary of the Treasury. But there is a small catch. The recipient will have to forgo any other financial supplement from the government – like their pension, for example – to be able to take this money.
1. They absolutely can’t drive themselves
We don’t know about you, but there are few things more relaxing than going for a nice drive on a summer’s day. But unfortunately for the ex-presidents of the United States, they can’t just take to the wheel and head cross-country whenever they feel like it. And William S. Bike has explained exactly why.
Bike told Reader’s Digest, “A rule created after John F. Kennedy was assassinated is that ex-presidents no longer can drive on open streets or roads – only private property. They’re required to be driven by Secret Service personnel who are trained in evasive driving maneuvers. Lyndon B. Johnson was the last who drove on the open road.”
But if you think presidents of the United States are the only ones who have to abide by some pretty out-there rules, think again. Even their wives have to follow strict regulations. As you might expect, if you’re a first lady, there are a lot of things you can’t do. And some of them are downright odd...
20. No accepting (most) gifts
First ladies must receive lots of presents from the people they meet, right? Absolutely. But they’re not allowed to keep many of them anyway. That’s because gifts from foreign governments are actually given to the U.S. as a country, not to the first family. So if the first lady really wants whatever the present from overseas is, she apparently has to buy it.
However, the first lady is allowed to keep “domestic gifts” – so long as they pass security evaluations. Imagine having all your birthday presents put through a scanner first! And then there’s the issue of pets given as gifts. Like when the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev sent President Kennedy a puppy in 1961 – the poor pooch needed its own passport.
19. Make sure to do the Easter Egg Roll
There’s a fun side to being the first lady, at least. Ever since Easter 1878, the White House has hosted an annual Easter Egg Roll. This is where children show up to roll easter eggs and have a bit of a laugh. It’s supposed to be the first lady who plans out the occasion and maybe introduces other activities into the day.
World Wars I and II put an end to Easter Egg Rolls for many years. Luckily, though, the tradition returned in 1953. Since then, a few new things have been added by various first ladies. For instance, everyone now gets a wooden egg keepsake at the end. Oh, and a White House staff member has to dress as the Easter Bunny. We bet they fight over who gets to do that job...
18. You’re responsible for the Christmas trees
Christmas is a big deal at the White House, and it’s the first lady’s job to make sure that it all goes smoothly. For pretty much the whole of December, then, the president’s wife will devote herself to all things Christmas. Even for hardcore Christmas fanatics, that’s probably a bit much... Yet the first lady must also pick a theme for the decorations.
In 2012 Michelle Obama promoted “Joy to All” and had a life-size replica of the family’s dog made out of pompoms for a centerpiece. And in 2019 Melania Trump went with a “Spirit of America” theme in honor of those who have shaped the country over the years. All celebrated out? Nope! The White House marks the holidays of Hanukkah and Ramadan, too, and the first lady ought to be there for those.
17. You must always dress appropriately
There’s a lot of unwritten rules about how a first lady should dress. One thing’s for sure, though: if you get it wrong, you’ll hear about it. You should wear culturally appropriate clothes when traveling, and it’s also not a good idea to dress too extravagantly. After all, you’re not on the red carpet.
Michelle Obama knows all about the annoying intricacies of first lady fashion. When she donned some shorts during a visit to the Grand Canyon back in 2009, the media went absolutely wild. Obama herself also confessed that she considers it her biggest fashion mistake. Still, first ladies have been criticized for immodesty all the way back to the 19th-century days of Dolley Madison – who was considered to show too much cleavage.
16. You can’t open the windows
Most people take for granted that they’re able to open up a window whenever they like. Not so for the first lady and her family. The bulletproof windows in the White House must remain shut at all times, as must the windows in any car the first family drives around in. The risk of having a window open is simply too high for White House security to accept.
Michelle Obama knows full well the agony of missing out on fresh air. In September 2015 she told Stephen Colbert on his Late Show, “I really can’t open a window. If I press it in the car, everybody’s like, ‘Oh my god! What was that?’ One day, as a treat, my lead agent let me have the window open on the way to Camp David, for like five minutes.”
15. Meals must be paid for
The first family aren’t getting all that fancy food for free. If the first lady wants to eat at the White House or Camp David, she’s paying for it herself. In Laura Bush’s 2010 autobiography Spoken from the Heart, she wrote that the White House food expenses were just like “every American household.”
And when Michelle Obama went on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in 2018, the host asked her about that interesting financial tidbit. Obama confirmed that yes, she paid for her White House food – and it wasn’t always cheap, either. She remarked, “You get the bill for a peach, and you’re like, ‘That was a $500 peach!’”
14. You have to move into the White House at an assigned time
Moving into the White House isn’t a simple procedure – even if you’re the new first lady. First of all, you can’t set up shop in your new home until noon on January 20. That’s to allow the outgoing first family time to leave. You absolutely must not enter until the previous lot have vacated, and after that you have just 12 hours to move your stuff in.
Yep, the first family are themselves tasked with bringing their personal items into the White House. They even have to pay for the movers themselves, just like a regular American would. However, once all the boxes and furniture actually arrive there, White House staff quickly work to put it in place. It wouldn’t look good to have the contents of a house strewn all other that famous lawn.
13. You must hire an interior designer
It’s a longstanding tradition that the First Lady chooses an interior designer to revamp the White House according to the first family’s tastes. The chosen designers can expect a sudden rush of interest in their work, too. So who’s behind the most recent White House refurbs? Hilary Clinton chose Kaki Hockersmith, Laura Bush opted for Kenneth Blasingame, and Michelle Obama decided on Michael S. Smith.
Obama sang the praises of Smith in the foreword to the 2020 book Designing History: The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House. She had wanted a house suitable for her kids, she said, and Smith gave her that. “Our daughters had rooms to call their own, where they could swap out a great work of art for a poster or a photo of their friends,” she wrote.
12. You have to host state dinners
Whenever another world leader visits the White House, a special state dinner is held. And for obvious reasons everything’s gotta go smoothly on the night. Invitations must be made, flowers arranged, seating arrangements considered and menus drawn up. This heavy responsibility falls on the first lady.
Of course, the first lady has a load of White House staff working under her, but it’s a tricky job nonetheless. And Michelle Obama decided to take on even more work when she started a kids’ state dinner in 2012 to encourage children to eat healthily. At least there was slightly less chance of a diplomatic incident springing from there.
11. All those outfits must be paid for
The first lady should ideally be a fashion icon – but that doesn’t come cheap. And you’re not going to get the taxpayer to pony up for your wardrobe. Laura Bush wrote in her 2010 memoir, “I was amazed by the sheer number of designer clothes that I was expected to buy, like the women before me, to meet the fashion expectations for a first lady.”
The former first lady went on, “After our first year in the White House, our accountant said to George [W. Bush], ‘It costs a lot to be president,’ and he was referring mainly to my clothes.” Ouch. Mind you, Nancy Reagan allegedly got round all this by “borrowing” expensive outfits and then never returning them.
10. You have to stay in Blair House before the inauguration
Everything leading up to Inauguration Day is pretty crazy for the incoming president’s family – although perhaps that goes without saying. Before the official handover ceremonies take place, the first lady and her family are meant to stay at Blair House. The residence has been owned by the American federal government ever since 1942.
Staying at Blair House is like being on holiday, though. It’s a pretty luxurious place, to say the least. The Pennsylvania Avenue building contains more than 100 rooms, including three dining rooms and two conference rooms. Guests can also enjoy a gym and a beauty salon, plus their own bathrooms. Wow!
9. Absolutely no getting in a convertible
Everyone can probably guess the reason why presidents and first ladies aren’t allowed to ride in convertibles. Back in 1963, John F. Kennedy was shot and killed while traveling in one. His wife, Jackie Kennedy, witnessed the whole thing from the seat next to him. The car was open-roofed – an easy target for a shooter.
The car had been designed for aesthetics, not protection. Kennedy wanted the crowds to be able to see him as he went by. There was a roof that could have gone on the car – but it wasn’t actually bulletproof. So, after that terrible incident, the Secret Service got to work ensuring that no presidential car would be so vulnerable again.
8. Some rooms in the White House are off limits
The White House may be a home for the first family, but it’s also basically a piece of living American history. So some rooms can’t be decorated by the first lady’s designer. These include the Lincoln Room – which Abraham Lincoln used as his office – and the Yellow Room, where John Adams hosted the inaugural presidential reception.
But perhaps not many first ladies would brave a long stay in the Lincoln Room anyway. Rumor has it that it’s haunted. Grace Coolidge, the spouse of President Calvin Coolidge, reportedly claimed that she once saw none other than Abraham Lincoln himself staring out of a window in the Oval Office.
7. The incoming first lady must meet the outgoing one
After the new president is elected, but before the inauguration takes place, the old first lady and the new one have to meet. What happens is the outgoing woman takes her replacement for a tour of the White House – the home that she’ll soon be leaving. It’s easy to imagine that this is incredibly awkward at times!
Like, Mamie Eisenhower reportedly disliked her successor, Jackie Kennedy, and referred to her derisively as “the college girl.” So while they maintained their smiles for the cameras, there was frost underneath. But some first ladies and ex-first ladies do become friends. Hillary Clinton maintained a good relationship with Barbara Bush and even attended her funeral.
6. You must preserve the White House history
The White House is also a museum, in a sense, and America has Jackie Kennedy to thank for that. During her time as the first lady, Kennedy set about restoring rooms that were falling into disrepair, collecting artworks to preserve, and generally putting a lot of time into making sure future generations would respect the building.
Before that, though, it was Bess Truman who made sure that the White House remained standing in the first place. Back in 1948, the building was actually in danger of collapse – and some suggested it should be torn down. But Truman insisted that the place be preserved and restored instead.
5. No driving
First ladies aren’t allowed to drive. It’s just too dangerous! So the Secret Service takes them where they want to go. The White House wives don’t always like this much, however. In 2014 Hillary Clinton told the National Automobile Dealers Association, “One of the regrets I have about my public life is that I can’t drive anymore.”
Michelle Obama feels the same way. Even after her husband left office, she wasn’t allowed to drive a car. In 2018 she told People, “No driving for me. We still live in a bubble. If we had a farm somewhere, maybe I could drive around it. As we’ve seen, the risks are still there.”
4. Try not to overstep
The role of a first lady is a complicated one. They take up humanitarian causes, host events and generally perform the ceremonial side of things at the White House. So they’re not traditionally supposed to have too much of a say in the actual politics – but this inevitably happens anyway. And some people are quite disapproving.
Hillary Clinton was considered to have overreached when she was the first lady back in the ’90s. “Hillary Clinton wasn’t interested in baking cookies, she really wanted to be a co-president,” American historian Christopher Andersen told newspaper The Guardian in 2017. “This got her in trouble, so she had to step down a bit.”
3. You should choose a cause to support
For a long time, first ladies have been championing good causes. Back in the 19th century, for example, Dolley Madison devoted money and energy to helping orphaned children. Mary Todd Lincoln attempted to assist freed slaves. And Helen Taft assisted in getting important health and safety laws through government. So while political issues have changed, the need for charitable campaigns has not.
It was Eleanor Roosevelt who really established the first lady position as a philanthropic role, and others followed in her footsteps. Betty Ford campaigned to raise awareness of breast cancer and also established the rehab centers that bear her name. Michelle Obama fought for all girls to get an education, too. The most recent first lady, Melania Trump, has focused her charitable endeavors on children as well.
2. You can actually decline protection
The president and vice president have to have Secret Service protection at all times. Yet the first lady and her adult children can actually turn it down if they want. No first ladies have, so far, but one child has: Ronald Reagan’s son Ron. Richard Nixon and his wife also turned down their lifetime protection in 1985 – but he wasn’t president then.
To be fair, it must be awkward having secret agents follow wherever you go. Jackie Kennedy reportedly told hers to treat the children as if they were just normal kids – and not even to pick them up if they fall down. First ladies can’t even go on vacation alone – but sometimes that may be for the best.
1. If you don’t like the title, you have to put up with it
It took a long time for the title “First Lady” to really catch on with Americans. It’s thought that President Zachary Taylor first used the phrase when he called Dolley Madison “our first lady for a half century” in an 1849 eulogy for her. Gradually newspapers began using it, and by the second half of the 20th century it was the official name for a president’s wife.
But not every first lady liked being called that. Jackie Kennedy was reportedly one of them, and Eleanor Roosevelt another. The latter got people to call her “Mrs. Roosevelt” instead. The question will probably come up again when a woman or a gay man is elected president. In these cases, will their partners get the title of “first gentleman”?