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Ex-presidents form the most exclusive clique in American politics. Only four are now living - Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan - and none wields any real power. Even so, they continue to influence American public life in various ways, just as many of their predecessors did after vacating the White House.

No statutory guidelines exist to shape a former chief executive's conduct in retirement. But the advice offered by Rutherford B. Hayes after leaving the presidency has served as an all-purpose creed. "Let him," Hayes said, "like every good American citizen, be willing and prompt to bear his part in every useful work that will promote the welfare and happiness of his family, his town, his state and his country."The trouble is, people may disagree on whether a particular venture meets the Hayes test. This being the case, a conference scheduled for Oct. 18-19 at the Herbert Hoover Library in West Branch, Iowa, will try to pinpoint the types of activities suitable for ex-presidents. The conference keynote speaker will be Daniel J. Boorstin, the historian and former Librarian of Congress. Ford is the only former president due to take part.

Several of the 32 men who survived the presidency chose to remain in elective or appointive office. For instance, Grover Cleveland returned to the presidency and Theodore Roosevelt attempted to return. Andrew Johnson took a Senate seat, John Quincy Adams served in the House of Representatives, and William Howard Taft became chief justice of the United States - his overriding career goal from the outset.

Other ex-presidents set out to make money by writing or speaking. After his investment house went bankrupt in 1884, Ulysses S. Grant took up the pen to record his experiences as a Civil War general. The resulting Memoirs, completed just days before Grant's death, earned $440,000 for his estate.

Similarly, Reagan is under contract to Simon & Schuster for two books, including a volume of memoirs. Although the amount of the contract was not disclosed when it was announced in January, publishing industry sources said it was in the neighborhood of $5 million.

Students of the presidency and former occupants of the office generally agree that it would be unseemly for an ex-president to take a job in business. Explaining why he had rejected such an offer, Calvin Coolidge said: "These people are trying to hire not Calvin Coolidge, but a former president of the United States. I can't do anything that might take away from the presidency any of its dignity, or any of the faith the people have in it."

Carter has taken Coolidge's dictum a step further. Before leaving the White House, Carter said he decided that "I wouldn't join any boards of directors and I wouldn't try to commercialize the presidency." He added, however, that "I don't have any criticism to make of those who do join" corporate boards.

Carter's disclaimer doubtless was intended to reassure Ford, who has served as a director of several companies since retiring from public life. Bitter antagonists in the 1976 presidential election campaign, Ford and Carter are now co-chairmen of American Agenda, a bipartisan group that makes recommendations on public policy issues. The Ford-Carter reconciliation, in turn, calls to mind the warmth that developed between two other ex-presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In a club that never has more than a handful of members, there is no point in nursing grudges.