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FORMER PRESIDENTS PAVE THE WAY

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For a generation now, our news media have been awash with valid laments - from the left, center and right - that America suffers a dearth of bold, principled presidential leadership.

But what we haven't heard enough about is the fact that America enjoys an abundance of bold, principled ex-presidential leadership. Our elected leaders seem to experience a leadership growth spurt - just as soon as we stop paying them to lead us.Just the other day, George Bush provided our latest profile in ex-presidential courage. Leading by example - in the sort of sail-against-the-wind act he could never quite bring himself to do while in office - Bush, an avid hunter, showed patriotic gun owners that they must repudiate the National Rifle Association for its outrageous statements about federal law enforcement agents "wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm troopers uniforms" who want to "attack law- abiding citizens."

Bush is but the latest to enter the ranks of American ex-presidents who gained in boldness and principle upon departing the presidency. Ronald Reagan, who courted the NRA during his presidency, came out against made-for-combat-only assault weapons and endorsed the Brady bill (named for his press secretary James Brady) - but only after gaining the safe sanctuary of retirement. Reagan also opposed Oliver North's candidacy. Sadly, due to the seriousness of the former president's current health problems, we can only guess at what a healthy Reagan might want to say today about the ugly, unpatriotic turn taken by the NRA.

And there is Jimmy Carter. Derided for lacking leadership in the White House, he founded the Carter Center and distinguished himself as a global peacemaker. Ex-President Carter has moved with boldness and purposefulness that critics say they never saw during his presidency.