In America, we have the popular saying that anybody can grow up and become president someday. Little did we know how literally some people would take that.
You see, there’s no one set of skills that can prepare someone for the presidency. It’s a job that involves skill and judgment in almost too many fields, which can come from diverse backgrounds. The only real requirements are those set forth in Article II of the Constitution:
No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of the President; neither shall any Person by eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.
If you’re confused about the seemingly random capitalization, don’t worry about it. So are most Constitutional scholars (the best guess is antiquated, German language conventions).
So, there we have it. You have to be 35, have lived in the country for the past 14 years and be a citizen by birth… and that’s about it. Of course some backgrounds are more popular than others. Lawyers, soldiers and career-politicians have all made it to the Oval Office on a fairly regular basis, and for good reason. Those jobs have a lot to do with what a president does on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s overseeing a legislative agenda, commanding troops or negotiating with Congress.
Other presidents, well, they’ve taken a more interesting route. Just ask these presidents who, per the good people at Careercast, all had unusual backgrounds.
10. Ronald Reagan
It’s strange to consider today, but once upon a time the idea of putting Ronald Reagan in charge of anything would be like handing the FBI over to Benedict Cumberbatch or letting Chris Pine take command of a naval vessel. (We’re all still waiting on the Navy’s top secret “lens flare” defense system.)
That’s because, before he entered politics, Reagan starred in such films as “Bedtime for Bonzo,” “Knute Rocke — All American” and “General Electric Theater.”
Reagan successfully parlayed his public fame upwards, becoming first the head of the Screen Actors Guild and later the two-term governor of California (paving the way for the Governator years later). The upshot is that it certainly can’t be said Reagan arrived at the White House without experience; he’d already led one of the largest economies in the world by that point. He did get there by an odd route, though.
9. Barack Obama
Profession: Community Organizer
In almost the exact opposite of Reagan’s legacy, current President Barack Obama started about as small as imaginable. Before attending Harvard Law, Obama spent three years working in the streets of Chicago. His job was to help organize local residents and workers to push for change in and around their communities.
It was an experience that Obama has called “the best education I ever had,” a job that required him day in and day out to sit down with people and families and hear their stories.
Of course, that’s not the only part of Obama’s history that is unusual for the presidency. No, perhaps the strangest part of his backstory comes before working with the Developing Communities Project, when he spent two years between jobs and often unemployed. For a recent college graduate, the mid-80’s was a rough time to look for work. Of course, 30 years later, though, it’s tough to argue with success.
8. George W. Bush
Profession: Baseball Team Owner
One of the cornerstones of George W. Bush’s run for the presidency was his experience as a businessman. The son of a political family and a former president, Bush did initially try to run for Congress in 1978, losing to a local Democrat named Kent Hance.
Bush would wind up having the last laugh. Not only did Hance later try running for Governor of Texas (a position Bush himself would hold), but only one of those two men would later go on to lead the free world.
Not, however, before a stop in the business world: first as the head of Arbusto Energy and later as the owner of the Major League Baseball team the Texas Rangers. That perhaps helped explain Bush’s later pick for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; Dubya explained the role as “calling the balls and strikes.”
7. Jimmy Carter
Profession: Peanut Farmer
Jimmy Carter has left a divided legacy. To Republicans, he’s “that guy who came before Reagan.” To Democrats he’s a smart executive who doesn’t get enough credit. To millions of people around the world, he’s often the face of Habitat for Humanity, a former President unafraid to swing a hammer in an honest day’s work.
In some quiet corners of the diplomatic and journalistic communities, he’s remembered as the man who once disarmed North Korea’s nukes.
But before all that he was Jimmy Carter: local deacon and peanut farmer. Just out of the Navy, Carter took over the management of his family’s business before beginning his political career in the Georgia State Senate. Although he never looked back, we like to think he at least tended to the Rose Garden from time to time.
6. Herbert Hoover
America loves a mineral man. Whether it’s wildcatters looking for oil, prospectors panning for gold or miners working the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains, the idea of digging into the Earth for a raw living appeals to something in just about all of us.
So it should be no surprise that eventually we’d elect one president. As a mining engineer, Hoover crossed the planet finding and launching excavations. He became particularly well known for a rich patch of silver he discovered in New South Wales, among other ventures.
Unfortunately for Hoover, much of his early life and presidency was overshadowed by what history remembers as a lackluster response to the Great Depression. However, perhaps he should be most remembered for his Hoover Lunches, free meals that he shipped by the thousands to civilians in Europe during World War I.
5. William Howard Taft
So what? William Taft was a judge. That’s basically just a grown-up lawyer in a fancy robe, and if it were all of the story we wouldn’t be talking about him here.
No, what makes Taft remarkable is that he wasn’t just a judge. He was the judge. From 1921 until 1930 Taft served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (after being voted out of the White House a decade earlier in a landslide).
Taft’s ascension to the Supreme Court isn’t just remarkable; it’s unheard of both then and now. No other president has gone on to the highest court, making Taft arguably the man who has held the most power for the most time in American history.
4. Theodore Roosevelt
Profession: Cop. Also, inventor of the Teddy Bear.
Theodore Roosevelt is the manliest man to ever, well… man.
“Man” may not ordinarily be a verb, but for a select few people it applies: Earnest Hemingway, John Wayne, John Cusack and, most certainly, Teddy Roosevelt.
Despite being known as a frail child, Roosevelt’s adult life was marked by his love of physical activity and adventure. At various times, Roosevelt worked as a rancher, a frontier sheriff, a member of the Civil Service Commission, a cavalryman and a conservationist. He also worked as a cop, becoming the president of the New York City Board of Police Commissioners.
Then Roosevelt became president of the United States, where he focused on trust-busting. An ordinary enough job for anyone, it couldn’t keep T.R. from jumping into the ring for a boxing match (an event for which the Secret Service has our sympathies).
After leaving office in 1908, Roosevelt took his time off to go on safari.
3. Harry Truman
Profession: Retail Manager
Ordinarily when we think of the president we don’t automatically jump to men’s fashion. Certainly the occupant of the Oval Office must be well dressed — he or she should put a good foot forward, after all — but it’s not really the top of the to-do list.
Enter Harry Truman. In his lifetime, Truman signed the peace that ended World War II, became the only person ever to order the use of nuclear weapons and began the long struggle eventually known as the Cold War.
He also, for a period of time, owned a men’s clothing store in Kansas City with a fellow soldier from World War I. Truman & Jacobson did not do well, shutting its doors in 1922, but the failure freed Truman to go on and enter politics.
2. Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon Johnson may have one of the most mixed records of any U.S. President. In the White House, he spearheaded social achievements that would change the nation’s history, including the creation of Medicare and the Great Society, as well as his championing of civil rights.
At the same time, however, Johnson’s tenure was overshadowed by the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and arguably the worst years of the Vietnam War. It’s a difficult legacy to untangle and one that historians will work on for years to come.
Before all of that, however, Johnson’s life was much simpler. After graduating from college, he worked as a teacher in south Texas, primarily educating underserved Mexican-American students. He also headed up the National Youth Administration, a Depression-era program that helped young people find work during the ’30s.
It’s a background that helps explain the drive of a man whose presidency would ultimately become complicated.
1. Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson is a tragic figure. A lifelong advocate for peace, he led America into World War I (despite years of trying to stay neutral in what many saw as a European conflict). Hoping to create meaning out of the tragedy, Wilson built the League of Nations, only to have the U.S. Senate reject American membership and to watch the group’s inability to stop World War II.
Wilson would ultimately have the last laugh, though, as his League did pave the way for the United Nations and a global philosophy that would mark an era of unprecedented peace in world history.
With all of that, it’s probably no surprise that Wilson got his start as an academic. The only President ever to have held a Ph.D., Wilson taught political science at Princeton and eventually became president of that university. He must have liked the title, because a mere ten years later he would snag another presidential seat — this one in the White House. (The Street)