Too often in American history, we romanticize about a past that never happened.
One of these beliefs, that the Founding Fathers were a group of inexperienced politicians, is particularly damaging in modern politics when we consider placing inexperienced business leaders into positions of authority.
Reality was that all of the Founding Fathers who eventually became president were very active in politics from a young age. For example, George Washington was active in the House of Burgesses, Virginia’s state body, for fifteen years prior to the Revolution.
The fact remains that we’ve only had 3 presidents elected with no prior political experience, all of whom were military leaders and heroes: Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Eisenhower was probably the most politically gifted of the three, having served as the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces during WWII. His tenure taught him both foreign policy and the finer arts of political compromise.
We've only had 3 presidents elected with no prior political experience.
The other two were almost political disasters. Taylor’s presidency would have surely ended poorly had he not died only 17 months into office. He had already completely alienated the Congress and was barely supported by his own staff.
Grant is more interesting, having served two full terms in office. He left a conspicuous trail of scandal, corruption, and economic hardship behind him.
Probably his most significant failure was his improper handling of the Panic of 1873, shrugging it off as an economic cycle that was only affecting bankers.
What resulted was the ‘Long Depression,’ which destroyed much of the industry of America. Almost one-third of the independent railroads went out of business, with many more merging and consolidating business, setting the stage for near monopoly power to be the standard in the railroad industry for the next 50 years.
The single biggest problem Grant had was that he clung to his pet-ideals, ones that he believed to be the best policy, regardless of what his advisers or Congress told him. One such example was that he was an ardent supporter of the gold standard, and his policy of withdrawing the ‘greenback’ currency, not backed by gold or silver, wound up making the depression worse; especially, since Congress asked for $64 million in additional ‘greenbacks’ to be injected into the economy to stimulate growth.
Lessons for 2016 . . .
Historical articles are seldom useful if they don’t have relevance in the modern political stage.
We are currently living in a time where there is the impression of many that business leaders, from H. Ross Perot to Donald Trump, would make better politicians because they could side-step the politics and do what was right for the country.
Historically, there’s no real way to test this impression. The only profession non-politicians have brought to the presidency has been that of being a military general during wartime.
Donald Trump has already had to learn a few political lessons the hard way, like recently starting to use teleprompters for speeches instead of speaking ‘off-the-cuff.’
This is not unusual for non-politicians to have to learn this the hard way. In the political realm every single word spoken (or left unspoken) becomes instantly scrutinized. Colin Powell had to learn this as well, and suffered backlash several times because of misspeaking during briefings.
But Trump will have much harder issues to face than just learning how to use a teleprompter.
He’s going to have to learn how to not make the mistakes that previous non-politicians have made, like not alienating Congress, avoiding scandal and corruption, and most importantly, listening to advisers instead of clinging to pet-ideals.
Trump’s hardest hurdle to overcome will be learning how to compromise, which is different than closing a business deal. In business, everything’s negotiable. In politics, there are simply lines that are never crossed.
In the end, if Trump is elected to the presidency, his tenure will be judged solely on his ability to effectively govern. And that’s going to be a tough job for a businessman who is used to always getting his way when making deals.