It’s an insanely tough job, but there are a few crazy people who want to do it. But it’s not like they all wanted to be the leader of the free world from the get-go. Some had dreams of being actors, musicians, or teachers. Naturally, there came a point where something set them down the path to the White House, but overall, they were just young men with big ambitions.
Years before they gained national attention, many had an impressive list of accomplishments: one was a Rhodes Scholar, another an oil tycoon, and one was a landlord at the ripe old age of 13. Of course, their lives weren’t filled with just studying and business. As with any boy, there’s always ample time for shenanigans. Depending on your definition, that could be a raucous road trip, or a session of playing Peeping Tom on your step-cousins. Whatever floated their boats, it’s a good thing they got it out of their system before taking office. Plus, it’s not like anyone remembers all of those stories anyway (…oh, wait).
On second thought, there might be a few pictures, say roughly 15, that give us a glimpse into who these powerful men were in their youth.
15. Theodore Roosevelt
The name Teddy Roosevelt might as well be synonymous with tough. As the hero of San Juan Hill, he lead the Rough Riders (a rag tag group of cavalry volunteers) to victory in the Spanish-American War’s decisive battle. That’s nothing to scoff at, but you could argue that wasn’t the toughest challenge he had to face.
In 1884, on Valentine’s Day of all days, both his wife and mother died within 12 hours of each other. Understandably, this would put most people out of commission for a long while, but Roosevelt responded by heading to the frontier to capture outlaws, hunt grizzly bears, and basically take part in all forms of butt kicking. This isn’t to say that he was all brawn and no brain. Being a prolific writer, he penned 38 books and contributed to various outdoors and hunting magazines. And to top it off, he won a Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the Treaty of Portsmouth, which brought the Russo Japanese war to a close.
14. Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan carried a reputation as a Hollywood actor and local superhero. Back when he was a lifeguard in Illinois, he earned every bit of the title by saving 77 people from drowning. Being accustomed to real world heroics, it’s no surprise that he was able to successfully mimic them on the big screen. Appearing alongside legends like Bette Davis and Errol Flynn, he had roles in more than 50 movies by the time his acting career was all said and done.
These days, more people are familiar with Family Guy’s “Reagan Smash!” than “Win one for the Gipper”. Still, you’ve probably heard it at some time or another. You might not know what it means, but Reagan portrayed the football player who inspired the quote. The line would go on to be so popular that Reagan himself started to be called The Gipper. Can’t say that’s what propelled him into the White House, but his experience managing big personalities as the president of the Screen Actor’s Guild certainly came in handy.
13. John F. Kennedy
Kennedy’s legend started back in World War II when he led 10 of his crew members to safety after their ship sank. During the three mile swim to shore, he had to tow one of his severely wounded comrades by his life jacket. If you’re wondering how Kennedy managed to keep his hands free enough to swim while doing this, well, you just have to hitch the strap between your teeth.
After embodying the principle of “grin and bear it” to the T, he became a correspondent for Hearst Newspapers, where he covered events like the UN conference in San Francisco. Eventually his writing chops would earn him a Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, which centered on brave deeds of US senators (coincidentally, Kennedy himself was a senator at the time). Although, there’s some debate over who truly deserves credit for the prize. Some argue that much of the book’s success might be due to the ghostwriting talents of his aide Theodore Sorensen.
12. Gerald Ford
There aren’t many presidents who could boast that they had the chance to be a professional athlete. Ford was voted MVP of the University of Michigan football team, and was offered a contract by the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions once he graduated. Not an opportunity that many would turn down, but Ford decided that it was more important to attend law school at Yale. Still, he stayed close to his grid iron roots by working as an assistant coach.
By 1975, he was far removed from his athletic career, but still had to evade vicious hits (of the assassination attempt variety). Lynette “Squeaky” Frome, once a follower of Charles Manson, aimed a pistol at him during a visit to the state capital building in Sacramento. A few weeks later, he was at the mercy of political activist Sara Jane Moore in San Francisco. Unlike Frome, she actually fired a shot, but a bystander quickly defused the situation by knocking the gun out of her hand.
11. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight D. Eisenhower served 35 years in the military, including during WWI and WWII. In spite of this, he never experienced any active combat. But you don’t rise to supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe for nothing. Part of being a great leader is having a way with words, and Eisenhower had that talent in spades.
During his military service, he wrote speeches, letter, and reports for the likes of Douglas MacArthur and the Secretary of War. He was also a contributor to a guidebook that showcased battlefields from the first World War. Impressed by his abilities as a writer, William Randolph Hearst offered Eisenhower three times his salary to join his newspaper. Most people would have taken the money and ran, but not Eisenhower; he turned down all of those zeros to stay in the army. But none of us should be surprised. Anyone who has the title “supreme” attached to their name isn’t going to give it up so easily.
10. Barack Obama
During the time he spent in Indonesia as a child, Barack Obama (then going by the nickname of Barry) had the reputation for being a little mischievous. Although, you can’t blame boys for being boys… or arm breakers. The injury occurred when Obama and a friend were riding bikes. According to rumors, the boy was supposedly tickled by the young Barry. While Obama has neither confirmed or denied the tickling allegation, he has admitted to breaking his buddy’s arm.
Of course, that wasn’t the only bit of mischief he was guilty of committing in Indonesia. One of his step-cousins told biographer David Maraniss, that Barry enjoyed sneaking a peek at their baths… when they were in them. Apparently, he would climb up to the window and tease them, because nudity’s hilarious to children (and adults). But when your neighbors call you by the pet name of “black berry” or the less creative “Black Barry”, you’re going to develop a funny bone. Not that we’re advocating being a Peeping Tom…
9. Jimmy Carter
From the time he was a boy, Jimmy Carter was a giving person. Raised on a peanut farm, Carter worked hard to not only help his family, but to better his community. When he was 13, the nation was in the middle of the Great Depression, so it goes without saying that many families were struggling. To ease some of their stress, Carter took the money he earned from the farm and bought five low-cost properties, which he then rented to local needy families.
This drive to work towards the greater good would carry him into office. As president, he founded the Department of Energy and created a policy to tackle the energy shortage crisis. Whether peanut fuel (a la George Washington Carver) was a proposed solution is another story, but Carter’s work in human rights, social development, and overall commitment to peace is much more clear cut. In 2002, he was awarded with a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
8. Franklin D. Roosevelt
Frankly, Franklin D. Roosevelt is arguably the most popular president ever. There’s that saying about keeping your enemies closer than your friends, but it’s doubtful that he was able to serve four terms because people wanted to keep an eye on him.
While he’s known for the New Deal, a series of federal programs that helped to pull the US out of the Great Depression, many forget that he made history when he appointed Frances Perkins to his cabinet. Perkins was the first female to be a presidential cabinet member, and would later play a key role in developing programs like Social Security.
Now it’s time to address the elephant in the room (or is it on the screen?). The name Roosevelt sounds familiar, and that’s because it is. His fifth cousin Teddy Roosevelt (who was president at the time), actually walked his wife down the aisle in place of her deceased father. Why was Teddy such a stand up guy in this situation? Well, he was just keeping it all in the family. Eleanor was Teddy’s niece, which in turn made her FDR’s fifth cousin once removed. Talk about a complicated family tree.
7. Richard Nixon
Without question, the first thing that pops into your head when you think of Richard Nixon is multi-instrumentalist. And how couldn’t you? The guy played piano, clarinet, saxophone, violin, and the most sensual of all instruments, the accordion.
Okay, music might not be what he’s most known for, but his skills as a poker player are world renowned. Don’t think so? Then this should really change your mind, because poker helped to get him into politics. Technically, gambling doesn’t jive well with the principles of the Quaker religion, but didn’t stop him from cleaning up when he was stationed in the south Pacific. According to one of the naval officers who served with him, Nixon raked in between $6,000 and $7,000 in winnings. Years later, he would use this money to back his first major political campaign.
The world of business wasn’t as kind to him, though. As the president of the Citra-Frost Company, he tried to strike it big by selling frozen orange juice. Had he and his investors concentrated more, they would’ve seen that orange juice from (get this) concentrate was the way to go. Sadly, Citra-Frost only lasted 18 months before falling into bankruptcy.
6. Ulysses S. Grant
First thing’s first. You have to forget about the “S” in Ulysses Grant. Really, it doesn’t stand for anything. The phony middle initial was accidentally added to his name when an Ohio congressman nominated him to become a West Point candidate. In reality, Grant’s full name was Hiram Ulysses Grant, but he grew up being called Ulysses. Although, to some people he might have been known under the nickname of “Useless”. Unfortunately, Grant’s quiet nature was mistaken for a lack of intelligence, but he would later prove everyone wrong.
Truth be told, you would never have guessed how accomplished he was by looking at how he dressed. While at West Point, Grant often got penalized for dress code violations, and he held onto his unique fashion sense when he became a general. For the most part, he dressed like an unkempt civilian. He had a regular hat, usually didn’t carry a sword, and wore boots caked in mud. The only thing that visually screamed general was the sown lettering on his coat (you know, the type of coat worn regularly by privates).
5. Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman is another president with a middle initial that doesn’t stand for anything. His parents wanted to name him after a relative who’s name began with “S”, but they couldn’t come to an agreement on which relative. So, they did the next best thing and settled on a lone “S”. Looking back, they probably should have went with “Senate” because that’s where Truman found his ticket to becoming a household name.
In an effort to curb wasteful spending in government agencies, businesses and labor, Truman founded the cleverly named “Truman Committee” in 1941. Over the course of three years, the Truman Committee managed to deliver on many of its promises. For instance, in the terms of military spending, an estimated $10-15 billion was saved. An impressive feat, but it didn’t win him many brownie points with FDR. Even as vice president, Truman wasn’t given many details about matters related to the war. It was only after FDR passed away that he started to get clued in on details like the top secret A-bomb project.
4. Lyndon B. Johnson
As children, we have an idea of what we want to be, but that’s not often what we grow up to do. But if you’re Lyndon B. Johnson, you hit the nail right on the head from start. When he was 12, he told his classmates that he’d be president one day. Not that many people were taking him seriously. He wasn’t exactly the most stellar student, and he was ultimately rejected by his top choice of Southwest Texas State Teachers College.
He didn’t take the disappointment well, so to cope, he did what any young man would do: road trip! Once he and five of his buddies made their way to California, they got by working odd jobs here and there. Eventually, Johnson and the boys had to hitchhike back to Texas. On the way home, they got into a fight and were arrested. The good news is that all of the travel and fisticuffs must’ve given Johnson some clarity. He finally made the grade and was accepted into his dream school in 1927.
3. George H. W. Bush
George H.W. Bush was one of the youngest pilots in the Air Force when he earned his wings in WWII. He almost ended up as one of the youngest casualties, though. His plane was shot down in the Pacific, but somehow, he managed to escape Japanese capture. By the end of the war, Bush was honored with three Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Once you’ve been through a World War, playing in the first two College World Series must seem like nothing. Don’t get me wrong, it is a big deal, especially when you’re the captain of the team at Yale, but you get what I mean. Still, baseball is no substitute for the thrill of flying high in the sky. To celebrate his 75th birthday, Bush went skydiving and liked it so much that he did it again when he turned 80, 85 and 90. Not something you’d expect from old man, but awesome nonetheless.
2. George W. Bush
Other than John Quincy Adams, George W. Bush is the only president who is the son of a president. Like father, like son… kind of.
Prior to running for office, he followed in his father’s footsteps by attending the Phillips Academy, and later Yale University. He wasn’t as academically inclined as his dad, but that didn’t impede his progress in the oil business. After making millions, he and a group of investors bought the Texas Rangers Baseball team. He then acted as Managing General Partner until he was elected governor of Texas in 1994.
Baseball and oil aside, George W. Bush will be remembered for being the most polarizing president in history, and there are stats to prove it. For one, he has both the highest and lowest approval rating in history. In the wake of the September 11th attacks, his approval peaked. However, his handling of Hurricane Katrina didn’t gain him any popularity, and the public’s opinion of him sank along with the state of the economy.
1. Bill Clinton
Boy, could Bill Clinton play a mean saxophone. In high school, he earned first chair in a state band, and thought of dedicating his life to music until he realized that he wasn’t going to be John Coltrane. Oh, and he happened to meet some guy by the name of John F. Kennedy.
When he was a senior year in high school, he went to Washington D.C. as a delegate in the Boys Nation program. It was there that he pushed himself through the crowd to shake hands with a man who had just as much charisma (almost). When you’re staring your future right in the face, you know you have to make some moves. On his way to becoming what many called the “Boy Governor” of Arkansas, Clinton began to hone his political skills by working on the presidential campaign team of George McGovern. During his run with McGovern, Clinton worked with Steven Spielberg (yes, that Spielberg) and Ann Richards, who would go on to become the governor of Texas.