During Clint Eastwood’s dialogue with an empty chair at the Republican National Convention, he said something important that was overlooked in the hubbub that followed. In his endorsement (was that an endorsement?) of the Romney-Ryan ticket Eastwood said:
“I never thought it was a good idea for attorneys to be the president, anyway. I think attorneys are so busy — you know they're always taught to argue everything, and always weigh everything — weigh both sides. ... They are always devil's advocating this and bifurcating this and bifurcating that. You know all that stuff. But, I think it is maybe time — what do you think — for maybe a businessman. How about that?”
Didn’t Mitt Romney get a law degree from Harvard? Well, that aside, great idea Clint! Yes, a businessman for president instead of some devil’s advocating, bifurcating, weaseling lawyer. Why hasn’t America thought of this before? A businessman as president! What could go wrong? Well …
How Have Good Businessmen Fared as Presidents?
George W. Bush - W received his M.B.A. from Harvard. As a shareholder of the Texas Rangers baseball team, he turned an $800,000 investment into $15 million when he sold his shares in 1998. Pretty good businessman. He also presided over the biggest economic disaster the United States has seen since the Great Depression: Wall Street run amok, housing market crashes, stock market crashes, turns the Clinton-era surplus into a cavernous deficit. You get the picture.
Herbert Hoover - Not only did Hoover preside over the beginning and worsening of the Great Depression, he has a song dedicated to his economic failures in the musical “Annie” sung by shanty town dwellers titled “We’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover.” Just think, young people in children’s theaters all across the country still sing their little hearts out about how much this guy stunk it up as president.
Hoover received his degree in geology from Stanford and went on to make a fortune, first in mining, then as an investment banker. Great businessman. He then became secretary of commerce, followed by president. Hoover famously said:
"Given the chance to go forward with the policies of the last eight years, we shall soon with the help of God, be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation."
Soon thereafter, the Great Depression hits, the Hoover-backed Smoot-Hawley Tariff exacerbates the situation and Little Orphan Annie sings about how much he stinks.
How About Bad Businessmen Who Also Happen to be Lawyers?
Thomas Jefferson - Not only was Jefferson a lawyer, he was a really, really, really bad businessman. Jefferson inherited a huge estate but was constantly in debt due in part to profligate spending and poor business management. He also wrote the Declaration of Independence, oversaw the Louisiana Purchase, founded the University of Virginia and sent Lewis and Clark into the great unknown. He also died broke, but history has seemed to overlook that in evaluating his legacy.
Abraham Lincoln - Even Honest Abe tried his hand at business. He bought a general store in New Salem, Ill., back in 1832. How did arguably the greatest president in the history of the United States fare as a shopkeeper? The man who guided the North to victory in the Civil War, saved the Union, freed the slaves, recited the Gettysburg Address …
He failed. Went broke. Was taken to court by his creditors and stripped of his two remaining assets: a horse and surveying tools.
Overall though, I think we have to view this failed businessman as a fairly successful president. Clint, by the way, Abe was a lawyer as well.
In fact, many well regarded presidents have been lawyers: John Adams, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton.
The Top 10
Mr. Eastwood, I’m not arguing that a lawyer is necessarily a good president or that a businessman is necessarily a bad president. But, I am arguing that the best presidents have historically not been people with business as their primary background.
Let’s breeze through a list of, arguably, the Top 10 Presidents and see: Washington (general, plantation owner), Lincoln (lawyer), FDR (lawyer), Jefferson (writer, inventor, architect, lawyer), Teddy Roosevelt (soldier, rancher), Wilson (lawyer, professor), Eisenhower (general), Jackson (lawyer, soldier), Reagan (actor, union president) AND Give ‘em Hell Harry S Truman (farmer and failed haberdasher).
The notion that if someone cannot turn a profit, they somehow lack the ability, character and vision to lead is currently a popular one. It is also a notion that bears little resemblance to the history of our great nation.
Jeff B. Cohen Esq. is a partner at the Beverly Hills based law firm of Cohen Gardner LLP, which he co-founded in 2002. Cohen Gardner LLP focuses on corporate, technology, media and entertainment transactions.
In 2008, Jeff was named one of the top 35 executives under 35 years of age by The Hollywood Reporter. Additionally that year, Jeff was profiled by Variety in its Dealmakers Impact Issue.
Jeff also has the dubious distinction of being a former child actor, appearing most notably in the Richard Donner/Steven Spielberg film “The Goonies,” but please don’t hold that against him. He's also on Facebook and Twitter.