Strangely, several of America’s most notable presidents were failures before reaching the Oval Office.
Therefore, failure is no impediment to ultimate success. Several people we now regard as outstanding leaders were failures early in their careers.
Some U.S. Presidents who were former failures include:
Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois)
Many people regard Abe Lincoln as America’s greatest president. Yet, Lincoln’s political career before the White House was marked by failure.
Lincoln’s Congressional career was brief and a failure. Old Abe served one term in the US House of Representatives (1846-1848) and didn’t seek reelection. In addition, Lincoln’s efforts to get an appointment with President Zachary Taylor’s (W-Louisiana) administration went nowhere.
Lincoln’s two runs for US Senate from Illinois (1855 and 1858) were spectacularly unsuccessful. However, Lincoln became a Dark Horse candidate for the Republican nomination for President. Then won the Presidency in 1860.
One reason Lincoln won in 1860 was that he leveraged the fame from his 1858 Senate campaign. To elaborate, Lincoln challenged the nation’s most influential Democrat U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas (D-Illinois) to a series of debates on slavery and other issues.
The debates attracted extensive media attention and made Lincoln into a national figure. By challenging Douglas, Lincoln established himself as a leading critic of the Democratic Slave Power and slavery itself. Lincoln lost the 1858 Senate race but won the debates. That positioned Lincoln for his successful presidential run in 1860.
Today, Americans remember Lincoln as the Great Emancipator who won the Civil War, saved American Democracy, preserved the union, and ended slavery. Lincoln achieved hose successes by turning a defeat into a platform for future victory.
Ulysses S. Grant (R-Illinois)
No president was a greater failure in his early life than Grant. In 1854, Grant resigned his Army commission to avoid court martial for drunkenness.
Just 11 years later in 1865, Grant was America’s top general, greatest hero, and probable Republican presidential candidate for 1868. Five years earlier, Grant had been working as a clerk in his father’s store to support his family.
Grant redeemed himself by jumping at the opportunity to rejoin the Army when the Civil War began in 1861. The Union Army was so desperate for trained soldiers it welcomed Grant back as a colonel.
Grant’s Civil War record is so impressive, many historians regard Grant as the greatest fighting general in American history. Grant went onto win two presidential elections, establishing the Republican Party as the dominant force in American politics for three generations. In addition as President, Grant fought a tireless battle for the rights of African Americans that led to a century long smear campaign by racist historians.
Historian James M. McPherson thinks Grant’s failures and alcoholism made him a great general. To explain, McPherson believes career setbacks taught Grant how to deal with failure and persevere in the face of adversity.
In contrast, McPherson believes other Civil War Generals; such as George B. McClellan, lost because those soldiers could not cope with defeat.* Grant’s willingness to seize an opportunity and ability to bounce back after defeat ensured his place in history.
Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York)
Similarly to Lincoln, many Americans regard FDR as a great president. However, FDR’s pre-White House career inside and outside politics was one of obscurity and failure.
In 1920, Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York) became a national political figure as a vice-presidential candidate. FDR was the running mate to James M. Cox (D-Ohio), one of the most unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidates in history.
The Cox/Roosevelt ticket lost to Warren G. Harding (R-Ohio) by a margin of 404 to 127 votes in the Electoral College. In fact, Cox lost every state outside the South.
During the 1920s, FDR became a spectacularly unsuccessful venture capitalist. FDR’s business ventures included such hare-brained schemes as a dirigible airline, and a coin-operated discount store. Fortunately, for his family’s income, FDR went back to politics in 1928.
He became New York’s governor, then won an unprecedented four terms as president. Today Americans revere FDR as the man who ended the Great Depression and won World War II. FDR achieved those successes because he refused to let political defeats, business failures, and disability from polio stop him. FDR’s career proves perseverance is necessary for success.
Harry S. Truman (D-Missouri)
Truman’s life before politics was a litany of failure. Poor eyesight killed Truman’s childhood dream of attending the US Military Academy at West Point.
After high school, Truman’s efforts to find another career failed, and ended up back on the farm working for his dad. Later on Truman failed in several business ventures including oil exploration, mining, and a men’s clothing store.
In 1922, Truman; who had a family to support and no job, entered politics as a last resort. Kansas City, Missouri, political boss Thomas Pendergast used his influence to get Truman elected Jackson County Judge (county commissioner).
Truman’s successful service as judge led to election to the U.S. Senate in 1934. Truman’s Senate service so impressed other Democrats, they nominated him for Vice President in 1944. In 1945, Truman became president after the death of FDR.
Today, we remember Truman as one of America’s most popular presidents. Harry is well-remembered for using the atomic bomb, starting the Cold War, and launching America’s civil rights revolution. It was Truman’s willingness to accept new challenges and provide good service in political roles that led to that reputation.
Richard M. Nixon (R-California)
In 1960, Nixon, then vice president, went from political wonder kid and golden boy of the Republican Party to failure.
Many people saw Nixon as President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s (R-Kansas) successor. However, Nixon suffered a close and humiliating defeat in the 1960 presidential election. In 1962, Nixon’s first attempt at a political comeback failed when he lost a bid for California governor.
On November 7, 1962, Nixon even held what he called his “last press conference” at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Nixon told reporters; “you don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”
In 1968, Nixon made a triumphant comeback by easily capturing the Republican presidential nomination. Then going onto win a hard-fought battle for the presidency and a successful reelection in 1972.
Today, historians and political strategists regard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign as a watershed event in American politics. To explain, Nixon won by appealing to the conservative instincts of white middle and working-class voters with a “law and order campaign.”
Hence, Nixon set the stage for the Republican Party’s impressive comeback in the 1970s and dominance of national politics in the 1980s and 1990s. It was Nixon’s willingness to take the risk of reentering politics that made that possible.
Ronald Reagan (R-California)
Few leaders have experienced a more bitter failure than Ronald Reagan. Reagan almost achieved his dream of becoming a movie star before seeing his career collapse.
In the late 1930s; Warner Brothers, then Hollywood’s largest movie studio, put Reagan under contract. At Warner Brothers, Reagan had some notable successes, including critically acclaimed supporting roles in Kings Row and Knute All-American.
By 1941, Warner Brothers was grooming Reagan for stardom as Australian Matinee idol Errol Flynn’s American sidekick in high-profile films, such as Santa Fe Trail. Then World War II intervened, and Reagan left the studio and went into the Army to make training films.
After the war, Reagan found acting work drying up as the Hollywood studio system collapsed. By the early 1950s, Reagan was starring in dreadful B movies; such as Bedtime for Bonzo costarring a chimpanzee, and Hellcats of the Navy.
By 1954, Reagan’s movie career was over. However, like Truman, Reagan had a family to support. At one point, Reagan was so desperate he tried performing in Las Vegas to pay the bills.
Reagan found a new role as a public relations spokesman for General Electric, and host of The General Electric Theater TV show. At GE, Reagan delivered pro-business speeches expounding on conservative themes.
Reagan leveraged his GE speeches into a political career. In 1966, Reagan won a spectacular victory in the California governor’s election. Reagan went onto serve two-terms as President of the United States and change the course of American politics.
Donald J. Trump Sr. (R-Florida)
Strangely, no U.S. president has experienced more failure than America’s current chief executive, Donald J. Trump Sr. (R-Florida). In fact, Trump’s business career is a long list of failures.
Notable Trump failures include; Trump Airlines, Trump beverages, Trump: the Game, Trump casinos, Trump magazines, Trump Steaks, Trump’s abortive telecommunications company, the Trump Tower Tampa, Trump Menswear sold through defunct department store JC Penney, a Trump Mattress, Trump University, and the United States Football League. By the turn of the 21st Century, Trump’s business career was over.
Similarly to Reagan, Trump leveraged his fame into a successful second act in media that led to political success. After failing in business, Trump turned to reality television by starring in The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice.
Stardom on those shows transformed Trump from a New York tabloid byline into a national figure. Trump used the bully pulpit reality TV gave him to a launch a successful political career. In the 2016 presidential contest, the Donald won a surprise victory over one of the biggest names in American politics; Hillary R. Clinton (D-New York).
Consequently, many pundits believe Trump has transformed American politics by making nationalism and working-class populism the agenda of the Republican Party. Just as Reagan led a conservative revolution in the 1980s.
Even those who disagree with Trump and Reagan’s politics can learn an important lesson from those two men. The lesson is you can always reinvent yourself and find success in new fields if you are willing to take the risks of exploration and reinvention.
History teaches that failure is not the end of your life. Several American presidents began their careers with failure.