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Great businessman presidents

Jun 30, 2012 - By Mark Shields

John G. Stewart, a philosopher friend of mine, is uncharacteristically agitated. What provokes John Stewart is the Republican argument that the cure for what ails this nation's struggling economy is electing "a president who has made it big time in business, one who can create jobs and get American moving again. "

As Stewart, who in an earlier life was an enormously respected legislative aide to one of the 20th century's premier legislators, Hubert Humphrey, asks: "What on earth is the basis for this repeated claim? There certainly is no historical record to fall back on. "

OK. Let's look at the professional backgrounds of the presidents Americans, according to surveys, most generally admire. George Washington was a general. Abraham Lincoln was a small-town lawyer. Franklin Roosevelt was a lawyer. Teddy Roosevelt was a public servant. Dwight Eisenhower was a general. Woodrow Wilson was a college president. John Kennedy was a journalist and elected official. Ronald Reagan was an actor and a union president. Bill Clinton lawyer.

The only "businessman" U.S. commander in chief to secure high marks from both ordinary citizens and professional historians is Harry Truman, whose haberdashery business ingloriously failed.

But Mitt Romney is far from the first Republican presidential standard-bearer to sound the virtues/values of the businessman in the Oval Office theme. The 1920 GOP nominee's campaign published a booklet with the arresting title: "Less Government in Business; More Business in Government. " After he was elected, the Republican, an Ohio newspaper publisher-businessman kept his promise by presiding over one of the two most corrupt administrations in U.S. history. Thank you, Warren G. Harding.

In the last 24 presidential elections, only two elected presidents were denied a second White House turn by the voters. Democrat Jimmy Carter ran a successful peanut business in his native Georgia and Republican George H.W. Bush moved from Connecticut to Texas, where he founded the prospering Zapata oil company.

The most successful businessman ever elected president had to be the world-renowned engineer and investment banker Herbert Hoover, whose exceptional humanitarian efforts after World War I almost certainly saved Belgium from widespread starvation. President Hoover left office with 25 percent of his nation unemployed.

George W. Bush bounced around the Texas oil business until he struck gold as the businessman-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. When the nation elected his successor in 2008, the younger President Bush's job approval rating was just 25 percent positive and 70 percent negative.

John Stewart puts it bluntly: "The truth is that you search in vain for a single example -- just one -- of a successful businessman who then took his business experience and used it to become a successful president of the United States. "

Why is this the case? Because, according to Stewart, "running a successful business venture -- like Bain Capital, to pick one at random -- has almost nothing in common with leading the United States as her president."

Unlike the businessman who is praised for his forceful decision-making, the successful president must not just make wise decisions, he must also be able to persuade the country, the Congress and powerful interest groups to accept his decision. The president -- unlike the CEO who mostly has to answer only to a like-minded board of directors and his company's bottom-line -- has to be able to inspire, to court, to intimidate, to negotiate and, yes, to yield.

John Stewart is right. The presidency is a far more complicated, demanding and multifaceted job than that faced by any corporate chairman or CEO, where to quote Will Rogers, who died in 1935, "the business of government is to keep the government out of business, unless business needs government aid."

It turns out that being a successful businessman may well preclude you from becoming a successful U.S. president.

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Editor's note: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields is a former Marine who appears regularly on "Newshour" on PBS.

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