If Mitt Romney’s association with Bain Capital ends up sinking his presidential campaign, he’s unlikely to appreciate the irony. But, if he needs consolation, he might consider seeking solace in American history. The fact is that no successful businessman has ever been a successful president, and only a few have even been serious contenders for the job.
This might seem odd, given Americans’ long romance with wealthy entrepreneurs and the enterprises they build. But a talent for developing private companies and making big profits seldom translates into wooing a majority of voters or governing a contentious republic. It may, in fact, blind one from recognizing critical differences between those equally difficult endeavors.
The most famous example of this disconnect was Herbert Hoover—a multi-millionaire who, like Romney, believed that America needed a shrewd capitalist at the helm of state. By the age of forty, the dour Quaker from rural Iowa had made a sizeable fortune as a metal engineer and developer of mines in several foreign countries. During World War I, Hoover employed his skills for a large, humanitarian purpose, arranging for food to be funneled to the millions of Europeans impoverished by the war. Then, in the 1920s, he became a high-profile Commerce Secretary, bringing industries together in trade associations where they could regulate themselves. Thus, Hoover had gained fame as an unelected public servant as well as one of the richest businessmen of his day—in contrast with William Randolph Hearst and Henry Ford, self-serving contemporaries who had earlier flirted with presidential runs.
When he ascended to the White House in 1929, many commentators expected that Hoover’s organizational acumen would make him a brilliant, practical leader. “We were in a mood for magic,” recalled one journalist about the start of his presidential term, “We summoned a great engineer to solve our problems for us; now we sat back comfortably and confidently to watch the problems being solved.”
But the onset of the Great Depression later that fall required the skills of a master politician, and Hoover, who had never run for office before, proved to be a less-than-mediocre one. A stiff and awkward speaker, he neither showed empathy for the jobless nor rallied Congress behind a credible plan to reverse the nation’s economic slide. Hoover’s stern belief in “rugged individualism” had helped win him riches and renown. But it prevented him from recognizing that Americans in trouble needed material relief instead of sermons about the evils of the dole and an unbalanced budget. “The Great Humanitarian who had fed the starving Belgians in 1914, the Great Engineer so hopefully elevated to the presidency in 1928, now appeared as the Great Scrooge,” writes one historian. After a career spent commanding his own organizations, Hoover was unable to adjust to a job that required persuasion, adaptation, and compromise.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom Hoover despised, became the exemplar of a chief executive: compassionate, witty, capable of switching from damning his opponents to winning enough of them over whenever necessary. And so, over the next six decades, the idea of a businessman as president largely went out of fashion. Part of this has to do with the fact that Americans wanted professional politicians to administer the new government programs—domestic and military—on which a majority of the public had come to depend.
(The only exception to the trend was the GOP nomination of Wendell Willkie in 1940. But it’s significant that Willkie, a utility executive, promised to preserve the most important New Deal programs. And, in any case, his erratic speaking style and lack of experience in government convinced most swing voters to stick with FDR.)
But in 1992, many Americans seemed ready again for a self-made mogul who would run America like a business. Growing unemployment and a massive deficit—coupled with a massive riot in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict—fueled a sense that the nation was in decline. Ross Perot addressed this fear with brash promises to balance the budget and curb free trade, enlivened with sharp yet homespun metaphors. For a few weeks, he was actually leading the nominees of both major parties in the polls. Yet, like Hoover, Perot was incapable of adjusting to a protean political environment.
The billionaire Texan exerted iron control over his grass-roots operation, firing any paid activists who displeased him. He courted trouble by ad-libbing many speeches, such as one to the NAACP (where he lectured “you people”). And Perot invited the media’s ridicule with groundless stories about a Black Panther hit squad and a Republican plot to disrupt his daughter’s wedding. Outrage and sarcasm were his sole responses to criticism. “If he thinks he is right,” acknowledged Perot’s son, Ross Jr., "that is all that matters."
The same could be said about Herman Cain, who, one recalls, was briefly the front-runner for the GOP nomination. Judged at the time the “most likeable” of the contenders, Cain, the former capo of Godfather Pizza, shared the same flaw Perot displayed two decades earlier: a self-righteous, if wisecracking, conviction in his own nostrum (the 9-9-9 tax plan) for fixing a sick economy. Neither man understood that a clever, motivational style is not enough to lift one into the White House.
Mitt Romney is certainly more adept at running for the presidency than were any of his corporate predecessors. And his penchant for changing his mind, or at least his positions, has gotten him in more trouble than has any adherence to personal dogma. Yet Romney’s dogged refusal to release any of his income tax returns before 2010 reveals a similar inability to comprehend the suspicions many Americans harbor about the acquisition of exceptional wealth. As Michael Tomasky wrote last week in The Daily Beast, “Releasing your returns is just one of those things you have to do, like eating corn dogs in Iowa. That he is even fighting this point shows us, or at least gives us much reason to suspect, that the kind of capitalism he practiced for 25 years is utterly incompatible with civic responsibility.”
More important, Romney fervently shares the same mistaken credo preached by Hoover, Perot, and Cain. They all believed that to do well in business, which requires dedication to the narrow welfare of one firm or economic sector, splendidly equips one to triumph in the presidency, which demands a talent for reconciling competing interests and voter blocs for the purpose of advancing a semblance of the common, national good. To get rich may be glorious. But it does not qualify you to represent the best ideals of the country or to make policy for the vast majority of Americans. After all, the only chance most of us will have to get $100,000 a year in exchange for no work is to win the lottery.
Michael Kazin’s latest book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, will be out in paperback next month. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent.