When Donald Trump took the presidential oath Friday, he joined a select, well-known group of only 45 men who have been president of the United States during its 240-year history.
What’s less-known is that the billionaire also joined a little-known group, only the sixth member of a super-select group of men – those whose very first elected office was the U.S. presidency. (Not counting the first president, George Washington, a general who disdained political parties.)
Are there any patterns to these presidential oddities? Any instructive observations from their rise and their service in the White House?
Well, for starters, all six have been members of the Republican Party or its predecessor, the Whigs.
Half were retired generals, in effect, military chief executives. Two were wealthy businessmen, successful civilian executives. One was a career government executive who is the only person to ever head the executive and judicial branches of America’s government.
Only two of the six served two terms.
Americans have had an episodic but regular fascination with non-politicians as their elected national leader as a sort of refreshing political cleansing, a democratic reaffirmation that Everyman might rise to the country’s highest office, although few do. At other times, American voters have flirted with wealthy business candidates with no political experience – Republican Wendell Willkie in 1940 and Ross Perot in 1992. But neither came close.
In Trump’s case, clearly, his success is attributed in large part to his ability to tap into a widespread frustration and dissatisfaction with the way Washington has not worked and his Democratic opponent’s close connection to that closed, self-aggrandizing system, including incumbent President Barack Obama.
So, who were these men? Most recent was Dwight Eisenhower (1953-61), a career Army officer who served in both world wars, the last one as supreme Allied commander, Europe. He was also NATO’s first commander and president of Columbia University before entering politics with a promise to end the Korean War.
Ike, as president, is perhaps best-known as father of the interstate highway system. That was actually a proposal he made as a colonel after a cross-country convoy studied the nation’s muddy highway infrastructure in 1919 as a national security threat.
Less known was Eisenhower’s refusal to join Britain and France in the armed Suez Crisis of 1956 and his refusal to enter the Indochina War on France’s side. Ike’s successor, John Kennedy, could not resist South Vietnam’s pleas for help, leading to the bitterly divisive years of the Vietnam War.
Herbert Hoover (1929-33) was an engineer and businessman who’d earned an international reputation in the post-World War I years for humanitarian work organizing food relief in Europe and China. As Calvin Coolidge’s secretary of commerce, Hoover became known as a can-do advocate of government efficiencies and public-private partnerships.
He was elected in a 1928 landslide as the nation’s first Quaker president and the last Cabinet member to win the White House. He donated his entire presidential salary to charity.
In Hoover’s first year, however, the Great Depression struck. Despite immense public works projects like the St. Lawrence Seaway and what became – wait for it – the Hoover Dam, he was overwhelmed by economic woes, losing a 1932 re-election bid in a landslide.
The lengthy résumé of Howard Taft (1909-13) listed jobs like federal appeals court judge, governor of the Philippines, solicitor general and secretary of war. But nothing elected. Until he became Teddy Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor in 1908.
The two men split four years later, divided the GOP and Progressive vote and ushered in Democrat Woodrow Wilson and the income tax. In 1921 thanks to President Warren G. Harding, Taft became the only man to serve as president and the Supreme Court’s chief justice. Also, at 335 pounds, the largest.
Ulysses Grant (1869-77) was Abraham Lincoln’s final Union Army commander who conquered Confederate forces from Mississippi to Virginia. The warrior (whose real first name was Hiram) could be ruthless, continuing his bombardment of Vicksburg and refusing its surrender until July 4. All the while penning numerous love letters to wife Julia: “A thousand kisses for you. Dream of me.”
Lincoln admired Grant as a general and plain-speaker. “Although a soldier by profession,” Grant wrote for future generations, “I have never felt any sort of fondness for war, and I have never advocated it, except as a means of peace.”
And a Grant favorite: “I know only two tunes. One of them is ‘Yankee Doodle’ and the other one isn’t.”
Grant integrated his troops and presided over initial Reconstruction. As president, he used the military and Justice Department to battle the Ku Klux Klan and enforce freed slaves’ voting rights.
But his administrations were plagued with corruption charges and the GOP denied him a third nomination. The hard-drinking, cigar-chomping veteran later wrote a well-regarded autobiography before dying of throat cancer.
The nation’s first non-politician president was Zachary Taylor (1849-50). Another career Army general, Taylor gained hero status with a series of upset victories over larger Mexican forces (with Grant as a junior lieutenant).
“Rough and Ready” Taylor had no time for pretense or standard politics when the Whig Party approached him in 1848. He would not share his political views, nor meet with voters. His victory on Nov. 7, 1848, came on the first U.S. national election held on the same day in every state (the Tuesday after November’s first Monday).
Taylor’s inauguration was set for March 4. However, that was a Sunday. No Taylor swears an oath on the Sabbath. So, he became the 12th president a day late.
Sixteen months later, however, the veteran of countless battles died in bed of a mysterious stomach problem. But not before leaving this advice for anyone – politician or non-politician – considering the presidency:
“Such an idea never entered my head. Nor is it likely to enter the head of any sane person.”
Andrew Malcolm began writing on U.S. politics in 1968. He can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AHMalcolm. Contact him at