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July 17, 2012 12:20 PM “Business Experience”

By Daniel Luzer

Recently Mitt Romney said “To create jobs, it helps to have had one.”

He meant, of course, not just any job but a private sector one. “I’m a guy who has lived in the world of business. [If] you don’t balance your budget in business you go out of business. So I’ve lived balancing budgets.” Duly noted.

Earlier in the year he recommended amending the Constitution to require a presidential candidate to have at least “three years of business experience” to be eligible to run. While such a provision would disqualify many historical presidents (Lincoln would probably be out, as would Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Reagan) many presidential candidates had interesting private sector jobs.

While our candidates are, frankly, mostly lawyers, here are some of the also-rans who’ve had surprising jobs throughout history.

FremontJohn C. Frémont (lost to James Buchanan in 1856)
Technically Frémont didn’t really have much in the way of private sector experience, but his resume was pretty amazing. He was a military officer and served as an explorer, investigating the Oregon Trail and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He was apparently one the first Americans to see Lake Tahoe.

His “Report and Map,” published by Congress, helped thousands migrate to California during the Gold Rush. Years after losing the election, and a less than stellar performance during the Civil War, he served as the first governor of the Arizona Territory.

DouglasStephen A. Douglas (lost to Abraham Lincoln in 1860)
The forgotten Douglas is one of the few real entrepreneurs on this list. He seems to be the only one who actually started a business from scratch, though not a very successful one. After leaving home in Vermont at the age of 20, he settled in what was then the far West, Winchester, Illinois. There the somewhat spottily educated, though ambitious, man worked as a sort of freelance teacher before opening his own school. Tuition at the institution was $3 a student. It closed after three months and Douglas became a lawyer and eventually U.S. senator.

GreeleyHorace Greeley (lost the 1872 election to Ulysses S. Grant)
The original crusading journalist, he founded The New York Tribune. His paper, which opposed slavery early and loudly, was an early competitor of the New York Times, which was at the time a reliably conservative paper. When candidates rail today against the liberal media, it’s interesting to think that one of the original publisher of liberal media had a chance to occupy the White House. Well, a slim chance; Grant pretty much trounced him.

BlaineJames G. Blaine (lost to Grover Cleveland, 1884)
Blaine was a distinguished senator from Maine, but early in his life he tried a variety of odd jobs before striking it rich. In1848 the Western Military Institute in Georgetown, Kentucky hired Blaine, as a professor of mathematics and ancient languages. He was only 18 at the time, younger than many of his students. In 1853 he become editor and co-owner of the Kennebec Journal, after spending several summers in Maine befriending the paper’s editor. The paper, oddly enough, was an incredible financial success and he was able to use his portion of the profits to make lucrative investments in coal mines in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Job creator, there he was.

LandonAlf Landon (defeated, soundly, by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936)
Landon born in West Middlesex, Pennsylvania, first tried a career in banking, but by 1912 he became an oil producer in Independence, Kansas. By 1929, when he was in his early 40s, he was a millionaire. He later became governor of Kansas but carried only Maine and Vermont in the 1936 election.

HumpheryHubert Humphrey (lost the 1968 election to Richard Nixon)
Humphrey, surprisingly, started his professional life as a pharmacist. In 1930 he left the University of Minnesota to help run his father’s drugstore in Huron, South Dakota. He earned a pharmacist’s license from the Capitol College of Pharmacy in six months and spent seven years dispensing drugs to the people in town. He apparently hated the job and returned to college, finally graduating at the age of 28. He went on to become a major figure in Minnesota politics and vice president under Lyndon Johnson.

GoreAl Gore (lost, sort of, to George W. Bush in 2000)
Gore never appears to have owned a business, but he had a reasonably serious career, if brief, before he entered politics. While attending divinity school at Vanderbilt University, the future politician worked on the night shift for The Tennessean as an investigative reporter. His articles on corruption in Nashville’s Metro Council apparently resulted in the arrest and conviction of two councilmen. He worked there until 1974, when he left to go to law school.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer