- The law is a predictable avenue into politics, but not quite as common as one might think.
- World leaders — democratically elected and otherwise — come from a wide variety of backgrounds.
- Some were doctors, dentists, or athletes. One even recorded a funk album in the 1970s. Another was a terrorist.
“Politics is weird. It’s the only business in the world in which you take a really, really important position, and you give it to someone with no qualifications.”
“Even if you’re choosing the next coach for a football team, you wouldn’t just put the most enthusiastic fan in charge. People would say that’s insane. Yet that’s what we do in politics.”
“When I became prime minister, I found that the qualities that make you come to power — being a persuader and a communicator — are different from those you need when you’re in power, when you suddenly realize it’s all about delivery, about executive capability.”
From Ugly Rumours to Downing Street
So said Tony Blair in a recent discussion with journalist Jon Sopel on the state of politics in Britain and the West. Blair would know. The former British prime minister (1997-2007) got his first taste of fame back in the 1970s as the singer and guitar player in a rock band called “Ugly Rumours.”
To be fair, the band folded after a handful of gigs, and Blair eventually opted for the law — a degree rather more typical as a path to political power. However, as this map shows, it is not the most common one by far.
The path to the presidency
Produced in 2019 and thus slightly out of date, this map nevertheless gives a good indication of the first jobs of government leaders around the world. It might seem like a law degree is the indispensable entry ticket into politics, but globally, law only comes in at 5th place of the “first job” categories, with just 17 presidents, prime ministers, chancellors, and the like hailing from the legal profession.
One of them is Joe Biden, the current president of the United States. On the map, the U.S. is still shaded in the color of the Business & Finance category, into which falls his predecessor’s real estate career. Being a banker or an entrepreneur is actually a more secure path to lead your country than the law. Worldwide, this category has sent 23 of its representatives into the highest executive office of various nations. Even more secure is simply to start out in Government & Politics (27 leaders). So apparently, not everybody dislikes a career politician.
The overall leading categories, however, are the military and education, both with 34 representatives. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau falls into the latter category. He is the son of Pierre Trudeau, who preceded him as Canadian PM in the 1970s and 1980s. But Justin earned his first paycheck as a math teacher, although he famously also worked as a bouncer, a snowboard instructor, and a radio host.
South America has had and still has its fair share of leaders from the former category, including Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro (who graduated and served as an artillery officer) and Paraguay’s president Abdo Benítez (who studied marketing, but joined the army to become a paratrooper).
Presidential dentist becomes president
At the time this map was made, the region also had the world’s only ruling oncologist in Tabaré Vázquez, the president of Uruguay. In a dark twist of fate, he died of cancer in 2020, shortly after completing his second presidential term. Medicine is the 6th most prominent “first job” category, albeit with no more than nine representatives. Undoubtedly, the most infamous of that bunch is Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, who worked as an army doctor before taking over the family business — being dictator.
Another was Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the president of Turkmenistan known to his people as Arkadag (“Protector”). Turkmenistan is regularly described as one of the most terrifying regimes on Earth. Perhaps this has to do with the Protector’s first profession: dentist. In fact, he was his predecessor’s personal dentist. Earlier this year, Berdimuhamedow was succeeded by his son Serdar, thus establishing a political dynasty. Shortly afterward, the new president’s mother (and the previous one’s wife) was awarded the title of Honored Carpet Weaver of Turkmenistan. Is there anything this family can’t do?
Singing and playing your way to the top
The “first jobs” become more interesting as the categories get smaller. Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, although in possession of a law degree, started his professional life as a comedian, famously playing a president on TV before being elected as one. At the time this map was made, just three other government leaders came from the arts world.
Another is Ali Bongo Ondimba. Although he “inherited” the presidency of Gabon from his father in 2009, his first foray into the world of work was as a musician. The future president (then still Alain Bongo) was barely 19 when he released a funk album in 1978, called A Brand New Man. (Here’s the title track.)
George Weah, the current president of Liberia, arguably was more famous in his previous job, as a professional footballer for several top clubs in Europe, including AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain. In 2019, he was one of four leaders with a Sports background.
The president of Mongolia at that time was a fellow athlete: Khaltmaagiin Battulga was a professional sambo wrestler — sambo being a martial art developed in the early Soviet Union to improve the hand-to-hand combat capabilities of its military. He was succeeded in 2021 by Ukhnaagiin Khürelsükh, who started out his professional life rather more boringly, as a political officer in the Mongolian People’s Army.
Xi Jinping, the cave-dwelling manual laborer
And then there are the one-offs. Nicolás Maduro, the president of Venezuela, is the only world leader — currently, and perhaps ever — who began his professional life as bus driver.
Xi Jinping, as president of China, is one of the most powerful people on Earth. He started out as a manual laborer, a circumstance forced by the Cultural Revolution, which ordered students out of schools to work village fields. Xi lived in a cave and dug ditches in Liangjiahe Village, where he would spend a total of seven years.
Michael D. Higgins, the current president of Ireland, is a published poet and a former lecturer, but he started out as a waiter, working to pay for his education.
As this map shows, things get even weirder in India. The map indicates the first professions of the chief ministers of its various states. Just one lawyer, teacher, doctor, and businessman each among the bunch. Some of the more extravagant ones:
- Magician: Ashok Gehlot, chief minister of Rajasthan, holds an MA in economics but is the son of a traveling magician, and presumably got his first paid gig assisting his old man.
- Priest: Yogi Adityanath is the religious name of Ajay Singh Bisht. In 2014, the Hindu monk became the head priest of the Gorakhnath Math monastery — a position he retains even after his appointment as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
- Guitarist: It is hard to independently verify the map’s claim that Conrad Sangma, chief minister of tiny Meghalaya, started out as a guitarist. But there is plenty of supporting evidence. The internet is awash with clips of him covering Iron Maiden’s “Wasted Years”, the Beatles’ “Let It Be”, and Bryan Adams’ “Summer of 69.”
- Terrorist: Zoramthanga — mononymous like most Mizoramese — joined the Mizo National Front in the mid-1960s, when it staged a major rebellion for secession from India. The movement has since transformed into a legitimate political party, currently in power, with Zoramthanga as Mizoram’s Chief Minister.
Margaret Thatcher, inventor of soft-serve ice cream?
Tony Blair’s current successor as British PM, Boris Johnson, has recently indicated that he will step down. Supporters and detractors alike will agree that Johnson is one of the more colorful prime ministers of the past decades. You wouldn’t have guessed that from his very first profession — just another management consultant — except perhaps from the fact that he lasted just one week in that job.
Two rather more interesting first careers of previous British PMs: As a food research scientist, Margaret Thatcher was part of the team that helped “invent soft-serve ice cream” — although that claim is disputed. Her successor, John Major, the son of a couple of vaudeville entertainers*, was once described as “the only boy to ever run away from the circus to become an accountant.” One of his first odd jobs, however, was helping out his brother Terry — make garden gnomes.
Boris Johnson’s successor, currently being selected by the Conservative Party, will take over at the start of September. Whoever he or she turns out to be, the grand tradition of British and indeed world politics seems to dictate that they will be thoroughly unqualified for the job.
Strange Maps #1159
Got a strange map? Let me know at [email protected].
*An apocryphal story too delightful not to repeat here has it that David Bowie named Major Tom, the doomed spaceman central to his first hit “Space Oddity,” after Tom Major (John’s father), having remembered that name from an old theater bill.