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The Present

The previous experience of every US president since Theodore Roosevelt

What qualifies someone for the top position in American government?

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Key Takeaways
  • What does it take to be president? The United States Constitution only lists three requirements for the job: be at least 35 years old, be a natural born citizen, and live in the United States for at least 14 years.
  • A total of 45 men had held the position so far, and each has taken a very different route to the White House.
  • Beginning in the 20th century, here is a brief summary of the past 20 leaders and their job experience.

The value of a U.S. President’s former experience is an open debate in American politics, one that won’t be settled any time soon. Some historians argue that those presidents who shaped their CVs outside the political circles of Washington D.C.—your Zachary Taylors and Herbert Hoovers—have proven less effective at party leadership or building strong, agile administrations. Others see no correlation between experience and impact. It is the times in which they lead, not the experience, that counts. To help you decide for yourself, here’s a quick primer on the past experience of the last 20 presidents:

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Born into a wealthy family in New York City in 1958, Roosevelt suffered severe asthma as a child. Doctors told him to lead an easy life devoid of physical exertion. Roosevelt didn’t listen, deciding instead to strengthen himself through rigorous exercise.

It seemed to work. His illnesses subsided, and this success led him to promote the philosophy of “The Strenuous Life,” which is the name of a speech he gave in 1899. Here’s a brief excerpt:

“I wish to preach,” Roosevelt said, “not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace.”

After studying the natural sciences at Harvard University, Roosevelt enrolled at Columbia Law School. But he dropped out after a year to enter a career in Republican politics.

Tragedy struck Roosevelt’s family in 1884, when his mother and wife died hours apart from separate diseases. Grief-stricken, Roosevelt soon moved to the Dakota Badlands, where he worked as a sheriff, rode horses, hunted grizzly bears and bought two ranches. After two years, he headed back to the East Coast to resume his political career.

Roosevelt, who remains the youngest American to ever become president, used his office to expand the authority and scope of the executive branch, issuing more than 1,000 executive orders during his eight years in office — almost 10 times more than his predecessor.

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Today, William H. Taft is remembered as the president who got stuck in a White House bathtub. This is unfortunate for two reasons: first, the story is historic bunkum, and second, it demonstrates that his lackluster presidency has overshadowed an otherwise impressive career in public service.

Taft came to politics through his true passion, the law. He began his legal career began as a prosecutor before being appointed a judge to the Cincinnati Superior Court in 1887. Not three years later, he was appointed as U.S. solicitor general. Not two years after that, he became a judge of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

His transition into politics came in 1900 when President McKinley asked him to serve as the Governor-General of the Philippines. He stayed in the role until 1904 when he returned stateside to become Roosevelt’s secretary of war. Seen as Roosevelt’s natural successor—though his presidency would prove otherwise—he was nominated at the Republican Convention in 1908.

After his presidency, Taft became a Professor of Law at Yale before landing his dream job, Chief Justice of the United States. Though he is the only person in history to serve as both president and chief justice, Taft is said to have remarked, “I don’t remember that I ever was President.”

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Woodrow Wilson spent years in academia before becoming the 28th president of the U.S. He studied political philosophy and history at what is now Princeton University, law at the University of Virginia, and then political science at Johns Hopkins University, where he earned a PhD — the only one awarded to a U.S. president to this day.

In his dissertation titled “Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics,” Wilson argued for installing in the U.S. the British parliamentary system, where a prime minister directs both the government and the majority party in the legislature.

While working as a law professor at Princeton, Wilson wrote ten books, including a five-volume history of the U.S. and a biography of George Washington. In 1902, Wilson became president of Princeton University.

After becoming president of the U.S. in 1913, Wilson, who had appointed a number of Southern segregationists to his cabinet, oversaw the segregation of government offices. Wilson, a Democrat, was seen as a progressive reformer, whose domestic policies included creating the federal income tax, establishing the Federal Reserve System, and advancing antitrust legislation.

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After graduating college and trying his hand at various jobs, Warren G. Harding bought a near defunct Ohio newspaper, The Marion Star. The venture cost $300, but it was the start of Harding’s path to the presidency.

Under Harding and his partner’s leadership, The Marion Star prospered and became a go-to resource for Ohio politicians thanks to its reputation for fairness and impartiality. Harding then turned his attention to politics. In 1899, he ran for and won the first of two terms in the Ohio State Senate. He then served as Ohio’s Lieutenant Governor before returning to the newspaper business.

In 1910, Harding made an unsuccessful bid for the governorship, but four years later, he won the U.S. Senate election in Ohio. As a senator, he opposed the League of Nations, a sentiment that followed him to his presidency.

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Calvin Coolidge — born in Vermont on the Fourth of July, 1872 — was known for his serious and quiet demeanor, which earned him the nickname “Silent Cal.” Coolidge focused his life on public service, a vocation that crystallized while he was studying philosophy at Amherst College.

“I should like to live where I can be of some use to the world and not simply where I should get a few dollars together,” Coolidge wrote while in college.

After college, Coolidge studied law at a firm in Vermont. As his law career progressed, he began making connections with Republicans in the region. In Massachusetts, he rose from positions in local offices in 1898 to governor in 1918.

Coolidge served as vice president under President Warren G. Harding in 1921. After Harding’s sudden death in 1923, Coolidge became the 30th president of the U.S., and was re-elected in 1924. As a small-government conservative, Coolidge was largely successful in reducing the national deficit, cutting taxes and streamlining government.

Despite being widely popular, he chose not to run for re-election in 1928. A year later, a reporter asked him what his biggest accomplishment as president had been. “Minding my own business,” he replied.

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Hoover was a young Quaker orphan who went from laboring in a gold mine to ultimately owning a successful mining consultant firm. This Dickensian tale might have been all we’d ever know about the man who would be president. But then World War I broke out.

When Germany declared war on France, Herbert Hoover was living in London. There, the American Consul General requested the businessman organize rescue efforts for Americans stranded in Europe. Hoover managed to evacuate 120,000 Americans. He then chaired the Committee for the Relief of Belgium, a charitable organization that raised millions of dollars for food and medicine to aid German-occupied Belgium and France.

In 1917, President Wilson plucked Hoover to run the U.S. Food Administration, where he oversaw the war effort to feed American soldiers and their allies. After the war, Hoover was appointed to head the European Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and became a member of the Supreme Economic Council. In the post-war years, he oversaw relief efforts for central Europe and even extended food aid to Soviet Russia during the 1921 famine.

He was appointed the U.S. Secretary of Commerce by President Harding, a position he continued to hold under President Coolidge. His popularity in the United States soared after he coordinated the disaster response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. A year later, he was elected the 31st U.S. President. Weeks after taking office, the stock market crashed.

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Franklin D. Roosevelt was born in New York in 1882 to a wealthy family. He was a distant cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt, whose tenure inspired the younger Roosevelt in his boarding-school days.

After earning his undergraduate degree from Harvard College, Roosevelt attended law school at Columbia University. But practicing law proved uninteresting to him, and soon he entered politics. He was elected to the New York State Senate in 1910, was re-elected two years later, and in 1913 joined the Wilson administration as an assistant secretary of the Navy.

In 1921, Roosevelt contracted polio and was left paralyzed in his legs, though he regained some mobility. In 1928, Roosevelt became governor of New York. When the stock market crashed soon after, Roosevelt began implementing progressive policies that provided economic aid and unemployment assistance to New York families.

The depression was worsening when Roosevelt, a Democrat, became the 32nd president of the U.S. in 1933. In his inaugural address, Roosevelt aimed to reassure Americans:

“This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

In his first 100 days in office, Roosevelt began implementing his “New Deal”, which helped to alleviate the depression through a series of massive public works projects, financial reforms and new federal agencies.

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After leaving college, Harry S. Truman worked a series of jobs before being deployed to France as a member of the 129th Artillery Regiment. After World War I, Truman opened a Kansas City haberdashery with a friend. Though the haberdashery would ultimately go bust, both Truman’s military service and the connections he made through civic organizations would later support his ambitions.

His political career began with a judgeship of the eastern district of Jackson County—a position that made him the de facto county commissioner. Though he lost his re-election bid, he would become the presiding judge of the country court in 1926. He then ran for Senate in 1934, winning the seat and his 1940 re-election.

Unbeknown to Truman, the door to presidency opened for him in 1944. That year, President Roosevelt dropped his sitting vice president, Henry A. Wallace, from the Democratic ticket. Truman replaced Wallace and won the election alongside Roosevelt. But he would only hold the vice presidency for 82 days. When President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, Truman became the 33rd U.S. President.

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Eisenhower was said to dislike the company of scholars. Born in Texas in 1890 to a family with six brothers, he took an early liking to fishing, hunting, sports, and exploring the outdoors. He also developed an interest in military history, and enrolled at West Point in 1911, which saddened his pacifist mother.

Eisenhower went on to lead an unparalleled military career, ascending the ranks from cadet to general of the Army over three decades. During World War II, Eisenhower planned and gave the orders to execute the Normandy Invasion, the largest amphibious attack in world history.

In 1952, Eisenhower won the presidency as a Republican candidate. Considered an early example of “modern Republicanism,” his administration focused on cutting taxes, reducing government control over the economy, and returning power to states. He went on to negotiate an end to the Korean War, win a second term, declare Alaska and Hawaii U.S. states, and form NASA.

Before leaving office, Eisenhower warned of the growing entanglement of the armed forces and defense contractors, which comprise what he called the military-industrial complex.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” Eisenhower said. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”

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John F. Kennedy is the youngest person to hold the presidency and the youngest person to have died in the office.

Kennedy entered the Navy in 1940 after graduating from Harvard. By 1943, he was given command of a patrol torpedo boat, the PT-109, in the South Pacific. In August of that year, a Japanese destroyer rammed the ship, crippling it. Kennedy led the crew’s ten survivors on a three-mile swim to an island. After their rescue, Kennedy received the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Medal for Valor and a Purple Heart.

After the war, Kennedy’s political career would begin. He won election to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Massachusetts congressman in 1946. He would serve in the House for the next two terms before running for the U.S. Senate in 1952. Although he narrowly missed the Democratic nomination for vice president in 1956, he became their nominee for the presidency four years later.

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Born in 1908 near Johnson City, Texas (which was founded by his relatives) Johnson didn’t always seem destined for a life in politics. Despite his father’s job as a state representative, his family had to struggle to come up with the money to send Johnson to Southwest Texas State Teachers College.

His family’s money troubles, and his brief stint teaching impoverished children, had a strong impact on his political career, which began with his role as a legislative secretary for a Democratic congressman. He served as a congressman himself from 1937 to 1949, during which time he also served in the Pacific Theater, becoming the first sitting congressman to serve on active duty.

Johnson served in the Senate for 12 years, and then became vice president under John F. Kennedy in 1960. When Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Johnson was sworn in as the 36th president of the U.S. He began implementing domestic policies that would create the “Great Society,” as Johnson said in a 1964 speech:

“In your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society. The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time.”

The “Great Society” policies aimed to reduce poverty, expand civil rights, bolster public health care, fund education and advance rural and urban development. Despite the successes of his domestic policies, Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War, and failure to end it, tarnished his legacy, and he declined to seek a second term as president.

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Richard M. Nixon‘s path to the White House was a winding one. He attended school at Whittier College and Duke University Law School before graduating and joining a Whittier law firm. He worked as a lawyer before enlisting in the Navy to serve during World War II.

After the war, Nixon’s political career got on track. In 1946, he was elected to the House of Representatives for California’s 12th district. Though a freshman representative, he received a seat on the House Committee on Un-American Activities, where he gained a spotlight for his public challenges to Alger Hiss’s testimony. Now a national figure, Nixon won reelection in 1948 and a Senate seat in 1950. It was during this Senate race that Nixon received his famous moniker, “Tricky Dick.”

In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower picked Nixon to join him on the Republican ticket. As vice president, Nixon earned a reputation in foreign policy, making him a natural choice as the Republican’s 1960 nominee. However, he was narrowly defeated by John F. Kennedy. Today, the 1960 election is best-known for sporting the first televised presidential debate, and many speculate Kennedy’s photogenic façade helped him edge out the more homely Nixon.

Nixon followed this loss with a devastating gubernatorial campaign in California. After the campaign, he held a press conference where he told reporters, “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.” But he then handily won the 1968 presidential race against Hubert H. Humphrey and third-party candidate George C. Wallace.

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Born in Nebraska, Ford embodied the all-American archetype from an early age, excelling in both sports and academics in high school, and earning the title of “most popular” from his classmates. At the University of Michigan, Ford studied economics and political science, and was a star football player. Ford received offers to play professional football, but turned them down to a position as a boxing and varsity football coach at Yale University, from which he later earned a degree in law.

In Michigan, Ford began a law practice and started getting involved in regional politics. But when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Ford enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served for four years, during which he experienced battle in the Pacific Theater aboard the aircraft carrier USS Monterey. Back in Michigan in 1948, Ford beat a Republican incumbent in a congressional race. He served 12 successive terms and became House Minority leader in 1965, having established a reputation for being honest, hard working, and civil. In 1973, Ford was eyeing retirement. But then Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned, soon after pleading no contest to financial criminal charges. For Republican leaders, Ford was an obvious choice for vice president. He took the position amid the Watergate scandal on October 12, 1973. Less than a year later, Nixon resigned and Ford automatically became president.

After he was sworn in, Ford told the American people that he was “acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots,” but promised to execute his duties for “all of the people.” “Let us restore the golden rule to our political process, and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and hate,” Ford said. Although he was partially successful in restoring confidence in the American political system after Watergate, Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon in 1974 remains controversial to this day.

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James Earl Carter, Jr.—better known as Jimmy—is one of only four presidents to have won the Nobel Peace Prize. He attended the Georgia Institute of Technology and then the United States Naval Academy, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1946. He served as a naval officer for seven years before returning to his family’s Georgia peanut farm.

Carter’s political career began small, serving on local boards before running for a seat on the county board of education. In 1962, he won a seat to the Georgia State Senate and served for two terms. Although he lost his first bid for the governor’s office, he won the next election in 1970. His calls to end segregation in Georgia gained him national attention. He announced his candidacy for president in 1974, two years before the election that would take him to the White House.

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Although the mythos of Ronald Reagan centers on the rugged independence of the American West, he was born in Illinois to a middle-class family in 1911. In high school, Regan acted in plays, played football, and worked as a lifeguard, during which time he saved more than 70 people from drowning in Illinois’ Rock River.

He enrolled at Eureka College in Illinois on an athletic scholarship, studying economics and sociology. While traveling for a game with his college football team in the 1930s, a hotel refused to lodge two of his black teammates. Reagan, whose parents were unusually progressive for the time, invited the pair to spend the night at his family’s home 15 miles away.

After graduating, Regean briefly worked for several years as a sports announcer, and in 1937 began his film career by signing a seven-year contract with Warner Bros. He also enrolled in the Army, but didn’t serve overseas due to poor eyesight.

Reagan ultimately appeared in more than 50 films. Toward the end of his film career, Reagan took a job as a spokesman for General Electric in 1954, which involved him starring in a TV series sponsored by the company. When he took the job, he was a self-described “New Dealer to the core.” But his politics began to shift to the right.

His job as a G.E. spokesperson, which Reagan described as his “post-graduate education in political science,” allowed him to hone his speech-giving skills. This, in addition to his national recognizability, proved invaluable in his later political career, which began in 1966 with his successful run for governor or California.

In his two-term tenure as the 40th president of the U.S., Reagan’s “Reaganomics” policies helped to usher in a new era of American conservatism that favored economic deregulation, lower taxes and reduced government spending — all of which uniquely appealed to both the nation’s neoconservatives and evangelical Christians.

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Like presidents Kennedy and Nixon before him, George H.W. Bush fought during World War II, enlisting in the Navy on his 18th birthday. At the time, he was the youngest pilot ever to have earned his wings. He flew 58 combat missions during the war. During a mission to destroy a Japanese radio site, he was shot down but managed to bail into the sea. For his bravery, he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Bush enrolled in Yale University after his military service and completed a degree in economics on an accelerated program. He then entered the oil industry and worked various jobs before forming his own oil development company with a friend.

After becoming the chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, Bush began to cultivate the connections that would launch his political career. In 1964, he ran for a U.S. Senate seat but lost the campaign to the Democrat incumbent. Two years later, he ran for and won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Despite his freshman status, he gained a seat on the House’s Ways and Means Committee.

Throughout the 1970s, Bush was appointed to a series of high-level positions. President Nixon selected him to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He would also serve as the Republican National Committee chairman, U.S. liaison to the People’s Republic of China, and the 11th director of the CIA.

In 1980, he campaigned to be the Republican presidential nominee. Though he did not secure the nomination, he did snag the vice president spot on Ronald Reagan’s winning ticket. As vice president, he chaired many task forces and represented the administration internationally. This experience and recognition set Bush up as the natural choice for the Republican’s 1988 nominee, where he defeated Michael Dukakis in the general election.

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Clinton was born in Arkansas in 1946, and his childhood was far from idyllic. His father died in a car accident before he was born. Clinton’s mother remarried, but his stepfather was an alcoholic who abused his mother and half-brother, including one incident where he fired a gun at his mother.

Although Clinton said he had multiple times threatened his stepfather with violence to protect his family, he expressed empathy for his stepfather to The Associated Press in 1995:

“Roger wasn’t a bad man, and he didn’t want to hurt anybody. He was just an alcoholic, full of self-loathing and anxiety, with no way to deal with it. He had problems before we ever came into his life.″

As a teenager, Clinton considered careers in medicine and music, but realized he would never be John Coltrane or Stan Getz. Still, he thought: “I knew I could be great in public service.”

As an Arkansas representative to Boys Nation in Washington, D.C., Clinton met and shook hands with President John F. Kennedy, an incident that helped point him toward a life in politics.

At Georgetown University, where he studied international affairs, Clinton began involving himself in politics. He earned a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University, but in 1969 received a draft notice, though he ultimately avoided service.

Clinton was set on a career in Democratic politics in 1970 when he enrolled at Yale Law School, where he met his future wife Hillary Rodham, who shared his ambitions. The couple moved back to Clinton’s home state of Arkansas, where he unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the House in 1974, but then was elected as the state’s attorney general in 1976, and then governor in 1978.

After failing to get re-elected, he regained the governorship in 1982, and had no trouble getting re-elected three more times. While still governor, Clinton ran for the presidency as a Democrat in 1992. He won and served two terms, which were marked by successes, like the establishment of NAFTA and unprecedented peacetime economic expansion, but also historic controversies, namely his impeachment in 1998.

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George W. Bush‘s pre-presidential career is almost a paint-by-numbers replication of his father’s, with a few artistic choices for flourish. Bush the second was born in 1946 while his father was attending Yale. Bush would also graduate from Yale before heading to Harvard to earn an MBA. In 1968, he enlisted in the Texas Air National Guard and became a pilot, though he did not engage in overseas service.

After his honorable discharge, Bush worked as a landman in the oil industry before founding his own company. His initial political bid was for a House seat in 1978, but he lost the campaign. He moved to Washington D.C. in 1988 to assist his father’s presidential campaign. As a campaign advisor, Bush made the connections that would boost his political standing in the 1990s.

Bush again served as a campaign advisor for his father’s second campaign, but after the loss to Clinton, he returned to Texas and initiated his gubernatorial campaign. He won the governorship and his reelection bid in 1998. By 2000, he was on his way to the White House.

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Born in Hawaii in 1961, Obama grew up amid a diverse set of cultures and ideas about identity. His father left the family when Obama was two. After his mother remarried, Obama lived in Indonesia from ages six to 10, but later returned to Hawaii to live with his grandparents, who were white.

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“I was raised as an Indonesian child and a Hawaiian child, and as a Black child, and as a White child,” Obama once recalled. “I have benefited from a multiplicity of cultures that all fed me.”

In 1979, he enrolled at Occidental College in Los Angeles on a full scholarship, and two years later transferred to Columbia University in New York City to study political science, during which time he also worked as an organizer in Chicago. In 1988, he enrolled at Harvard Law School, becoming the first Black president of the Harvard Law Review.

After graduating law school, Obama returned to Chicago, where he re-entered community organizing, taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago, and directed community voter registration drives for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. Obama is credited with helping to register thousands of African Americans in Illinois to vote, which played a part in helping Clinton win the presidency.

In 1996, Obama successfully ran for a seat in the Illinois Senate, where he helped pass laws on campaign finance reform, criminal justice reform and expanded health care for impoverished families. In 2000, Obama failed to beat a four-term Democratic incumbent for a seat in the House.

In 2002, as an Illinois state senator, Obama spoke out against the Iraq War: “I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.” Seeking again to ascend to national politics, Obama campaigned for a Senate seat in 2004, during which time he delivered a speech at the Democratic National Convention. The speech helped introduce the soon-to-be senator to mainstream America, and it provided a glimpse of the message of hope he would bring to the country during his presidential run four years later:

“I’m not talking about blind optimism here – the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t think about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs. The hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores. The hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta. The hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds. The hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.”

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Donald J. Trump attended college at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance. He received a bachelor’s degree in economics and, after graduating, began working for his father at the family real estate business. He soon became the company president and in 1973 renamed it the Trump Organization. His early career achievements include transforming the Commodore Hotel into the Grand Hyatt Hotel, as well as the construction of Trump Plaza and Trump Tower.

By the 1980s, Trump turned his attention to the development of casinos in Atlantic City. In 1990, he opened his most famous casino, the Trump Taj Mahal. However, his casinos accrued huge amounts of debt, and throughout the 1990s, Trump struggled to keep his organization solvent. Trump Taj Mahal Associates filed for bankruptcy in 1991, Trump Casino Holdings in 2004, and Trump Entertainment Resorts in 2009. All told, Trump’s companies went into reorganization six times in 18 years.

Trump also began making headway into celebrity ventures. From 1996 to 2015, he owned the Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, and Miss Universe pageants, and he starred in the reality TV show “The Apprentice” from 2004 to 2015. He also began several brand-focused ventures such as Trump University, a non-accredited university that conducted seminars on real estate. The university folded in 2010, but scandalous lawsuits followed it into 2018 when a judge finalized settlement payments amounting to $25 million.

Though he explored the idea as far back as 2000, Trump didn’t officially run for president until 2015. It was his first bid for any public office, making Trump the only person to attain the presidency despite no previous public or military service.


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