Aged 19, US president-elect Joe Biden worked as the only white lifeguard at a pool in a largely African-American area of Wilmington, Delaware. One swimmer describes him as “skinny… with big sunglasses and brown hair, sporting a big smile and whistle around his neck, trying to discipline teenagers who were bouncing on the diving boards”.
In 1833, one of Biden’s forerunners, Abraham Lincoln, set up a liquor store and tavern with an army friend, William F. Berry, in New Salem, Illinois. They also put up travellers for the night at 12.5 cents and looked after their horses. But Berry drank while he worked, and they fell into debt. Two years later Berry died an alcoholic, while Lincoln turned to study law and became the 16th president of the USA (1861-65).
Stephen Grover Cleveland, the only American president to have served two non-consecutive terms (1885-89; 1893-97) was also the only one to have served as an executioner. Elected sheriff and hangman of Erie County, New York, in 1870, ‘Big Steve’ first pressed the lever that released the trapdoor under 28-year-old Patrick Morrissey, convicted of murdering his mother with a breadknife.
Before being elected 39th president (1977-81), blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jimmy Carter, a Baptist who promised Americans “I will never lie to you”, worked as a peanut farmer in Plains, Georgia. Carter inherited the farm from his father in 1953. Giving up a promising career in the Navy, he bought a peanut sheller, constructed a warehouse, and developed a profitable business by also processing other farmers’ peanuts.
His successor, Hollywood legend Ronald Reagan (1981-89), was once a $10-a-game radio sports commentator in Davenport, Iowa. Making his film debut, appropriately enough, as a radio news reporter in Love is on the Air, Reagan went on to appear in over 50 movies. Among his best-known roles was football star George Gipp (“Win one for the Gipper!”) in Knute Rockne All American (1940), and accident victim Darke McHugh in Kings Row (1942), who wakes up to discover his legs had been amputated.
Apart from American presidents, many other world leaders shared jobs well outside politics:
Pipe-loving Australian Labor prime minister Ben Chifley (1945-49) had worked on the New South Wales railways as a cleaner, fireman and locomotive driver during the First World War. After taking part in the 1917 general strike he was demoted to cleaner again.
A more recent Liberal Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott (2013-15), known as the ‘Mad Monk’, trained as a Roman Catholic priest, and enjoyed a brief but successful career as a heavyweight boxer, during which he relied on his “whirling dervish'' tactic to overwhelm opponents.
After leaving school, Patrice Lumumba, first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (June-September 1960), became a nurse’s assistant and travelling beer salesman in Léopoldville, then a postal clerk in Stanleyville. Found guilty of embezzling $2,500 from the post office, he was sentenced to 12 months in prison.
Iceland’s Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir (2009-13), the world’s first openly gay prime minister, began her career as a flight attendant with Loftleidir Icelandic Airlines. An active union member and organizer, she twice served as Icelandic Cabin Crew Association chair, before quitting her job in 1971 to work for a Reykjavik packaging company.
Fresh-faced disc jockey Andry Rajoelina swapped the turntables and nightclubs of Antananarivo, Madagascar, for a taste of power in 2009. At 34 years old, he became Africa’s youngest leader. In recognition of his roots, supporters blared out pop music at his inauguration.
Also going up in the world was former electrical engineer, Haider-al-Abadi. For over 20 years he helped repair lifts at the BBC’s Bush House, London, before becoming prime minister of Iraq (2014-18). BBC Arabic journalist Hamid Alkifaey acknowledged: “he did a good job as a lift engineer and he will do a good job as a prime minister”.
Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, president of Turkmenistan since 2006, had trained as a dentist. The politician with the gleaming smile remained so devoted to the colour white that before he visited Balkanabad, city officials painted buildings white. Cars with black or dark grills and mudguards had to be sprayed white in order to pass ‘a test of road fitness’.
Two European leaders also dabbled with colours:
In his autobiography, Mein Kampf (1925), Adolf Hitler, chancellor and führer of Germany (1933-45), confessed that he wanted to become a professional artist, but his dreams were ruined when he failed the entrance exam of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Instead, he struggled to make a living tinting postcards and painting houses. During his life, Hitler also completed some 2,000 watercolours.
Albania’s current socialist prime minister, Edi Rama, a painter and former art professor ordered communist-era grey concrete buildings to be repainted bright pink, yellow, green and violet. Covering the walls of his office in Tirana are hundreds of his drawings, and the wallpaper is his own design. Rama once told the BBC: “I’m not sure I am a politician. I would say that I am still an artist…”
Boyko Borisov (prime minister of Bulgaria, 2009-13) was also used to manual work, having earned a living as a karate instructor, fireman and bodyguard. After resigning as premier, he joined second division FC Vitosha Bistritsa, debuting as a professional football player at 54.
A contemporary of Borisov, Croatian president Ivo Josipovic (2010-15), made his piano pride of place in the presidential office. Having written over 50 pieces of classical music for chamber groups and orchestras, he plans to compose an opera based on John Lennon’s murder.
Another musician, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi (1994-95; 2001-2006; 2008-2011) sang on Mediterranean cruise ships during the 1950s and 1960s, and played the double bass at the Bar Kontiki on Elba, before going on to establish Mediaset, Italy’s largest commercial broadcaster. But he began his career as a travelling vacuum cleaner salesman.
Slovenia’s President and former prime minister (2008-12) Borut Pahor was also a showman, working as a male model while studying politics in Ljubljana. During his election campaign in 2012, he shared photos of himself on Instagram: in one, he poses topless with a tattoo of a dolphin on his shoulder; in another, he appears alongside supermodel Naomi Campbell. Opponents taunted him with the nickname ‘Barbie Doll’.
The UK can also count multi-talented leaders:
An often-told story about Margaret Thatcher (British prime minister, 1979-1990), repeated by the Bishop of London at her funeral, asserts that while working as a research chemist for J. Lyons, she invented Mr Whippy soft ice-cream by doubling the amount of air in it to help increase profits.
Her immediate successor, John Major (1990-1997), writes in his autobiography: “I left school with three ‘O’ levels and no ambitions. I was turned down as a bus conductor for being too tall [not for flunking a maths test, as is sometimes reported] and I couldn't see myself making garden gnomes with my brother for the rest of my days.”
Wonder how many of these leaders didn’t regret staying in their former jobs.