Before Trump, There Was a Lawyer Turned CEO Named Willkie


For better or worse, Donald Trump virtually controls the conversation surrounding the 2016 United States presidential election. He has offended. He has inspired. He has tweeted. He is unapologetic. But the thing that really sets him apart from the stereotypical presidential candidate is that, prior to entering the presidential race, he did not hold a political office. Rather, Trump’s chief occupation was corporate chief executive officer. As reported by The New York Times, “[o]nly once in American History has a major political party granted its prize to someone whose principal qualification was to have served as a corporate chief executive.” Apparently, the last time was in 1940, when Wendell Willke, the president of the Commonwealth and Southern, ran against President Franklin Roosevelt. The aspect of Willke’s background that caught our attention is that he was a lawyer who moved up the ranks to CEO be:

Born in the small town of Elwood, Ind., the well-read, bighearted, chain-smoking Willkie was a lawyer. Before his promotion to chief executive, he had been the company’s counsel. Until 1939, he had been a registered Democrat; he changed his party affiliation without fanfare. After Willkie made known his intention to run for president, James E. Watson, a Republican and former United States senator from Indiana, warned him that it would be difficult for a party switcher to be nominated.

Willke did not win the election, and his national political career was short-lived. CEO’s have typically not been nominated by either of the major political parties since, with a few well-known exceptions:

Since then, the two major parties have seldom sought out C.E.O.s for the White House. Some political consultants tried and failed to draft Lee Iacocca to run for president as a Democrat, on the heels of his best-selling autobiography, which described his success in reviving the Chrysler Corporation. In February 1992, the businessman H. Ross Perot pledged on the CNN program “Larry King Live” to attack the national deficit if he ran as an independent candidate, saying, “My strength is creating jobs and fixing things.” A Gallup poll that June found Mr. Perot running ahead of the major party candidates, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. That November, after closing down (he later said he feared political “dirty tricks”) and then resuming his campaign, Mr. Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote. More recently, in 2012, Republicans nominated Mitt Romney, a founder and C.E.O. of Bain Capital who had also served as governor of Massachusetts.

Like Willke, Trump is a colorful chief executive; however, Trump is not a lawyer.  \That’s not to say that Trump is a stranger to the civil justice system. According to Fortune, Trump “has filed many, many lawsuits over the years.”  Trump apparently filed a lawsuit in the 1980’s against the Julius and Edmond Trump for misappropriating his last name for their business titled the Trump Group.  Trump apparently sued his ex-wife Ivana, “accusing her of fraud and of breaking an agreement not to talk about their relationship.” Trump was apparently awarded $5 million in his lawsuit against a former Miss USA pageant contestant who “claimed that the entire contest was rigged.”  And, of course, most recently Trump filed suit against Univision, seeking $500 million following Univision’s decision to drop coverage of Miss USA following comments by Trump regarding Mexican immigrants. These are just some of the lawsuits in which Trump has been involved.  Additional lawsuits involving Trump are covered here and here.

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