Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Leaders, Accidents and Ambition

It takes entrepreneurial skill to win high office, but timing may be even more important.

On Jan. 20, 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower took the oath of office. Eisenhower was an ambitious man through his years in the military, but he had no desire to enter politics until a group of moderate eastern Republicans saw his war-hero image as a way to lift themselves into influence. (National Archives)
Suppose you were a 36-year-old clothing salesman in a large midwestern city, struggling to keep your menswear store from going bankrupt. Then suppose someone walked into the store and told you that one day you would be president of the United States. You would laugh in his face, or perhaps suggest psychiatric treatment.

It’s a flight of imagination. No one walked into Harry Truman’s Kansas City haberdashery in 1920 and predicted his future eminence. But the sheer implausibility of what happened to Truman suggests some crucial questions about what produces success in American political life, historically and right now. Is it an unlikely series of strokes of luck, as in Truman’s case, or is it the residue of design or ambition, as seems to have been the case for others who have reached the top in our national politics?

I thought back to Truman recently while pondering the wildly different trajectories of our four most recent presidents. George W. Bush, despite his pedigree, was an accident: He never really succeeded at anything until he got himself elected governor of Texas entirely on the strength of his family connections. Barack Obama was an ordinary teenager in Hawaii and an indifferent college student until something clicked in his head and generated an ambition that propelled him to the top. Donald Trump was a real estate developer and game-show host who loved the limelight but never really expected to become president until the night he was elected. Joe Biden was something of a fluke when he made it to the Senate at age 30, but as soon as he got there he began to envision the presidential campaigns that finally brought him to the White House at 78.

What is the secret, then, of high-level success in public life? Is it mainly the result of ambition and sustained confidence in one’s own leadership qualities, as proved true for Barack Obama and Joe Biden? Or is it more the product of the accident and good fortune that elevated Harry Truman and George W. Bush?

It all makes for an interesting parlor game, but it’s quite a bit more than that. Political thinkers have been arguing over this question for hundreds of years. There have been compelling arguments on more than one side of this issue. Let’s go back a bit further in history, expand our horizons, and see if we can learn a little more.

THE MODERN INQUIRY into the question of ambition vs. accident began, reasonably enough, with Napoleon. His meteoric rise to power led contemporaries to call him the “man of destiny” and launched a debate about greatness. The historian Thomas Carlyle declared that great men in fact make history, that they are destined to make it from early life, and that the problem of the 19th century was that there weren’t enough great men to deal with Europe’s needs.

The antidote to Carlyle was Tolstoy. The Russian novelist studied Napoleon’s career, especially his military career, and proclaimed that Napoleon scarcely knew what was happening on the battlefield. He was the instrument of history and circumstance, not the man of destiny. Leaders think they create change, Tolstoy felt, but they are mistaken.

One needn’t venture to Europe to find arguments for this point of view. One finds them, remarkably, in the thoughts of Abraham Lincoln, considered almost universally to be the embodiment of the purposeful politician who changed history. Lincoln famously wrote that “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” He was on Tolstoy’s side in this argument, his own remarkable career notwithstanding.

Of course, there is a middle position. Even the most ambitious and forceful aspiring leaders need to be in the right place at the right time. Lincoln didn’t begin his presidency determined to end slavery; history and circumstance pushed him in that direction. Barack Obama was an outstanding presidential candidate, but had the Bush administration not botched the Iraq war, Obama almost certainly wouldn’t have had a chance to win the presidency in 2008. The British historian E.H. Carr said students of leadership need to look for “the sudden mingling of leader and moment.” That seems a reasonable way to describe what actually happens most of the time.

Just as there has been a long-running debate over whether politicians who reach the highest levels of office are creatures of destiny, there has been one over whether they are mentally healthier or more disturbed than the rest of us. Early in the 20th century, influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud, political scientists leaned toward the view that successful politicians are neurotically needy individuals who seek public recognition as a way to compensate for their ego insecurities.

Then, after World War II, in a period dominated by an appreciation of the importance of consensus-seeking, the most common view was that leading political figures actually had healthier egos than the average person — otherwise they would not be able to endure the constant stresses of public life. They offered Dwight Eisenhower as the prime exhibit of the mentally healthy American statesman. A couple of decades later, the needle moved back a bit in the other direction, once it was widely recognized that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were creatures of neediness, each with a few paranoid characteristics.

AFTER DECADES OF PONDERING THIS QUESTION, I came to a pretty firm conclusion that leading politicians were in fact neither sicker nor healthier than the average human being. Most of them were simply people with a reservoir of ambition who found themselves in the right place at the right time.

But what I think we can say with a fair degree of confidence is that the balance between ambition and fortunate circumstance changes with the coming of new political eras. Up until the last half-century, leaders who won the presidency were all standard-bearers of a sort. They represented a faction in their political party that saw them as likely presidential victors. Dwight Eisenhower was an ambitious man through his years in the military, but he had no desire to enter politics until a group of moderate eastern Republicans saw his war-hero image as a way to lift themselves into influence. Ronald Reagan was a middle-rank movie actor without political ambition until a cadre of wealthy California conservatives realized that his name recognition and speaking ability could provide them with a ticket to power. They lifted him into the governorship and launched him on the road to the White House.

Reagan was, in many ways, an anachronism. The political figure who can best describe the age of entrepreneurial ambition was Jimmy Carter in 1976. When he began running for president, he was an obscure ex-Georgia governor known to virtually nobody outside his home state. He essentially nominated himself. He understood that the post-Watergate mood of the country supplied the perfect moment for an obscure man to preach a message of honesty, decency and integrity.

Four years later, George H.W. Bush was almost equally unfamiliar when he launched his presidential campaign, a short-term occupant of several positions in government and a man with decent political connections but a candidate with no real constituency besides himself. Bush, like Jimmy Carter, nominated himself. Bob Dole called him a man with a résumé rather than a record. Yet Bush ran well enough in that year’s primaries to become Ronald Reagan’s running mate, and to become president himself eight years later.

Barack Obama and Donald Trump were similarly self-nominated candidates, men who possessed large stores of determination but claimed no real constituency until they began running and found one. They weren’t exactly accidents, but they weren’t men of destiny either. They were products of timing.

So was Bill Clinton. It’s true that he had thought about becoming president since the day he shook hands with John F. Kennedy on the White House lawn as an Arkansas teenager. But it’s more important that he realized 1992 was his year, at a time when virtually no one else thought George H.W. Bush could be defeated.

When I taught a course in political leadership at the University of Richmond, I made a point of asking my students whether presidents of yesteryear could succeed in the current political environment. Theodore Roosevelt seemed to them the most likely to make it, although ironically his presidency was initially accidental — he took office upon the assassination of his predecessor. Abraham Lincoln was a shrewd politician with a good sense of timing, but his unusual appearance and vulnerability to depression would have held him back. Franklin Roosevelt possessed abundant self-confidence, but his physical disability, in an age of television and YouTube, might have been an insuperable obstacle.

In the end, though, the whole debate takes us back to a focus on ambition and timing. What sort of president might that give us in 2024? I make no claims as a prognosticator, but it seems to me the conditions are right for a candidate emerging from essentially nowhere, lacking much of a constituency to start with but developing one rapidly as the election season proceeds. I’m not making any guesses about who this might be. But whoever triumphs will be a candidate able to combine ambition and timing — as E.H. Carr put it, “the sudden mingling of leader and moment.”
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
From Our Partners