We tend to think of American presidents as leading straight-laced, boring lives before their time as commander-in-chief, because with a handful of notable exceptions, the office of the president has been reserved for people whose lives consisted of law school and then several decades in politics.
But as it turns out, many presidents spent their younger years going on Hollywood-worthy adventures through history, doling out Old West-style justice and opening casino bars in the South Pacific.
#5. Young Jimmy Carter Was Lowered into a Malfunctioning Nuclear Reactor
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You may only know Jimmy Carter as the goofy-looking president who presided over a particularly depressing era in America when everyone was just waiting for the shitty 1970s to end. But back in 1952, Carter was a 28-year-old Navy lieutenant doing something that could absolutely be the premise of a taut action movie that today would almost certainly star Mark Wahlberg: A nuclear reactor was on the verge of meltdown, and one man would have to lead a team into the heart of the disaster before time ran out.
via Academy of Achievement
His name was James Earl Carter. Of course he was an action hero.
And so young Jimmy Carter led a containment team of 24 men into the Chalk River Laboratories nuclear research facility near Ottawa, Canada, after a reactor accident released 4,500 tons of radioactive water into the building's basement (nuclear safety manuals in the 1950s were apparently just single issues of The Uncanny X-Men).
Carter divided his team (himself included) into rotating 90-second shifts spent conducting cleanup and repairs directly next to the overheating reactor while wearing protective gear with the same anti-radioactivity rating as a Huckleberry Hound Halloween costume. It was essentially like that sequence in K-19: The Widowmaker wherein Peter Sarsgaard and his team take turns putting on flimsy plastic coveralls to get boiled alive by waves of white-hot atomic fire pouring out of a malfunctioning submarine core. And yes, we said the shifts were 90 seconds long -- that was the longest a human body could tolerate the conditions (and that turned out to be grossly unsafe, based on what we know now).
The plant bosses knew it then too, but they didn't tell Jimmy.
To track their progress, Carter's team built a life-size replica of the damaged reactor on a nearby tennis court where each team member could practice the next step of repairs, because it wouldn't do for someone to go all the way down into the radioactive death basement and then forget what the hell it was they came there to hammer for 90 seconds. Carter and his team might spend an entire trip tightening a single bolt before scurrying back upstairs to rinse off all the science poison.
Carter would later write that he "absorbed a year's maximum allowance of radiation in one minute and 29 seconds," and that his team's exposure was about a thousand times greater than any human being would be allowed today. Carter soaked up so much atom juice that for the six months following the cleanup he had radioactive urine. That's right -- the man peed radiation, which you may recognize as an episode of The Incredible Hulk that we've always wanted to see.
#4. Sheriff Grover Cleveland Cleaned Up New York by Personally Executing Felons
Before he earned the dubious distinction of being the only American president to have a Muppet named after him, Grover Cleveland was elected sheriff of Erie County, New York, on a strong platform of vowing to fix up the county's notoriously crime-ridden Canal District. The nearby Ohio River attracted hordes of sailors and transients, who were encouraged by the area's staggering 673 local saloons to make Canal District as close to Sweeney Todd's London as they possibly could. Erie County also had more prisoners per capita than any other county jail in the state of New York, so installing Grover Cleveland as sheriff was presumably the last resort before flying Kurt Russell in on a futuristic hang glider to restore order.
Buffalo Historical Society
Pictured: the county's courthouse brothel thunderdome.
Cleveland took a hands-on approach to his time as sheriff, so much so that, instead of hiring a contract executioner, which was apparently a job that people put together a resume and applied for, Cleveland personally carried out the hangings of two criminals. He believed it was his "moral responsibility" to perform the executions, rather than forcing someone else to do it for him. It also didn't hurt that strangle-breaking people's necks himself wound up saving his district a little bit of money.
Even in light of this powerful evidence to the contrary, Cleveland was actually the least insane person in regard to executions in Erie County. Before he took office, the Buffalo death penalty scene had enjoyed a "circus atmosphere," with people gathering together on nearby rooftops to enjoy the spectacle of a fellow human being spasming out his last horrifying moments of life while dangling from the end of a rope like a cat toy. Cleveland, on the other hand, put up canvas sheets to block the view of any onlookers and give the condemned a small amount of decency before dropping them through a trap door into oblivion.
So no one could watch. Other than Cleveland, the lucky son of a gun.
After departing the office of sheriff, Cleveland's rivals attempted to thwart his burgeoning political career by dubbing him "the Buffalo Hangman." Instead, Cleveland kept winning elections all the way up to the presidency, because, let's face it, that is an awesome nickname.
#3. Young Richard Nixon Opened a Casino Bar in the South Pacific During World War II
When Richard Nixon was in his late teens, he worked at a carnival in Prescott, Arizona, running a less than legal gambling game called the wheel of fortune, where participants could pay to spin a wheel for real cash prizes. But where most folks grow out of that kind of teenage mischief once they reach adulthood, Nixon would ride his love of illicit gambling right to the Oval Office. When he joined the American war effort in his 20s, he brought his love of gambling with him to the South Pacific, where he set up his own bar to hone his poker skills.
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Thus earning him his famous nickname, "Sneaky Ricky."
We have no idea how Nixon managed to find the time to construct and operate an island casino bar, because we're reasonably sure that enlisting in the Navy in World War II meant the majority of your time would be spent hunting Japanese submarines and not living out the plotline of a 1960s war sitcom. Either way, Nixon was clearly already in the habit of doing whatever the hell he wanted and didn't give one whistling dolphin anus what anyone else thought.
To give you an example, he was so committed to his poker games that he turned down an invitation to have dinner with Charles Lindbergh when the famous hero pilot/racist stopped by the island because it overlapped with one of his nightly money-winning contests. Winning $50 from a bunch of drunken sailors was more important to Richard Nixon than meeting one of the most famous people in the world, because he was Richard goddamned Nixon and there was gambling money to be made. Keep in mind, he was doing this all in a bar he had opened himself at age 29 on an island in the South Pacific during the biggest global war in history. We really can't stress that enough.
Something about the island made people stop fighting and just chill.
So Nixon was like Paul Newman in The Hustler, if that movie had been about a satchel-faced poker player instead of a handsome pool shark. He made so much money from his nightly winnings (possibly as much as $10,000) that he was able to use them to finance a huge chunk of his first congressional campaign, which got him on the path to the White House.