The most influential, prominent person in the United States of America (or, in other words, the most important) is, of course, the President. The second most important person is arguably the Chairman/Chairwoman of the Federal Reserve. Or maybe the Speaker of the House, depending on how he or she wields the reigns of that office. The Chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? That’s an important American, too. The list goes on, and by in large it does so in a logical manner.
Where things get a bit less clear cut is in weighing the importance (measured in influence, legacy, prestige, and so forth) of people who never held an office. After all, even a middling president (looking at YOU, Fillmore) is still the most prominent, powerful American during his (or her…) tenure in office. It takes genuine character, serious accomplishments, or cold hard cash to influence America if one’s whole life is lived outside of elected or appointed office.
Now without further adieu (and with explicit acknowledgement that many women have contributed great things, but this is a list about men because of… reasons), here are five highly influential Americans who never held high (or in most cases any) office.
JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER
When you adjust for inflation, Rockefeller was the richest American of all time. At the time of his death in the 1930s, the man was worth approximately $1.4 billion dollars. That would equate to a net worth of more than $23 billion today. At its peak, Rockefeller’s wealth represented about 1.5% of the entire economy of the goddamn country. He earned all that cash thanks to his controlling stake in the company he co-founded, Standard Oil, which would become the largest company in the country and the first super monopoly; at one point, Standard Oil controlled almost total control of the American oil and gas industry, owning everything from production facilities to refineries to distribution networks to sales locations. In the later years of his life, Rockefeller retired from Standard Oil (which was eventually broken up by the government), Rockefeller became a leading philanthropist, largely defining the way the modern super rich person uses his or her wealth to support chosen causes, found institutions, and generally spread influence.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.
Little needs to be said here about what the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. did to advance the cause of civil rights for people of color; that story is well enough known indeed. What bears remembering is how much this man’s work — his dedication to nonviolent protest and his passion for unity and justice — spread beyond that lone cause, influencing all subsequent movements that have pushed to expand civil freedoms and dignity for so many. We still see echoes of his movement as people strive to gain full acceptance for transgendered people today. And by the way, just in case you didn’t know this, Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t even 40 years old at the time of his death.
THE KOCH BROTHERS
Charles and David Koch are being treated as one entity for our purposes, for I’m not really interested in them as individuals, but rather as peddlers of influence, and in that regard they are more of an entity. The brothers each own 42% of Koch Industries, the company founded by their father in 1940. That company employs more than 100,000 people and generates annual revenues of more than $115 billion, so the Koch Boys are rather rich as hell. The Kochs use their personal wealth to support and advance a host of causes usually aligned with conservative politics, including financial and corporate deregulation, eliminating greenhouse has emissions limits and other climate change-related controls, and the support of right-wing politicians. These days, few national elections go by without infusions of cash coming from the Kochs; tracing their fingerprints, however, can be a bit hard to do. Indeed, they’re rather masterful plutocrats.
Donald John Trump is a 69 year old caucasian American male (70 this June) who grew up in Queens, New York, and was thrown out of school at the age of 13. He attended a military reform school from 8th grade through high school, then secured multiple deferments from military service in the Vietnam War while attending college and working for his father’s company in the mid 1960s. He continued working for his family company, using money given to him by his dad, into the 1970s, a decade during which he was charged by the Justice Department of violating numerous violations of the Fair Housing Act. And blah, blah, blah. The point is that somehow, someway, this goddamned spoiled loudmouth has managed to parlay his fortune and his larger-than-life, total asshole personality into a caricature of a person people are actually considering as an American president. Jesus Christ. Anyway, rest assured the country will come to its collective senses and he will always have a place on this list of people who never held high office.
Where to start with this OG? First, technically Franklin did hold several offices, including Postmaster General, Foreign Minister, and a post that would later be tantamount to a governorship. But what he opted not to do was take part in the electoral politics of the early American republic, preferring to stay just a step outside the spotlight as he helped steer the helm of our fledgling nation. Franklin helped write the Declaration of Independence, helped secure the support of France during the subsequent American Revolution, helped pioneer several branches of science, and somehow found time to chase tail well into his 80s. He established fire departments, libraries, studied ocean currents, and wrote music. He wrote avidly, he played chess with the best of them, and man… we haven’t even scratched the surface.