Financial woes know no boundaries. Old or young, rich or poor — money mismanagement, bankruptcy, and debt can strike just about anyone, even the politicians we entrust to make sound, responsible decisions on our behalf. Read on for our roundup of famous public servants who struggled with debt. Whether it makes them reckless or more relatable to the everyman is for you to decide.
1. Thomas Jefferson
For almost the entirety of his life, Thomas Jefferson was sacked with debt. The founding father’s prestigious reputation kept creditors at bay — it was not possible to declare bankruptcy during the majority of Jefferson’s life — but by the time he died, his debt had grown so enormous that his family was forced to sell much of the property he left behind.
In modern money, it’s estimated that Jefferson died with somewhere between $1 and $2 million dollars in debt to his very good name. His debts were partly due to the financial crisis of 1819 and partly due to his penchant for overspending on building projects, furnishings, and wine. Some of his debt he inherited from his father-in-law.
2. George McGovern
George McGovern danced with debt more than once in his life. In 1984, the former U.S. Senator and presidential nominee for the Democratic Party amassed about $113,000 in campaign debt. Luckily, he wasn’t forced to face it alone. Rather, three other contenders for the ’84 Democratic nomination agreed to attend a fundraising party to help him pay off what he owed. (The gesture had less to do with kindness had more to do with an attempt to defeat Ronald Reagan).
Then, in 1988, McGovern opened a Connecticut hotel that shuttered and fell into bankruptcy less than two years later. McGovern cited the 1990s recession as a partial cause of his failed business venture, as well as the expense of unavoidable lawsuits and regulatory filings with the local, state, and federal governments. “I…wish that during the years I was in public office I had had this firsthand experience about the difficulties business people face every day,” McGovern famously wrote in a 1992 news column. “That knowledge would have made me a better U.S. Senator and a more understanding presidential contender.”
3. Linda McMahon
Connecticut’s 2010 Republican candidate for U.S. Senate is of rags-to-riches fame. She and her husband, actor and pro wrestling promoter Vince McMahon, filed for bankruptcy in 1976 after racking up about $1 million in debt, some of which was amassed by an investment in a stunt by motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel. Later in life, the McMahons became spectacularly wealthy (Vince McMahon is chairman and CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc.). At the time of Linda McMahon’s failed bid for senate, she and her husband has an estimated net worth of up to $370 million. It’s unclear whether all her creditors from the 1970s were ever paid.
4. Abraham Lincoln
Honest Abe had many talents, but shopkeeper isn’t one of them. Before he became president, Lincoln owned a general store, at which he amassed $1,000 (1800s value) in debt. Unlike Thomas Jefferson’s creditors, the people to whom Lincoln owed money took him to court. As a result, Lincoln was forced to forfeit a horse. It would take him several years to pay back what he owed.
5. Marco Rubio
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who has suspended his 2016 campaign for president, has long struggled with debt from his education, mortgages, and an extra loan against the value of his home. In 2012, things started looking up for Rubio. He was paid $800,000 to write a book about his Cuban-American upbringing. The money helped him pay down some of his debts, but he also used $80,000 of it to buy a luxury speedboat. It’s this apparent financial illiteracy that reportedly caused Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign to think twice while vetting Rubio as a possible running mate in 2012.
In subsequent interviews, Rubio has characterized his financial imprudence as something that makes him relatable to everyday folks. In a statement to The New York Times, Rubio said, “Like most Americans, I know what it’s like for money to be a limited resource and to have to manage it accordingly.”