In 1971, at age 25, you placed an ad in the New York Times declaring your intention to run for president in 1996. What inspired you to do that? And why didn’t you choose to make a career in politics, instead of business?
I will touch on this at length in future blog posts. But this much is certain: I was serious in 1971 when I placed the ad. I had come to believe, by my mid-twenties, that politics, like business, could be an effective platform to change the world for the better. I also had a wonderful mentor who thought I could be a great leader and who encouraged me to follow my heart.
I am afraid that to answer this question I must go back to the beginning: What is the purpose of a human life? To cut to the quick—and I will get into this much more in one of my next books—I am a believer in John Stuart Mill’s concept of Utilitarianism. In short: That is best which does the most good for the most people.
The leader of the most powerful nation on the planet obviously is in the position to have the most influence for the most people. And so that’s where I thought I should aim.
As I write in my book, I had no intentions of becoming a conventional politician. That’s why I promised that I would not accept campaign contributions. The only way I felt I could be successful in politics was to first create enough wealth to pay for my political campaigns, starting with a lower office and moving up the ladder. My goal was to be a millionaire by the age of 30 and then to begin my political career.
I failed to become financially independent at the age of 30. In fact it took me until I was 56 years old to reach that goal. At that time I was on the verge—in my own mind—of creating an incredibly successful company that could benefit thousands of employees and hundreds of thousands of businesses across America.
At the age of 56, I was pretty knowledgeable about my business but I had not kept up to date on the political issues of the times. I spent all of my non-family time understanding my business, my employees and the marketplace. I made a very specific decision to continue to build my business and not to throw my money into politics when the wealth began to flow.
Frankly, it was not an easy decision. 9/11 had just happened and the world was in chaos. Candidly, I thought it was a bad bet to give up my business and take the risk of running for governor or senator or even the U.S. Congress. I had nothing going for me except a reasonably successful business. Blind ambition is not what I am about.
Had I attained the financial success 25 years earlier than I did, who knows what would have happened? I still think my aspirations were not unreasonable. But the odds? Let’s get real. The chances that my political career would have ever been successful on the big stage were remote. I had a short but effective career as an elected official in my hometown. I think I could have been elected mayor of my hometown and perhaps elected to the Illinois State House of Representatives. But would I have ever gone beyond that? We will never know. But the chances are very slim. My personality is not entirely compatible with running for office with one-issue voters and stalwart party supporters of any party.
Do I feel like a failure because I did not achieve this personal goal? The answer is an absolute NO. Becoming president was an aspirational goal as was playing second base for the Chicago White Sox thirteen years earlier. I think it is important to have goals. But it is equally important to understand that we don’t have complete control to achieve all that we dream about. And we need alternatives to back us up in case something gets in the way of our biggest dreams.
I revered Bobby Kennedy. His eloquent speech in Indianapolis on the day of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 might have been what saved that city from the kind of fiery rebellions that engulfed so many other urban centers. His saying, Some people ask why… I ask why not, has carried me forward many times in my career.
When Kennedy himself was cut down months later, I wept more than any time other than when my mother suddenly died. The idealistic Bobby was my hero. Like a lot of other idealistic young people, I wanted to help fix the world’s problems. Politics seemed like a noble calling. I vowed to run as an independent.
At the time, I was on a roll. I had earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in just four years at the University of Illinois. At age 22, I had been elected faculty president and was appointed the director of the computer center at the new Parkland College, and then a year later, I was offered a big job at the Bank of Illinois. I worked at both positions at once, and grew comfortable in what was becoming a rather comfortable life.
I wanted something more. I wanted to make a big difference. I decided to aim for the White House. I quit both of my jobs to become an entrepreneur, starting a consulting firm for businesses making their way in the newly computerized world. It was my intention to make a lot of money, so I wouldn’t need campaign contributions, which I believed—and still believe—corrupt leaders, government and the political system.
With the winds of success at my back, I didn’t think anything could slow me down. I would learn otherwise. I detail the troubles in my book, Through the Fires: An American Business Story of Turbulence, Triumph and Giving Back. It took more than two decades before I achieved real financial security. And even then, after I did get rich, I lost my fortune in 2009, at age 63. Since then, I’ve been able to work my way back to a significant level of prosperity. But as the events of my life unfolded, running for president was never in the cards—not even close.
I did serve in politics for a brief period in my Illinois hometown of Lockport, about 35 miles southwest of Chicago. I was a city councilman and mayor pro tem. Even on that modest level of politics, I grew disenchanted with some of the posturing I saw among some in government. And that wasn’t the worst of it. A neighborhood called Fairmont, which was largely African American, should have been incorporated into Lockport’s city proper. But the council wouldn’t address the issue. They insisted that they were personally in favor of making Fairmont part of “us,” but that their constituents just weren’t ready. The failure to make Fairmont part of the city was racism, pure and simple. I was deeply disappointed. I did not seek re-election in my next term, and left politics for good.
The problems we see in Washington today—the fierce partisanship and the inability to get things done—seem to illustrate a system that is broken in many ways.
For my part, I believe that people in business have the opportunity to change a lot of what needs to be improved in society. As the founder and CEO of Heartland Payment Systems, one of the largest debit and credit card processors in the country, I’ve pushed for ethical reform in my industry, a sector that has been plagued by deceptive trade practices and unsavory actors. I’ve also created an organization, Give Something Back Foundation, which helps pay for poor and working-class kids to go to college.
I remain an independent in politics, as I was in the beginning. When it comes to deserving kids who need help with school costs, I am a staunch partisan.