“Why wouldn’t someone want one of the truly great and meaningful jobs in Washington?” President Trump asked this week, referring to the vacancy for chief of staff in his notoriously chaotic White House.
He would have to ask his first choice for the job, Nick Ayers, or the three separate Cabinet members, the president of the New York Yankees or Rick Santorum, all of whom have also refused the position. But the common assumption is that it’s an impossible job. The Washington Post has documented the failures of Trump’s first two chiefs of staff to impose discipline on either the president or his staff. The next chief will face a Democratic-controlled House and a special counsel report that might implicate the president’s inner circle in serious crimes.
“Why wouldn’t someone want one of the truly great and meaningful jobs in Hollywood?” Trump did not ask this week, though the answer would be much the same: No one wants to host the Oscars this year because it’s a thankless performance — doomed to be picked apart by critics and blamed for inevitably disappointing ratings. And that’s assuming the chosen host is not first undone by a homophobic tweet scandal, as was Kevin Hart this month.
And yet, someone will surely be found to take these doomed positions, because someone always does. And history is littered with prestigious jobs much worse than Oscars host.
Emperor of Rome
Even after the emperor Nero killed himself on the cusp of civil war in the 1st century, a person could be forgiven for thinking the perks of the office outweighed the stresses. So thought Galba, who lasted six months before one of his noblemen murdered him and took the crown.
The sudden emperor Otho almost immediately regretted his decision — so much so that he killed himself the next spring “in the vain hope that his death would end the bloodshed,” as historian Gwyn Morgan wrote.
Otho was wrong, of course. Emperor Vitellius became the fourth emperor in less than a year, and he learned midway through his short reign that a rival was on his way to Rome with an army to take his job. Vitellius had the good sense to try to resign, but he was executed anyway.
Morgan’s book is called “69 A.D.: The Year of the Four Emperors.” Rome appeared to forget any lessons it had learned; the following centuries featured a “Year of the Five Emperors” and then a “Year of the Six Emperors.”
President of the Confederacy
To be fair to Jefferson Davis, being president of the Confederate States of America seemed like a prestigious position going in. An unapologetic champion of slavery, Davis beat out several rivals for the job and took charge of the self-described new nation just before the outbreak of the Civil War.
It went bad fast.
Davis hoped to find allies in Europe, but not a single country recognized his legitimacy, and he quickly faced cascading losses on the battlefield, economic crises, famines and deep unpopularity with his public and his troops.
Davis stuck it out for four years. In 1865, he finally fled the rebel capital with the remaining shreds of his government, and was captured, released and allowed to live out the rest of his life in the United States of America.
Saddam Hussein’s spokesman
According to a BBC profile, Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf was never a natural politico. He gave up a dream of teaching English to become an apparatchik in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and finally became information minister just before the United States decided to overthrow his government.
Sahhaf’s job during the 2003 invasion, apparently, was to update the international media each day on his country’s victories, which became increasingly absurd as the Americans blitzed toward Baghdad with overwhelming firepower. His briefings became popular viewing in the United States, where he was nicknamed “Baghdad Bob.”
Three days into the invasion, The Post reported, Sahhaf insisted that Iraqi forces seen surrendering en masse were actually civilians, and he claimed without evidence that five U.S.-allied tanks had been destroyed.
“There is no presence of American infidels in the city of Baghdad,” he said at one briefing, even as reporters could see U.S. troops across the river. And he continued these sunny dispatches up until the day he surrendered to American forces.
Like Jefferson Davis a century earlier, Sahhaf was released to live his life in conquered territory, which he has done mostly in obscurity. For better or worse, the U.S. invasion marked the height of his career.
CEO of Yahoo
Yahoo was like the front door to the Internet in the 1990s. Two decades later, it had become a giant relic, with hundreds of millions of users, but little apparent direction. It had gone through four chief executives in less than a year, The Post reported, when Marissa Mayer came to try her hand at it.
A 37-year-old Google engineer, Mayer surprised and excited analysts. She promised to revolutionize Yahoo’s business model, culture and public image.
Mayer did make people pay attention to Yahoo again, but it was often the kind of attention paid to roadside traffic wrecks. One of her first initiatives was a brainstorming program named after a sandwich. She spent millions on a holiday party themed after the pre-Depression 1920s.
Yahoo poached star TV journalist Katie Couric in 2013 to become its “global news anchor.” The next year it launched fancy digital magazines. Was Yahoo a news company now? An ad company? Still a web portal? “Yahoo doesn’t mean anything to most consumers nowadays," The Post’s Hayley Tsukayama wrote three years into Mayer’s reign.
Last year, Yahoo sold itself to a telecom company at a discount, and Mayer departed as its last CEO.
In 2012, Popchips aired a commercial starring the white actor Ashton Kutcher’s in brownface makeup and a fake mustache. Speaking in a cartoonish Indian accent, he introduced himself as “Raj, a Bollywood producer” and performed a come-hither dance in what was supposed to be a parody of a dating service video.
What any of this had to do with chips was never very clear, and Popchips pulled the ad shortly after it debuted — too late to quell a public outrage.
Popchips tried to rally a few months later with a new ad campaign that swapped out Kutcher for a new public face: Katy Perry. The singer posed provocatively with bags of Popchips alongside punny slogans such as “spare me the guilt chip.”
The Perry ads were generally agreed to be weird, but at least not obviously racist. They ran for a couple years, until Popchips' marketing vice president told AdAge that the company was ending its celebrity spokesman campaign.
But as with all those Roman emperors, the lessons of the Popchips debacle were soon forgotten. Five years later, amid national outrage over black men killed by police, Pepsi released a commercial in which Kendall Jenner defused a multiracial protest by handing a can of soda to a white police officer. Pepsi immediately pulled the ad and apologized, but the damage had already been done.
“Obviously, if I knew that this was going to be the outcome, I would have never done something like this,” a sobbing Jenner said months later.
Maybe she wouldn’t have. Probably someone would, though.