Jimmy Carter describing the Iraq War as one of the greatest blunders leads me to wonder where does it rank in history. The University of Louisville did a survey of historical scholars earlier this year and produced this top-ten list. My modest effort is the top five worst policy blunders and the top five worst personal mistakes.
Five Worst Presidential Policy Blunders
1. Buchanan's sitzkrieg before the Civil War
I agree with the U of L here. During his four years a president, Buchanan shattered his party to the point it ran two candidates for president in 1860 (Douglas and Breckenridge) that led to the election of Abraham Lincoln with less than 40% of the vote. In the four months between the election and Lincoln inauguration, he did little more than whine and play whist while seven states seceded and three Federal forts, including Fort Sumter, were captured by Southern milita. The Civil War had been brewing for several years, it is probable that nothing would have stopped it, Buchanan didn't even try.
2. Nixon's Watergate
In 1972, Richard Nixon was going to win reelection in a walkover. The only Democrat, Robert Kennedy, with the charisma to defeat him had been assassinated in June. The was no rational reason for Nixon to approve a break-in of the Democratic Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel that July. I can't decide which was worst, his stupidity or hubris.
3. Bush and the Iraq War
There is a maxim in chess, "the threat is greater than the execution." Your opponent will tie himself into knots if you threaten to capture a pawn. Once you take it he will often discover it was not such a big deal. In the wake of the quick defeat of the Taliban in Afganistan, nations were scrambling to distance themselves from Al Qaeda and radical Islam. They were afraid of what the mighty United States would do next. All the invasion of Iraq proved is that the United States is far from mighty.
4. Hoover and the Depression
Crops failed. Banks collapsed, wiping out the life savings of millions of Americans in the process (the FDIC was a New Deal creation). The stock market crash was the least of the problems. Hoover's response was to increase tariffs (stifling business even more) and to urge large companies to voluntarily help out. None volunteered.
5. Johnson and Vietnam
By 1964, the war in Vietnam had been going on for over a decade with little input from the United States. Eisenhower had rejected any involvement beyond a few military advisors. Generals jonesing for a war to test their new equipment had failed to convince Kennedy to do more than send a few more advisors. Finally, in Lyndon Johnson, the generals found someone who would listen to their prattle. The war would end quickly with the defeat of Communism if we only send a few thousands troops. Then a few thousand more. Then more still. And more again. What is it about Texas presidents and stupid wars?
The 5 Worst Personal Presidential Mistakes
1. Going to the theatre
Abraham Lincoln should have stayed at home and read a good book. By accounts, the play he went to, Our American Cousin, wasn't worth dying to see.
2. Jefferson chosing Aaron Burr as his Vice-President
Thomas Jefferson picked Aaron Burr as his running mate because he need Burr to win New York. Burr used a quirk of the Electoral College to try to steal the presidency. When, after 36 ballots in the House of Representatives, Jefferson finally won, Burr went home to New York in a snit. Afterwards, Burr shot political opponent Alexander Hamilton in a duel and his attempt to foment rebellion in the western territories of the United States led to his trial for treason.
3. Harrison forgetting his coat
William Henry Harrison, the hero of the battle of Tippecanoe, was determined to show his macho at his inauguration. He stood in a biting cold, coatless, for two hours delivering his inaugural address. He caught pneumonia and died a month later.
4. Clinton's loose zipper
How history would have been different if Bill Clinton had just learned how to keep his pants up.
5. Ulysses Grant's Cabinet
No president was a worse judge of men than Grant. His Treasury Secretary, Benjamin Bristow, stole over $3 million in taxes. Another Treasury Secretary, William Richardson, took kickbacks from the man he hired to collect back taxes. His Secretary of War, William Belknap, was caught taking bribes. The list goes on. The hard part is finding an honest man in the Grant Administration.