Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Worst Presidential Blunders

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.


RoseCovered Glasses said...

I would like to supplement this article with some information:

I am a 2 tour Vietnam Veteran who recently retired after 36 years of working in the Defense Industrial Complex on many of the weapons systems being used by our forces as we speak.

If you are interested in a view of the inside of the Pentagon procurement process from Vietnam to Iraq please check the posting at my blog entitled, “Odyssey of Armements”

The Pentagon is a giant,incredibly complex establishment,budgeted in excess of $500B per year. The Rumsfelds, the Adminisitrations and the Congressmen come and go but the real machinery of policy and procurement keeps grinding away, presenting the politicos who arrive with detail and alternatives slanted to perpetuate itself.

How can any newcomer, be he a President, a Congressman or even the Sec. Def. to be - Mr. Gates- understand such complexity, particulary if heretofore he has not had the clearance to get the full details?

Answer- he can’t. Therefor he accepts the alternatives provided by the career establishment that never goes away and he hopes he makes the right choices. Or he is influenced by a lobbyist or two representing companies in his district or special interest groups.

From a practical standpoint, policy and war decisions are made far below the levels of the talking heads who take the heat or the credit for the results.

This situation is unfortunate but it is ablsolute fact. Take it from one who has been to war and worked in the establishment.

This giant policy making and war machine will eventually come apart and have to be put back together to operate smaller, leaner and on less fuel. But that won’t happen unitil it hits a brick wall at high speed.

We will then have to run a Volkswagon instead of a Caddy and get along somehow. We better start practicing now and get off our high horse. Our golden aura in the world is beginning to dull from arrogance.

KnightErrant said...

Thank you for your insight. I feel you are educating me and I am grateful for it.

copy editor said...

"Our American Cousin" was very popular in its day. Now, excusing the guard was a big mistake.

Anonymous said...

Re: Nixon's blunder:
Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. George McGovern was Nixon's opponent in 1972.

Anonymous said...

"Odyssey of Armements"
is spelled wrong

should be

Odyssey of Armaments

Anonymous said...

In the years since terrorists attacked us, President Bush has liberated two countries, crushed the Taliban, crippled al-Qaeda, put nuclear inspectors in Libya, Iran, and, North Korea without firing a shot, and captured a terrorist who slaughtered 300,000 of his own people. And the Democrats complained
about how long the war is taking.

It took less time to take Iraq than it took Janet Reno to take the Branch Davidian compound. That was a 51-day operation.

We've been looking for evidence for chemical weapons in Iraq for less time than it took Hillary Clinton to find the Rose Law Firm billing records.

It took less time for the 3rd Infantry Division and the Marines to destroy the Medina Republican Guard than it took Ted Kennedy to call the police after his Oldsmobile sank at Chappaquiddick.

It took less time to take Iraq than it took to count the votes in Florida!!!

Anthony said...

Thank you anonymous for that insight about Iraq. Nobody can officially tell as of right now what will happen when the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are over. Historians need more time to figure that out. Second remember 9/11. Although the war is still going on, we are making progress every day. With General David Petreaus' new and improved Army, we are a faster and more intelligent Army. The slow moving foot soldiers of old are now much like the Marines, sweeping in, taking cover, and setting up rendezvous points. they are swift and smart about who and what they are attacking. These two wars are not mistakes, they are progress. The U.S. needs time to take out terrorists who aren't wearing uniforms. They are in civilian clothes and it is very difficult to fight an enemy that you cannot see. Just Thank Bush for protecting the United States for over 2000 consecutive days.