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A Look at the Top 10 Presidential Blunders on Presidents Day

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When it comes to presidential timber, it is painfully obvious that our chief executives do not all come from the same trees. We have some carved from redwoods, others from sturdy oaks, and then there are those whose origins may well have been milkweeds or hydrangea bushes. We Americans have been blessed with some fine men who were elected to the highest office in our land, but we’ve also had to endure many who were more suited for the scholarly life, or the aristocracy, or perhaps the insane asylum.

Interestingly enough, yesterday’s New York Daily News published an article focusing on a recent survey of presidential historians conducted by the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center, which has issued a list of top 10 presidential blunders. I must note that this survey is very subjective in nature.

[ADBLOCKHERE]But, according to Gary Gregg, director of the McConnell Center, “We can probably learn just as much — or maybe even more — by looking at the mistakes rather than looking at why they were great.” If this is true, we can assume that some of those presidents who are on the list were great leaders who may have also made a big mistake.

In this sense, we can think of the average individual who may take a risk and fail. This doesn’t make the person a loser but rather one who has lost because he or she made an effort, in keeping with that the old cliché which can sometimes be true: it is better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all. Depending on how you feel about each of the men on the following list, you may agree or disagree with that interpretation.

1. James Buchanan (1857-1861): Failing to avert the Civil War

2. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869): Opposing improvements for Southern blacks after the Civil War beyond abolishing slavery

3. Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969): Allowing the Vietnam War to intensify

4. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921): Refusing to compromise on the Treaty of Versailles after WWI

5. Richard Nixon (1969-1974): His involvement in the Watergate cover-up

6. James Madison (1809-1817): Failing to keep the US out of the War of 1812 with Britain.

7. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809): Supporting the Embargo Act, a self-imposed prohibition on trade with Europe.

8. John Kennedy (1961-1963): Allowing the Bay of Pigs invasion that led to the Cuban missile crisis.

9. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989): Supporting Iran-Contra deal to sell arms to Iran to fund anti-Communists in Nicaragua.

10. Bill Clinton (1993-2001): Consorting with Monica Lewinsky

I am no presidential historian (or any other kind of historian for that matter), but I think some of the presidents on this list were “great” presidents. I have always enjoyed the idea of Jeffersonian Democracy, and I have perhaps a naïve but still passionate vision of the Kennedy presidency as a beacon of hope to Americans after a long and dark century. While no fan of all of Reagan’s policies, I still think he understood the office of the presidency better than many, including the ability to reach out across the aisle for bi-partisan input and support on matters of importance.

What does stand out is the choice of number ten: Bill Clinton. While all the other blunders are of monumental significance (war, politics, society), Clinton’s does not even come close. His dalliance with Lewinsky was certainly not the first (or last) by a president, yet his faux pas became the focus of national and international attention. It is telling that this “blunder” made the list, for it magnifies our nation’s preoccupation with the personal lives of our leaders, but it also makes clear that Clinton’s mistake was not nearly of the same weight as others mentioned on the list.

So, dear readers, have the presidential historians got it right? I wonder about other “mistakes” that did not make the list. I mean, what about Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877), who may have been in an alcoholic haze during most of his tenure whilst his administration was rife with corruption? How could Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) not be listed (as the president who did not avert the Great Depression)? What about Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), a decent man who certainly bungled the situation with American hostages in Iran? And why didn’t George W. Bush’s (2001-present) failed search for Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq not make the list?

As I stated earlier, the list is clearly subjective, but it does give us something to think about on this Presidents Day 2006. I wonder what the list might have looked like if this survey were taken in 1900 or fifty years from now. More than anything it makes us pause and think about our presidents not just as leaders but as human beings, prone to make mistakes and being in a position to never have them forgotten.

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charley Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.
  • Maurice

    Funny about choosing Lewinsky as Clintons blunder. I always thought his worse action was his inaction after the USS Cole was attacked.

  • Matt

    Clinton’s could be his lack of any significant action at all for the entire 8 years of his administration. He accomplished nothing.

    Carter, a decent man? I think he has disproven that theory since leaving office.

  • Nick Jones

    “Carter, a decent man? I think he has disproven that theory since leaving office.”

    Really? Explain, please.

  • Nick Jones

    Oh, and while I’m at it, what about Gerald Ford pardoning Nixon?

  • http://www.diablog.us Dave Nalle

    I think you can certainly have a great presidency and have a blunder or even two during the course of it. I think Reagan, Jefferson and Clinton can all make a claim to greatness. Maybe even Nixon. Nixon’s a good example of when the blunder becomes so huge that it actually begins to detract from the greatness. Reagan by contrast was not significantly diminished by Iran-Contra.

    However, the list is seriously flawed, because it omits Warren G. Harding whose Teapot Dome Scandal was certainly worse than Monica or Iran-Contra. But even moreso because it omits Jimmy Carter whose handling of the Iran Hostage situation was so ham-handed that it destroyed his presidency alltogether. Both are certainly worth blunders than Clinton, Reagan, Jefferson, Kennedy or Buchanan had.

    Dave

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ Elliott

    A strong case could be made that Hoover was not at all at fault for the Great Depression, which was, after all, an international economic downturn. And, contrary to popular belief, Hoover did not “do nothing” in response to the Great Depression…the federal government during his tenure expanded quite a bit with regards to anti-poverty programs and the like…

    So…does the blame lie with Calvin Coolidge instead? After all, he was a strong proponent of general inaction by the federal government, and his Presidency ended less than a year prior to the Stock Market Crash of 1929…it was his laissez-faire economic policies that allowed the rampant Stock Market speculation that played a large contributing role in the Stock Market collapse and the ensuing economic downturn…

    Anyway, just some food for thought…

  • http://gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Here’s #4,382 on the Blunder list: Warren Harding coining the word “normalacy.” It’s too late to get it changed back to the right word, “normality,” I guess.

  • http://www.diablog.us Dave Nalle

    RJ you could blame Andrew Mellon and his policies as Secretary of the Treasury for promoting a ‘if you build it they will buy’ philosophy for American industry without taking into consideration the fact that the markets weren’t there for all the products we were putting out.

    Dave

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/VictorLana/ Victor Lana

    I think RJ makes a good point about Coolidge, especially his choice to protect industry with high tariffs. This led to a “feeling of prosperity” and that was a precursor to the Depression.

    I appreciate the rest of the comments too, but I do not understand why Carter (who was not a great president in my estimation) is not seen as a decent person. His views may not be the same as yours, but he is passionate and committed to worthy causes (like Habitat for Humanity).

  • http://www.cdbaby.com/X-15 Douglas Mays

    George Bush, the Dad, throwing up on Japanese dignitaries.

  • http://www.diablog.us Dave Nalle

    I think a lot of people counterbalance Carter’s good works with Habitat for Humanity with his endless sucking up to third world dictators and public anti-American statements.

    Dave

  • Nancy

    Carter may have been a good man, but as a president he was almost as feckless (but not as disastrous to the US) as Dubya has been. Dubya is almost in a class by himself as far as failures go.

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/THESAVAGEQUIETSEPTEMBERSUN/ Victor Lana

    Douglas, I think you should get top honors (which is nothing more than being recognized here) as having the “best” top blunder. How could I forget Bush I throwing up on those Japanese people? That was the best moment for American-Japanese relations since Iwo Jima.

  • Nick Jones

    Carter’s “anti-American statements”? You mean like criticizing this administration’s foreign and domestic policies, and not lining up like a good little sheep? Like anyone who criticizes Israel’s policies is “anti-Semitic”? As for Clinton’s inaction after the Cole, let’s try on LBJ’s cover-up after the attack on the USS Liberty in 1967. Not that I like Clinton: Waco, Ruby Ridge, failure to end institutionlized homophobia in the military, wimping out on national health care…hell, practically the only thing I DID like about him was getting hummers from a porky yet somewhat attractive intern! If your wife had a face like a ventriloquist’s dummy, wouldn’t you?

    And thanks for reminding me: I’ll have to see if Carter’s new book is at the local library yet.

    By the way, Victor, nice post.

  • Baronius

    I definitely agree that Hoover’s support of the Hawley-Smoot tariffs belongs on this list. I’d also add Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts and FDR’s manipulation of the Supreme Court. The bottom three on the list (Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton) probably don’t belong in the Top Ten.

    Carter’s nasty partisanship and embrace of thugs are often overlooked because of Habitat for Humanity. But the guy is a classless creep.

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ Elliott

    Jimmy Carter, despite his good works with HFH, has sought to undermine the foreign policy of every US President since he left office. Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43 have all had to deal with this loud-mouth.

    And it’s not as if he is some sort of foreign-policy wizard. Iran Hostage Crisis, anyone? Boycotting the 1980 Olympics (and therefore punishing US atheletes) as his main response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, anyone?

  • JB

    What about John Adams support for the Alien and Sedition Acts? Imprisonment for individuals who criticized the government? It doesn’t get more unamerican. Doh! JA. Doh!

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/THESAVAGEQUIETSEPTEMBERSUN/ Victor Lana

    Thanks for some really on target comments. I think if we looked at each of the 43, we could find more than one “blunder” to list. The question is this: which should make the top ten?

  • http://theugliestamerican.blogspot.com Andy Marsh

    I agree that Clinton’s indiscretions don’t belong in the top ten…and it wasn’t the hummers from the little fat girl that were bad…it was him looking at me on my TV…wagging his finger at me and telling me he didn’t do it that was bad…although…I will say…I’da done the same thing!

    Honest honey…I never touched her!

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/THESAVAGEQUIETSEPTEMBERSUN/ Victor Lana

    You’re right, Andy. I mean, what was Bill supposed to do with Lady Macbeth standing there right next to him? He could have said, “Is this a dagger which I see before me/ The handle toward my hand?”

    That would have made the old gal’s day, but instead he said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman-Miss Lewinsky.” Had to clarify, of course, because Hil definitely knew there was more than one.

  • dl bart

    yes jummy carter was a great man, i remember because i was in the military when his admin supported the Khmer Rouge and pol pot as the ligit government of cambodia. and lets not forget his masterful handling of the iran hostage crisis

  • STM

    Madison gets my vote for declaring America’s first expansionist war of aggression on the British, allegedly over the Orders-in-Council, in 1812 – a few weeks after Britain decided to agree to America’s request to rescind them.

    And then going on to preside over the unsuccessful invasion of Canada that was the main thrust of its strategy, the burning of Washington, a blockade that kept its ships in port, and America’s first lost war (mythbusting: it was the US that sued for peace, not the British).

    For allowing the young Republic to get a bloody nose and putting its very existence in jeopardy, and for being easily manipulated by the young Republican warhawks, Madison has to go down in history as an A1 chump – the first of the preisdential chumps.

    It was only a small measure of good fortune and some more luck at the negotiating table that left the US intact as a fledgling nation.

    Otherwise, everyone in North America would be speaking with a Canadian accent :)

  • STM

    And I can’t let this one go without a nod to the greatest US president: FDR.

    A man confined to a wheelchair has such strength of will that he leads the greatest American generation to victory over bullies, murderers and tyrants at a time of great peril not just to the US, but to western civilisation as we know it.

    That’s some man.

    Imagine a world in which FDR and Winston Churchill didn’t just happen to collide on the fickle path of fate with two of the nastiest ideologies – if not THE nastiest – seen in the modern era.

  • Ham

    What about FDR’s court-packing scheme?

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