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.