Monday, February 20, 2006

Too busy to comment now but discuss

Scholars rate worst presidential errors

12 comments:

dcat said...

Very interesting. I find it to be more balanced than I would have expected, and not all that presentist or too focused on recent presidencies.
The biggest question becomes one in which we have to ask if there is not a difference between blunders that ought to have been avoidable and situations in which events take over presidencies. In other words, while I would never deny thgat Vietnam was a fiasco, where was the tipping point where it went from a noble if flawed Cold War engagement to a disaster?
That said, on the whole I like that scholars were thinking more in scholarly than political terms. It should be a reminder that the shrill voices (on both sides) are not necessarily as dominant as they are loud.
dcat

Stephen said...

Agreed. I wouldn't rate the Clinton scandal in the top ten, or Iran-Contra. I also think it is a little unreasonable to see Wilson's action as a mistake--and I hate Wilson. On some level, calling these things errors or mistakes lets them off the hook. I think the actions of Kennedy and Nixon fall more clearly in the area of "mistakes."

dcat said...

I tend to disagree on Iran Contra -- operating a shadow foreign policy in direct contravention of Congressional mandate and in opposition to fairly clear constitutional rules, and on top of that, doing so to coddle terrorists, well, as John lewis Gaddis might say, "we now know . . .". I do think iran Contra was the worst of all of the major scandals in recent decades -- worse than Watergate, and far worse than Clinton. Now we can ask the what reagan knew and when he knew it question, but that seesm a pretty thin defense.
But, interestingly, Clinton's was so damned avoidable that even if the issue should never, ever have come up, it still fits in as the most avoidable mistake of any president -- the others at least required a certain amount of foresight -- Vietnam will turn catastrophic and inessential, Civil War is coming, the aftermath of World War I will be a disaster (and, btw, I do not hate Wilson at all) -- but "intern performing fallatio in Oval office" probably would not have required a lot of foresight or vision. To my mind it was wholly bogus that it became an issue, certainly a legal question (the perjury trap was absurd then, it is absurd now, and Kennnn Starrrr will go down as one of the least competent and harmful men of the 1990s -- remind me what he uncovered, again?) is absurd, but that what Clinton did was stupid and reckless is beyond questioning.
I don't remember Court Packing being on there, and maybe it does not belong, but even though it worked out well, it is hard to see that as anything but a mistake that FDR lucked out on. Truman's attempted steel mill seizure, not good.
And of course Coolidge killing a man in a fight in a speakeasy with his bare hands, well, that was regrettable.

dcat

Tom said...

I'm not sure if Iran-Contra qualifies as a "mistake" or a "blunder" as much as just a plain abuse of power. The connection between Reagan negotiating with terrorists and the ongoing problems is part of a larger timeline. If we are thinking that way, then I think Clinton backing down in Somalia and not acting aggressively after the first WTC bombing and the embassy bombings is in the same category. The problem is that every president since Nixon did something wimpy in the face of Islamic terrorism, and it all relates.

Along the same lines, but one that I think belongs on the list: I understand why he did it at the time, but how about George H.W. Bush not removing Saddam Hussein from power at the end of the Gulf War? That replaces Woodrow Wilson or Iran-Contra for me.

The Lewinsky scandal is tricky, because the consequences just don't match up to a lot of the other issues on the list. In that sense it is very presentist. If it were an earlier date, we would have something like Harding appointing Albert Fall and Harry Daugherty to his cabinet or Nixon choosing Agnew as his VP.

Stephen said...

I keep thinking of 70s mistakes because of what I am working on. Nixon's wage and price controls, Carter's human rights policy. I think in order to be counted as a mistake, the President should have known better and the consequences had to be significant. I think Clinton's biggest blunder was his disorganization during his first two years. I agree with Tom about GHW Bush. For Reagan--I can't believe I am writing this to Derek-- was his continued support for the government of South Africa. Carter, human rights. Ford--tough call. I wish he could have found some better way of handling the end of the Vietnam War, although it is difficult to see how he could have done more. Nixon, Watergate and Wage and Price Controls. Johnson had Vietnam and parts of the Great Society, although he cannot be blamed for subsequent Congressional excesses. Kennedy, Bay of Pigs. Eisenhower--Civil Rights. Truman was slow to appreciate the threat of Communism. FDR, "court packing" and much of the New Deal was a mess and slow to see the Soviets for what they were. Hoover, wage controls. Coolidge and Harding didn't didn't do much that would rise to the level of a major blunder. Wilson bungled America's entry into and exit from WWI. Taft was the man. TR split the Republican party, but that was after he left office. In office, I would say his biggest mistake was his attempt to address patronage issues in the south. I need to get back to grading but this is a fun thing to think about.

Tom said...
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Tom said...

TR announced he wouldn't run in 1908 right after winning in 1904, which kind of made him a lame duck and forced him to choose a successor when he didn't really want to. It wasn't a huge deal, but it was a mistake in his presidency.

Rich said...

Clinton gets a steam job from an intern and makes the list, yet FDR sits on his hands during the start of WWII and doesn't? Maybe you historical types can help me out on this one, but the U.S. actually declared neutrality in 1939 and arguably sat by the wayside far too long as Jews and thousands of others from different ethnic backgrounds were starved to death and burned alive.

Tom said...

Rich,

Short answer: although it is hard to see what the depleted U.S. military could have done in 1939, the U.S. not getting into WWII earlier may have been a mistake, but it was not a presidential blunder. Congress passed the neutrality acts; FDR did everything he could to get around them.

dcat said...

I also have to wonder if we need to decide what we mean by a "mistake," because to me that term implies an element of "if we could only do it all over again . . ." and of course some of the examples we are looking at simply were a matter of intentional policy. reagan's policies vis a vis South Africa were not a mistake. Chester Crocker still defends his constructive engagement policies to the death. The biggest problem for reagan is that his South Africa policies have alolowed one of those memes to survive -- that he was a racist. I do not believe that he was, but his policies toward race were almost universally wrong, and ending engagement ("constructive" or otherwise) would have been politically cost free as well as the right thing to do. I'm just not certain it falls under "mistake" so much as willful wrongheadedness.
I agree that the Bush administration (v1.0) made a colossal mistake in not taking out Saddam when he could and should have. Of course internationally and politically that would have been tough, but it would have been right.
I suppose that is what my assessment of a lot of these mistakes comes down to -- I can sit on the side and now, but also at the time, say that a President should have done X, because I am not in the office worrying about poll ratings and elections. Bu8t i have always thought that leadership was about doing the right thing, not just the popular thing.
I'll second Tom -- FDR was itching to get us into WWII, to the point where most agre that by aiding the brits and Commies as we did FDR probably circumvented the neutrality Acts and even the Constitution. That was the isolationist wing of Congress wielding influence over the rest, who simply saw bigger threats at home.
I'm not certain that I'd blame Trman for being "slow to appreciate the threat of communism." let's keep in mind that we were just ending a war in which they were our allies, and that truman's slowness was not that slow at all -- the national security Act of 1947 came less than two years after the end of the war, and well before that truman had made quite clear his stand to Molotov.
I also would like more clarity on what you mean by Carter's human rights "mistakes." That seems to lack the specificity of some of these others. I think that V-Neck sweater was his biggest mistake. Good God.

dcat

Tom said...

The v-neck sweater and the "crisis of confidence" speech. Shudder.

dcat said...

There is probably a list out there os presidential fashion faux pas as well.
The "crisis of confidence" speech is one of those situations where whatever the merits, there are some things presidents (and candidates) cannot say. the direct linkages between carter's negative vibe, Reagan's cheery confidence, and the 1980 election results could not be more clear.
dcat