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Scholars, public disagree on worst presidential mistake

February 17th, 2006

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James Buchanan failed to prevent rift in country.

Ever wonder why former U.S. President James Buchanan isn’t pictured on the five-dollar bill?

There may be a good reason his likeness doesn’t appear on the nation’s currency — in any denomination.

America’s 15th commander in chief, Buchanan made the worst mistake of any U.S. president, according to a survey of political scholars aimed at identifying the biggest presidential blunders in the nation’s history.

The president right before Abraham Lincoln, Buchanan waffled and dillydallied as the nation edged toward its Civil War, said Gary Gregg, a political science professor who directs the McConnell Center, a University of Louisville nonpartisan leadership institute that conducted the survey.

“By the time Lincoln took office, it was all but impossible to avoid a conflict between North and South,” he said.

The McConnell Center asked about 90 political scholars nationwide to nominate mistakes of former presidents because a current administration cannot be judged with historical hindsight, Gregg said. Thirty-seven scholars responded. Gregg then compiled a shortened list of 10 for the public to rank. That online survey had 423 responses.

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Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of war contributed to rift in country.

Lyndon Johnson, another president whose term was rocked by civil unrest, topped the public’s list of the worst presidential mistakes. Johnson escalated U.S. participation in the Vietnam War in the 1960s, boosting the number of soldiers involved in the conflict from 20,000 to 200,000 despite growing protests across the United States.

“He engaged in the wrong war in the wrong place and wrong time,” said Richard Pious, political science chair at Barnard College.

“The survey has triggered a lot of discussion about the presidency, which is really what we wanted to do, since part of our mission is fostering civic education,” Gregg said.

Political Scholars’ ChoicePublic’s Choice
James Buchanan’s failure to address the issue of state secessionLyndon Johnson
Andrew Johnson’s post-Civil War reconstruction policiesRichard Nixon
Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam WarJames Buchanan
Woodrow Wilson’s failure to compromise on the Versailles TreatyAndrew Johnson
Richard Nixon’s involvement in WatergateJohn Kennedy
James Madison’s decision to fight the War of 1812 with BritainWoodrow Wilson
Thomas Jefferson’s 1807 European trade embargoRonald Reagan
John Kennedy’s invasion of the Bay of PigsJames Madison
Ronald Reagan’s involvement in the Iran-Contra affairThomas Jefferson
Bill Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica LewinskyBill Clinton

The McConnell Center launched the poll as part of its Feb. 18–19 conference, “Presidential Moments.” More than a half-dozen experts on the presidency were to speak at the conference on topics such as “FDR and the Destroyer Deal” and “Gerald Ford Pardons Nixon.”

The nonpartisan McConnell Center, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, attracts students from around Kentucky and grooms them for effective leadership.

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