Scholars, public disagree on worst presidential mistake
February 17th, 2006
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.
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’ Choice||Public’s Choice|
|James Buchanan’s failure to address the issue of state secession||Lyndon Johnson|
|Andrew Johnson’s post-Civil War reconstruction policies||Richard Nixon|
|Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War||James Buchanan|
|Woodrow Wilson’s failure to compromise on the Versailles Treaty||Andrew Johnson|
|Richard Nixon’s involvement in Watergate||John Kennedy|
|James Madison’s decision to fight the War of 1812 with Britain||Woodrow Wilson|
|Thomas Jefferson’s 1807 European trade embargo||Ronald Reagan|
|John Kennedy’s invasion of the Bay of Pigs||James Madison|
|Ronald Reagan’s involvement in the Iran-Contra affair||Thomas Jefferson|
|Bill Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky||Bill 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.