Question Of The Day

From Reader MadJack:

I saw this question on Quora and was intrigued.
“What is the biggest mistake a U.S. President has ever made?”
The number one answer was Watergate, but I’m not so sure I agree with that. I’d be interested to know what you and your readers think — most know more about history than I do, and that includes the parts I lived through.

In modern times, I’d have to say it was George H.W. Bush, who broke his “No New Taxes” promise to the electorate. That mistake cost him a second term and (coupled with Ross fucking Perot) put Bill Bastard Clinton into the White House in 1993.

The other huge mistake was Harry Truman’s acceptance of the United Nations onto U.S. soil, but I’m not sure whether he could have done much to stop it even had he wanted to. He could have refused to sign the Charter — as a Republican president of the time might surely have done — but he went along with it partly from his own conviction and partly because it was a cornerstone of the saintly FDR’s legacy.

One more presidential mistake to consider was JFK’s refusal to allow the U.S. Air Force (or any other branch) to support the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. I know people will say that the USSR might have intervened, but any scrutiny of the history of the time will show that the Commies didn’t have the military capacity to project power that far into the Western Hemisphere, and there was no way they would have used a preemptive nuclear strike against the U.S.A. just to protect Cuba. But Kennedy’s reluctance, coupled with his disastrous meeting with Kruschev a few months later, did embolden the Soviets to start installing medium-range missiles in Cuba, which in turn led to the Cuban Missile Crisis. While Kennedy did redeem himself on that one by standing up to the Soviets, it was a problem largely of his own making. (One wonders how Urkel Obama would have responded to Kruschev’s ploy… no, I don’t wanna think about it.)

By the way, Watergate was a huge blunder for Nixon — the cover-up was, anyway — but I think Gerald Ford’s preemptive pardon of Nixon was an even bigger one, because it put Jimmy Shitforbrains Carter into the White House in 1977.

Readers are encouraged to add their suggestions in Comments. I’m not an expert on pre-20th century U.S. presidents by any standards, so I’d like to hear thoughts on that era especially.


  1. I think there are two types of mistakes: Those that are primarily political mistakes that impacted the President’s political future (Watergate, Ford’s pardon) and those which had a lasting impact on the nation. Yes, Ford’s pardon of Nixon led to Carter, who in turn led to Reagan, who ultimately ended the Cold War and brought down the Soviet Union.

    Limiting myself to mistakes that had a negative long-term impact on the nation:

    1) Failing to prosecute the Korean War. Over 60 years later we’re STILL dealing with the repercussions of that. Yes, I know the American people were sick of war so soon after the most destructive war in history. Yes, China. Still, maintaining the DMZ has been HUGE expense, and with the maniacs in charge in North Korea we may be looking at another war in the area soon.

    2) As you noted, failing to support the Bay of Pigs, for the reasons you mention.

    3) More recently, failure to effectively finish the first Gulf War, remove Hussein from power THEN, and set about nation building. Instead we gave them over a decade, and then had to go back and remove him under less-than-optimal conditions. It’s one thing to topple the head of a Muslim nation when we’re supporting an ally which is ALSO a Muslim nation (Kuwait). It’s quite another to go barging in to a place which is more-or-less minding its own business. I think Bush Sr’s failure to take care of things then led to the rise in Muslim extremism, culminating (for us at least) in 9/11 and thousands of smaller incidents since.

    In short, the biggest mistake Presidents make is getting us into wars, then not finishing the job, so we have to go back and do it again years or decades later. Note how little trouble Japan and Germany have given us since 1945.

    1. I joined the Army for number 3 on your list. I really believe it could have made Iraq a stable couterbalance to the Iranian mullahs. It would never have been perfect, since the House of Saud would have been very involved in terms there, but i think many times better than it is now. And as a bonus, Obummer would never have had the chance to abandon the mission and troops.

  2. I would say Lincoln’s unlawful prosecution of the War of Northern Aggression, except I think that was not a mistake because the resulting destruction enabled those that rule to fundamentally change the nature of the Constitution and hence the nation. That was their intention. Performing an action to obtain a specific result is not a mistake, it is the means to an end. As far as mistakes Lincoln made himself, I would have to say it was the introduction of the Greenback. Introduction of interest free money threatened those that rule. They then removed Lincoln and eventually the Greenbacks. Lincoln made a mistake because he didn’t intent to wind up with a bullet in his head.

  3. Hard to argue with those who believe that Woodrow Wilson’s tenure was the most harmful. It gave us the Federal Reserve Bank, the income tax and WW I.

  4. (1) At the end of WWI the Germans agreed to an armistice based on Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points which they thought would be reasonable and instead they ended up with the Treaty of Versailles while Wilson and his group toured Europe and the Germans were thrown under the bus which sure set the stage for the sequel WWII.

    (2) LBJ and his crew tied our hands in Viet Nam with the ground troop’s rules of engagement and the off-limits bombing areas in North Vietnam. Then, when we had them on the ropes after the Tet offensive of 68 and the VC were depleted we managed to lose the war in Paris at the treaties. Later we discovered the North Vietnamese were close to capitulation several times and we were not allowed to finish them off.

    (3) Jimmy Carter failed to support the Shah of Iran in the 1970’s and allowed the Khomeini and his group to turn Iran into a theocracy hell hole. Yes, the Shah’s methods of dealing with the people were almost as brutal as their current culture which has now spread throughout the whole middle East.

    You might notice, I picked Democrats for some reason.

    I also agree with the mistakes noted by others above. There are mistakes of commission and omission and we could go through terms of every president and point out serious turning point mistakes. It is a wonder we have survived this long as a nation but here’s to another 241 years.

    1. “Then, when we had them on the ropes after the Tet offensive of 68 and the VC were depleted we managed to lose the war in Paris at the treaties. Later we discovered the North Vietnamese were close to capitulation several times and we were not allowed to finish them off.”

      One of the reasons I loathe the media so much is that they sold Tet as some kind of incredible counterpunch and victory for the NVA/VC, when in reality, they had made the one mistake they couldn’t afford; they came out and tried to engage the U.S. armed forces in a straight up, nose-to-nose brawl.

      The result was that they got — what’s the charming modern term? Ah yes. ‘PWNED’.

      But hey, the domestic Commies couldn’t have that….

  5. Either Bill the Bastard Clinton’s refusal to pull the trigger on Osama Bin Laden (TWICE!) when the opportunity presented itself or Barry Flaming Shitheel Obama’s pulling troops out of the Middle East (for political, not military reasons) before the area was stabilized, giving rise to ISIS.

    Tough call…

  6. Pretty well top of my list is the President who involved us in an elective war for no good or even articulable reason; said war creating miseries and causing destruction for decades to follow.

    I speak, of course, of Woodrow (spit) Wilson.

  7. I’m going to have to quibble with your analyses of both Ford and Bush Senior.

    I don’t think that Bush 41’s breaking of his “no new taxes” pledge cost him the election nor did Ford’s pardoning of Nixon cost him the election.

    Both were weak candidates, hamstrung from the beginning. It would have been a shock if they’d won, regardless of what they did.

    Ford was weak because he was a non-elected VP (having replaced Spiro Agnew after Agnew resigned in disgrace) and then a non-elected president. IOW he was TWICE the product of embarrassing scandal, which pretty much made him tainted, damaged goods, a mere place-holder, no matter what he did (and he presided over the final humiliation in Vietnam, too, so that’s pretty much “three strikes” against Ford.)

    As for GHW Bush, he wasn’t a particularly bad president but he was in a bad position “structurally.”

    Here’s what I mean: If you look back through American presidential history, the “Presidential Hat Trick” , i.e. having the same party control the white house for 3 successive administrations, has only happened once since WWII ended.

    It’s a well observed phenomenon that once a president is elected, that president enjoys a HUGE likelihood of being reelected. Again, going back to WWII there were only two presidents – Carter and Bush Sr. – who sought reelection and were not reelected. Up until FDR this “incumbent advantage” was held in check by a kind of unspoken “gentleman’s agreement” (based on the precedent set by none other than the original “George W. “, that is Washington) that no president would seek a third term.

    When FDR broke that unspoken rule, it motivated Congress to act to restrict the president to 2 terms. That meant that ever since WWII, any party seeking to keep the white house would not enjoy the “incumbent advantage” that FDR had and at best they could count on the “semi incumbent advantage” of running the sitting VP for president. But since VPs are, by the nature of the job, chosen out of political compromise (if you have a Northerner like Kennedy at the top of the ticket, you better have a Southerner like LBJ at the bottom, etc.) they are weak candidates from the get-go. Bush was exactly such a weak candidate, an “establishment” republican who was put on the ticket to assure the moderate republicans that the “maverick” Reagan would have someone to balance his impulses.

    And finally there is the “pendulum swing” nature of American politics to contend with. When one party gains the white house, the opposition party starts building momentum and spends the next 4 (or more likely, 8) years attacking the party of the president. By the time the sitting president has had his final term, the party momentum is overwhelmingly in favor of the opposition party. And so that, combined with the fact that a VP is usually a weak candidate, almost always means that it’s tough for the party that has held power for 2 successive terms to get a 3rd. (See also, Bush v. Gore: After Clinton’s 8 years in office, his VP should have been a shoo-in but Gore was such a charmless hack that he got defeated.)

    Bush Sr. lucked into the white house based on (a) the economic good news and personal good will created by Reagan (and no, I’m not an acolyte in the Church of Saint Ronald of California, but the truth is that the country was in a pretty good place in November of 1988) and (b) the ineptitude of the Democratic party nominating a whiny northeastern liberal governor from the extreme-left wing of the democratic party, with all the charisma of a cardboard box. It was those two factors that combined to put GHW Bush into the white house in 1989 and the only time he ever really enjoyed any popularity was during the flurry of shallow patriotism that immediately followed the first Gulf War.

    1. “shallow patriotism”? It was the turning point for respect of servicemen after the years of neglect the country gave Viet Nam vets. It was the first time regular people found out the massive success of the previous 10 years of rebuilding and retooling said military culture and power.

      1. And it lasted, what, 6 months? A year? Certainly not long enough for Bush 41 to use it to his advantage in the 1992 elections.

        Remember the democrat’s great line? “Saddam Hussein still has his job, do you still have yours?”

        As I said: Shallow.

  8. As far as political “mistakes” go I would put TR’s running as a 3rd party candidate in 1912. By running as a 3rd party candidate, the enormously popular Roosevelt split the republican vote which put Wilson in office, and we all know what came from that…

    Of course, I’m not sure Taft would have been much better, it’s really hard to say whether the bellicose Roosevelt would have pushed Taft to enter WWI earlier than Wilson did. I think it’s entirely possible he might have done so. OTOH I’m not sure that would have been a bad thing. WWI left a horrible legacy, one we are still dealing with in some respects.

    1. Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if TR and Taft had been able to bury the hatchet and work out their differences. Neither was any great shakes, but compared to Wilson? I’d take TR or Taft any day of the week!

  9. I think that one of the biggest blunders in recent history is of course going into Iraq in the first place, by George W. Bush, but after we went in, it was the way that we chose to prosecute the war. We in effect took over the entire military force of the country. Then we tried to rebuild it from the ground up, with new people. If we had instead allowed the military to remain, at least those who were not loyal to Hussein, but to the nation of Iraq itself, and then built upon that, we would have seen a much different result. It is when we attempt to do nation building that we find ourselves at a huge disadvantage. Iraq is not a nation that is of one mix, but is actually more like 3 separate nations, and to try and force an American type of government upon them will never work. Another president who of course fits the bill as the making the biggest mistake is Lincoln. By forcing the will of the federal government upon the states of the south at the end of a gun, he took us down a road that led to ever expanding federal powers, pretty much negating the 9th and 10th amendments to the constitution. Volumes could be written about how wrong that was, and probably have been. By his so called preserving the union, he paved the way for things like social security, welfare, and many other socialistic programs that could be argued should not be a part of the job of the government of a free nation.

  10. Let’s see- Wilson’s sending troops to Russia in 1918, and then not doing much with them to help crush the Bolsheviks.

    FDR expanding the size and scope of the Federal government.

    And LBJ’s Great Society.

  11. All good points but I am going to be a little different.

    The question was: “What is the biggest mistake a U.S. President has ever made?” I’m going to modify that a bit and include an American president that was not a U.S. President – none other than Jefferson Davis.

    His big mistake, which cost him his country, was ordering the firing on Ft. Sumter.

    It is my belief that Jefferson Davis and the leaders of the Confederacy could have avoided the war and possibly gotten nearly everything they wished for – including an independent southern nation – if they had just dialed back their pride and impatience a bit.

    Between the secession of South Carolina in December of 1860 and right up until Ft. Sumter the following April, the prevailing opinion in the North was basically “Good Riddance”. The politics of the U.S. had been dominated by the slavery question for almost 50 years before the outbreak of the war. (…since the close of the War of 1812.) Most everyone, except those on the two opposing extremes, was growing heartily tired of it all. (Even Lincoln was open to compromise.)

    Ft. Sumter changed all of that.

    It was the Pearl Harbor of its day.

    I get it. Having US troops occupying a fort in the middle of one of your most prominent harbors was an affront to “southern pride”. However, the fort was legal US property and negotiations were ongoing about its disposition. Firing on US troops, placing them in mortal danger – Well, that is something that cannot go unanswered. (…I also realize that no one was killed in the 30 hour bombardment. But that was more a testament to the quality of the fort’s construction and not because the southern forces weren’t trying.)

    I know this might ignite a storm of controversy, but there you go.

    1. Actually,

      “Supreme Court Justice John Campbell wrote to Seward on behalf of the Confederate Commissioners. The Justice had been acting as an intermediary between both parties. The Commissioners, said Campbell, were in anxiety over the movement of troops and rumors about reinforcements. The Justice assured them that no move would be made against Fort Sumter without informing Governor Pickens.

      Seward sent an unsigned note back to Campbell: “Faith as to Sumter fully kept. Wait and see.”

      This while Lincoln was in the process of sending supplies and troops via ship to Charleston harbor. The truth is, the North needed a “They hit me first!” excuse to perform the unlawful invasion of the South. Like FDR and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. If the South had allowed the ships to resupply Ft. Sumter, the impasse of returning Sumter to South Carolina, which the North had already agreed to, would have just dragged out. No one was killed by the bombardment of Ft. Sumter. Oh, some union soldiers died, but after the bombardment was over and resulted from the North’s own incompetence.

      “The Union garrison formally surrendered the fort to Confederate personnel at 2:30 p.m., April 13. No one from either side was killed during the bombardment. During the 100-gun salute to the U.S. flag—Anderson’s one condition for withdrawal—a pile of cartridges blew up from a spark, mortally wounding privates Daniel Hough and Edward Galloway, and seriously wounding the other four members of the gun crew; these were the first military fatalities of the war.”

      And somehow, historians use this to justify the start of the war, a war that killed more Americans than any other. Of course, nowadays they use the canards of “We freed the slaves!” and “We saved the Union!” Gee, how have those two things worked out?

  12. Summary: A long history of “Oops!” and “Uh-oh”.

    Re Vietnam: Cronkite took our Tet ’68 victory and created a public perception of defeat. The rest is history.

  13. Jeez. Just a little recentist bias?

    No love for Jefferson’s Embargo Act, or Lincoln’s appointment of McClellan as Army commander-in-chief? (Lincoln’s mistake was not that egregious at the time: after First Manassas, a successful general was needed immediately, and only McClellan looked like one. But, oh! The painful consequences.)

    Ike thought his biggest mistake was the appointment of Earl Warren as Chief Justice, though later critics have argued that William Brennan was worse. Ford’s biggest mistake was the appointment of John Paul Stevens. Bush I’s was probably the appointment of David Souter.

    FDR’s complete failure to understand Stalin and the USSR is way up there. That others joined the folly is not exculpation.

  14. Lots of good analysis on blunders as president. What about mistakes made in their personal lives that have affected the rest of us. For instance, wouldn’t the world be a much better place if Bill Clinton had never married Hillary Rodham?

  15. My list of Chief Executive f**k-ups is pretty short:

    Executive Order 10988 by John Fitzgerald Kennedy – Allowed the Federal civil service to unionize.

    The layers of Bad that this one action has produced are almost without measure.

  16. I have to go with Lincoln. He was so divisive that 7 states seceded. I suppose this wasn’t actually his fault but it sets the stage. Then he manipulated the Confederates into firing on Ft. Sumter. Then he called for volunteers to suppress secession and authorized various other acts of war. This really tore it as 4 more state (VA. AK, NC, and TN) seceded. Then he bungled the management of the war until he lucked out and discovered Grant after trying McClellan, Halleck, Burnside, Hooker, Fremont, Sigel and OMG Pope. Along the way we have 600,000+ dead plus who knows how many maimed, wholesale violations of virtually every constitutional right in the North, the first income tax.

    Why didn’t he just let them go. The constitution was pretty murky on the subject and the Founders would have been split. You can make a good case that the lower south seceded because of the slavery issue. Not so much the upper South. But that wasn’t why the North fought. Abolition was a minority opinion in 1861 and most of the abolitionists (including Lincoln) were gradualists. So it was some sort of mystical notion that the Union was inviolable. Sort of a constitutional Roach Motel.

    Let us hope that Trump will show more wisdom when CA secedes. (Though it is worthwhile to provoke them into doing it. Channeling Jackson and threatening to hang Moonbeam would be useful.) It is the only hope to preserve the Constitution.

    1. I agree with everything you said, except the constitution and the Founders being split. The Declaration of Independence stated

      “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

      “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security…”

      While this is not the Constitution, it is the reason the colonies “seceded” from Britain. Those that actually wrote the Constitution were pretty much in full agreement with this, so I don’t think they were divided. And the Articles of Confederation did include a clause concerning secession. As far as the Constitution was concerned, the 10th Amendment is quite unequivocal:

      “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

      Lincoln’s own comment, meaning the opposite of what it really says, that “The Constitution is not a suicide pact” is apropos here. Lincoln was implying that signing the Constitution means that it has to be perpetual and anything that interferes with that can be suppressed by force. Given the founders’ opinion about government, that is a spurious justification of an unlawful war. If anything, the Constitution was not a suicide pact for the STATES, not the Federal government. The Constitution enshrined the supremacy of the States over the Federal government. And those that want to make the Federal government superior to the States have been fighting that unlawful war ever since.

      Lincoln was not the author of the War, but he was the willing front for the economic forces in the North that wanted it to force the South to provide agricultural supplies for the North and to provide markets for their manufacturing products without tariffs.

  17. Thanks for the post and the answers.

    I can’t decide on just one. Each administration is incompetent in its own, unique way. But going back a few years, I would reluctantly name Abraham Lincoln and his handling of the civil war at the worst of the lot. This is a war that could have been prevented without the secession of the Southern States. It wouldn’t be easy – far from it! But preventing this particular war from happening would have been marked as a singularly exemplary accomplishment. I believe that President Lincoln had the intellectual abilities and leadership abilities to prevent it, and for whatever reason, he didn’t.

    Other notables are pretty obvious and have mainly been listed above, all with good reasoning behind them. The thread makes for a good read.

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