Survey rates presidents' top blunder
Public, scholars split over No. 1
By Mark Pitsch
A group of presidential scholars and the public disagree over what
was the biggest presidential mistake of all time.
But both agree it wasn't President Bill Clinton's affair with an
The scholars believe President James Buchanan's failure to oppose the
secession of Southern states prior to the Civil War is the biggest
The public thinks it's the escalation of the Vietnam War under
President Lyndon Johnson.
Those results from surveys by the University of Louisville's
McConnell Center for Political Leadership are scheduled to be
announced today at a conference on presidential decision-making
sponsored by the center.
The surveys generated 37 responses from scholars and 423 online votes
from the public on which of 10 presidential mistakes were the
biggest. The survey did not include the Iraq War.
Gary Gregg, director of the McConnell Center, and other scholars said
the Iraq War was left off the list because it is too current to
analyze through the lens of history.
Gregg said the list of 10 mistakes was developed from an initial
sampling of scholars who responded to the survey.
Gregg acknowledged that neither survey is scientific. But he said the
idea behind them is to foster dialogue, further research and help the
teaching of U.S. history and politics.
"We always need to be reminded that presidential power can be a
wonderful thing and presidential power can be a dangerous thing and
presidents make mistakes," said Gregg, a Republican.
David Webb, 53, a salesman from Nashville, picked the build-up of the
Vietnam War as the top mistake.
"I think that had a more long-term effect on the nation as a whole,"
said Webb, who identified himself as a conservative-leaning
independent. "It certainly had an effect on our policy for a long
time and in a lot of ways it still steers our political and military
He said he sees the impact in the Iraq War, with the Bush
administration discussing withdrawing troops while the fighting
"They're still reluctant to engage in all-out war," Webb said.
Webb said he put Clinton's affair with intern Monica Lewinsky second
because it intensified partisan politics.
But the Watergate scandal under Richard Nixon, in which he tried to
cover up the investigation of a break-in of the Democratic National
Committee headquarters during the 1972 campaign, finished second
among the public.
Sam McFarland, 66, a psychology professor at Western Kentucky
University, didn't take part in the survey. But he said the McConnell
Center should have included the Iraq War under President Bush and
Clinton's unwillingness to act against genocide in Rwanda among the
list of 10 blunders.
"It is suspect from the omissions," McFarland, a Democrat, said of
Richard Pious, a political science professor at Barnard College in
New York who took part in the survey, said he is not surprised by the
disagreement because the public is prone to cite events it is
familiar with while scholars take a historical view.
Two of the five biggest mistakes cited by scholars took place during
the 19th century and a third was during the early 20th century. Three
of the five biggest mistakes cited by the public were in the second
half of the 20th century.
But Pious, a Democrat, said after Buchanan, he thought Johnson's
escalation of the Vietnam War was the second biggest presidential
mistake ever. It finished third among scholars.
"It was a war of choice and it really took out so many lives and so
much of our national treasure and national power," said Pious, who is
scheduled to speak at the McConnell Center conference. "It led in
the '70s to a whole series of weaknesses."
He said the Vietnam War ranked high with the public because people
remember the human cost of the war and because some may see it as a
proxy for the Iraq War. As for Watergate, he said the scandal still
resonates with the public because of Nixon's shameful resignation and
the administration's cover-up.
"It's the first of the great examples that the cover-up is worse than
the crime," Pious said.
Andrew Busch, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna
College in Claremont, Calif., said scholars generally agree on the
problem regarding some mistakes on the list.
He cited Buchanan and Andrew Johnson's failed reconstruction policies
after the Civil War.
But he said other mistakes, including the Vietnam War and the Bay of
Pigs invasion under John F. Kennedy, are seen by people differently.
While some may view the Vietnam War as unwinnable, for example, and
therefore a mistake, others -- like himself -- believe Johnson didn't
commit enough troops and resources to bring a victory.
"I actually don't have a problem with trying to defeat communism in
Southeast Asia. I just think Lyndon Johnson screwed it up," said
Busch, a Republican. "It was calculated to avoid defeat."
In addition to the conference, the McConnell Center is holding an
invitation-only 15th anniversary banquet tomorrow.