[[R A N K I N G S]] * Appropriate for this President’s Day, the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center has released the results of a survey that asked historians to name the worst blunder made by a U.S. president in the last 217 years (ever since George Washington was elected in 1789). There have been an embarrassing number of foul-ups at the top, so even choosing finalists had to have been a daunting task. But the results are in, and are presented here in descending order of significance:
1. James Buchanan’s failure in the 1850s to oppose efforts by Southern slave-holding states to break away from the Union. It was thanks in large part to Buchanan’s laissez-faire attitude toward this secession that the American Civil War was fought.
2. Andrew Johnson’s choice after the Civil ended in 1865 to oppose improvements in justice for Southern blacks, a move endorsed by Southern whites.
3. Lyndon B. Johnson’s failure to reign in Vietnam War escalation during the 1960s.
4. Woodrow Wilson’s obstinate refusal to compromise on the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended World War I.
5. Richard Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate cover-up, which led ultimately to his becoming the only U.S. president to resign from office, in August 1974.
6. James Madison’s failure to prevent the United States from entering the War of 1812 against Great Britain.
7. Thomas Jefferson’s promotion of the Embargo Act of 1807, which cut off exports of American goods to Europe.
8. John F. Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961, which led a year later to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
9. Ronald Reagan’s bizarre 1980s Iran-Contra scandal, which involved a sort of “shadow government” within the White House that schemed to peddle arms to Iran in exchange for the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon, and then divert the proceeds from that sale to fund efforts by the rebel Nicaraguan Contras to bring down their nation’s Soviet Union-friendly government.
10. Bill Clinton’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Of course, it’s still too early to gauge George W. Bush’s multiple cock-ups--from the Iraq war and the non-existent weapons of mass destruction, to his bungled response to Hurricane Katrina and the administration’s apparently partisan “outing” of CIA agent Valerie Plame--against the mistakes of previous Oval Office occupants. But I’m willing to guess that, when a survey like this one is made a decade from now, one or more of Bush’s blunders will have elbowed their way onto the roster.
READ MORE: “The Worst President Ever?” by Ari Berman (The Nation); “The Ultimate Popularity Contest,” by J. Kingston Pierce (Limbo).