February 19th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

The 10 Worst Presidential Blunders?

According to a Saturday AP news story, "Scholars Rate Worst Presidential Errors," a professional conference of historians came up with a consensus list of the ten worst mistakes made by any US President, ever in history. Here's their list:

10: Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky.
9: Ronald Reagan's Iran/Contra scandal.
8: John F. Kennedy's Bay of Pigs invasion.
7: Thomas Jefferson's Embargo Act of 1807.
6: James Madison's War of 1812.
5: Richard Nixon's Watergate cover-up.
4: Woodrow Wilson's refusal to compromise in the Versailles negotiations.
3: Lyndon Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam war.
2: Andrew Johnson's decision not to push the conquered South towards full rights for African Americans.
1: James Buchanan's failure to prevent the Civil War.


1: Would anybody like to suggest to me something that Buchanan could have done differently? If anything, I'd give the man credit for postponing the war as long as he did, considering that the regional differences had been festering for almost a hundred years at that point. There was no preventing the Civil War, period.

3: No argument that that was a horrible mistake, but why is Johnson getting singled out for it, when Kennedy started the war, and when Nixon originally pursued the same strategy?

4: And what compromise do they think that Wilson could have reached? England and France wanted Germany completely drained to death; the US wanted lasting peace, which would have included some measure of justice or fairness towards uninvolved German civilians. That's as if I were to say that I wanted you dead and you want to live, so obviously the compromise position is for me to ... what? Kill you and then bring you back? Let you live for a while and then kill you? Kill you twice as slowly as I wanted to do originally? Beat you only half to death?

6: We didn't lose anything important in the War of 1812, and it wasn't until after the War of 1812 that either England or the rest of the world regarded us as anything other than a British colony that had gotten away with its rebellion so far. That is, after all, why the British navy felt perfectly comfortable hijacking American civilian shipping and enslaving American sailors. Mistake? I'd call it an act of brilliance.

7: Are they saying that the United States should have taken sides in the Napoleonic Wars? Given how near a deal the war five years later was for us, how could that have ended in anything other than disaster?

10: Sure, it wrecked his personal life. I could show you a boatload of embarrassing moments in Presidential history every bit as personally awful. (Anybody remember Billy Carter?) But what's this doing on a list of Presidential mistakes at all, let alone on the top ten list?

I guess I just don't "get" professional historians.

May I suggest a few things that should have been on that list, to replace items 1, 3, 4, 6, and 7? How about John Adams' Alien and Sedition Acts, which were not only unconstitutional, they were so obviously and universally recognized as unconstitutional that they cost him re-election? How about Andrew Jackson's politicization of the federal bureaucracy? And for that matter, why isn't the Trail of Tears on this list? Shouldn't Franklin Pierce be on this list for Bleeding Kansas, which certainly had more to do with the level of fratricidal violence in the Civil War than anything Buchanan did? How about Woodrow Wilson's gunboat diplomacy? How about Warren Harding's appointments that lead to the Teapot Dome scandal? And whatever else he did right, why isn't Franklin Roosevelt's internment of Japanese-American citizens considered one of the great presidential mistakes?

If I were going to gig LBJ, it wouldn't be for Vietnam per se, a policy I blame on his predecessor, it would be for the more obviously stupid "Guns and Butter" budgets he submitted, which started the snowball rolling downhill that is American disastrous fiscal policy. Can Richard Nixon appear on the list twice, a second time for having declared the War on Drugs? How about my personal candidate for the number one dumbest thing that any US president has ever done, even dumber than Watergate, Jimmy Carter's encouragement to the Shah of Iran to torture and kill even more Islamist dissidents? Can I nominate Jimmy Carter a second time for the agricultural and financial assistance that he sent to the USSR which resulted in prolonging the Cold War for an extra 13 years? If anything Bill Clinton did was going to appear on the list, it shouldn't have the name "Monica Lewinsky," it should have the name "Janet Reno." How about George W. Bush's decision to de-emphasize counter-intelligence against Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda?
Brad @ Burning Man

"In Winter, Summer is a myth, a rumour, not to be believed."

Well, this is going to screw up my sleep schedule even further.

It's almost 11:00 am, and I still haven't been to bed. Well, OK, I tried to go to bed. I tossed and turned for about three hours, then gave up. Sleep was farther away than ever. I know why, too. Even with my Happy Pills, weather like this gives me panic attacks. Thanks to the Happy Pills, it's a low grade panic attack, but there's still no measurable risk that my surging adrenaline levels are going to let me sleep.

It's adequately warm in here, yes, and the furnace isn't showing any signs of failure. The weather is sunny; no storm is going to knock out our power lines. My utility bills are uncharacteristically paid; there is no risk that I'm going to be thrown out into the cold or that my heat will be turned off, even if it weren't illegal to turn people's heat off here in this kind of weather. I am as safe as I could possibly be, safer than I've hardly ever been in my life.

Knowing this does absolutely nothing to help me. Last night, when I came home from the party, it was approximately 5°F, with a wind chill factor somewhere around -10°F. (That's -5°C and -20ish°C for those of you enlightened enough to think in centigrade.) An artificial life support system is all that is keeping me alive, as even I completely lack the skills (let alone the equipment) to survive outdoors under these conditions. It being a long weekend, we may not find out how many until Tuesday, but I absolutely certainly and confidently predict that we will find out that St. Louisans died of the cold last night. And because of my chequered psychological and therefore economic history, there is a tiny part of me that is screaming in terror at the top of its tiny lungs that any second now, I could be one of them.

Sheer physical discomfort plays no small role, as well. The dewpoint is -6°F, drier than most deserts -- and still falling. At the 78°F (25°F) that I have to I keep the apartment to keep from shivering in misery continuously (and yes, that's costing me a fortune), the relative humidity has got to be virtually zero. Even with the medicated extra-strength Blistex re-applied every couple of hours, my lips are cracked and peeling. My eyes, dry under the best of conditions, are painfully dry from the low humidity and lack of sleep. My sinus membranes are swollen, painfully dry, and already beginning to crack; the first nosebleeds are already beginning, even though I'm almost over the chest cold I've been fighting all week. I'm only truly comfortable in a Caribbean island biome, or a swamp; deathly dry air like this wrecks me like it would any succulent. But I could ignore the discomforts long enough to sleep by simply putting more drops in my eyes, more Blistex on my lips, improvised gauze pads in my nostrils to staunch the coming nosebleed until I wake, and some naproxen in my bloodstream for general aches and aggravations. And if I were truly sleepy, I might not even need that much.

But this happens every year. I know that I probably won't sleep, or at best will only briefly nap, until the temperature and the dewpoint rise again. Fortunately, temperatures this low are very rare in St. Louis, seldom last longer than a couple of days, and are forecast to return most of the way to normal over the next couple of days.

(P.S. The title quote is from John Crowley's Little, Big, which is one of my absolute all-time favorite books. Slow starting, but worth the effort. And for those of you who've read it, why, yes, I do remember Brother North-wind's Secret. It's not helping.)