A Brief History
On May 22, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson announced his “Great Society” program that was to end poverty and racial injustice in the United States. His reforms did neither, as we see so evidently today. Presidents have often failed miserably in their attempts to achieve their agendas, and here we list 10 of those losing propositions. (Note: The order listed does not indicate importance or scale of the blunders.)
10. Richard Nixon, Cover up Watergate.
Nixon’s attempt to cover up the Watergate break-in by operatives of his re-election campaign blew up in his face when tapes of his conversations revealed he had taken part in a conspiracy to cover up the burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. If he had let justice take its course, he would not have suffered the embarrassment of having to resign in the face of pending impeachment and virtually certain conviction.
9. Harry S Truman, Korean War.
After a rousing victory in World War II, the American people were used to the idea that the US military was the mightiest the world had ever seen. The failure to do more than achieve a stalemate in Korea and the bickering with General Douglas MacArthur caused Truman’s popularity to plummet, with the nation turning to a new President from the opposite (Republican) party in mid-war, an unusual event in American politics.
8. Ronald Reagan, “Just Say No.”
Following the lead of his wife (which he apparently frequently did), Reagan “solved” the nation’s drug problem by telling American to “Just Say No” to drugs. Unfortunately, this idea worked about as well as all the other anti-drug ideas that have come before and since. Such a simplistic and idiotic “program” should have taken a lesson from #3 below.
7. George HW Bush, “No New Taxes.”
We all read his lips as he delivered his famous promise at the 1988 Republican National Convention, and of course, taxes were raised anyway. Technically, only existing taxes were raised and no “new” taxes were levied, but Bush had also promised not to raise existing taxes and when he was compelled by Congress and economic reality to sign the increases, he suffered politically to the point of not being reelected in 1992. Of course, he also promised to be the “Education President” and did nothing for education.
6. Jimmy Carter, Iran Crisis.
When Iranian Islamist extremists seized control of the country and booted the Shah in 1979, relations with the US also suffered. Supposed “students” took over the US embassy, taking 66 Americans hostage and creating a crisis Carter just could not resolve to the satisfaction of Americans, probably costing him a chance at reelection. After appearing disappointingly impotent to respond to such egregious provocation, Carter authorized military action (Operation Eagle Claw) to rescue the hostages. The raid was a failure, 8 Americans died and 2 aircraft were lost, and with it was lost a chance to mount another raid as the Iranians took measures to foil any future operations. The hostages were returned only after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the new President in January of 1981.
5. James Madison, War of 1812.
This war was brought on Americans by the President and his allies who apparently thought they could parlay Britain’s preoccupation with the Napoleonic Wars into a land grab for the US (taking over all or part of Canada). The issues that inflamed lukewarm war fever in the US (trade restrictions, impressments of American sailors, other minor slights) could have easily been taken care of through diplomacy. The war was not supported by the northeastern states (largely Federalist), and in the end nothing was really accomplished, except Washington, DC was burned to the ground. People in Britain barely remember the war, although it is celebrated as a “victory” by Americans.
4. Woodrow Wilson, League of Nations.
After World War I the victorious Allies imposed the Treaty of Versailles on the defeated Germans, et al, and set up a “League of Nations” international forum that would guarantee peace would be worked out between nations in crisis and prevent devastating wars such as the one just fought. Unfortunately for Wilson, the US Senate did not agree with his proposal, and the US never joined the organization Wilson had ardently supported. Wilson had even been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy of the League, making American rejection that much more painful. A related failure was the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles by the US Senate, painful in light of Wilson crowing that “At last the world knows America as savior of the world” when the treaty was signed.
3. Gerald Ford, “Whip Inflation Now.”
This simplistic and idiotic idea was presented by Ford to Congress, with campaign style pin on buttons with “WIN” on them. This was supposed to encourage citizens to somehow take it upon themselves to beat the suffocating inflation that was destroying the middle, working and poor classes of Americans. The buttons and program were ridiculed, received no popular support, and did not work at all. Ford then faced the humiliation of being a sitting president defeated in the next election.
2. George W. Bush, Invasion of Iraq.
Despite blaming “faulty intelligence” for the incorrect assumption that Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi military had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), it is apparent the intelligence community was pressured into presenting the slanted point of view that such weapons were present (they of course were not). Additionally, constant references to Saddam Hussein as having ties to Al Qaeda and the 9/11 terrorist attacks were totally false and disingenuous. The invasion of Iraq turned into an incredible waste of money and lives (American and Iraqi) and has left us with a lawless country teeming with various terrorists where previously Hussein had kept terrorists out of Iraq to preserve his own safety. Various estimates of the financial cost (Bush promised the war would be financed by Iraqi oil, and it was not) range from $1 trillion to $3 trillion, an incredible amount that has left our country weaker and poorer for the “investment.”
1. John F. Kennedy, Bay of Pigs.
JFK suffered his most humiliating failure when a half-hearted attempt to throw out Castro and the communists from Cuba failed in the face of wavering American resolve to see the invasion through. Despite the epic nature of the failure, the event did not destroy Kennedy’s stature with the American public, a remarkable turn of events. In fact, this blunder helped set the stage for the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 that was spun into a huge public relations success by the Kennedy Administration.
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you consider to be the worst presidential failure? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Andrew III, John A. Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society (American Ways). Ivan R. Dee, 1999.
Woods, Randall B. Prisoners of Hope: Lyndon B. Johnson, the Great Society, and the Limits of Liberalism. Basic Books, 2016.