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U.S. historians pick top 10 presidential errors

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Associated Press

Date: Saturday Feb. 18, 2006 11:41 PM ET

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — From engaging in sexual relations with an intern to letting the Vietnam War escalate, U.S. presidents have been blamed for some egregious errors.

So who had the worst blunder? President James Buchanan, for failing to avert the Civil War, said a survey of presidential historians organized by the University of Louisville's McConnell Center.

The survey's top 10 presidential blunders were announced Saturday during a President's Day weekend conference called Presidential Moments.

"We can probably learn just as much -- or maybe even more -- by looking at the mistakes, rather than looking at why they were great,'' said political scientist and McConnell Center Director Gary Gregg.

Scholars who participated said Buchanan did not do enough to oppose efforts by Southern states to secede from the Union before the Civil War.

The second-worst mistake, the survey found, was Andrew Johnson's decision just after the Civil War to side with Southern whites and oppose improvements in justice for blacks beyond abolishing slavery.

"We continue to pay'' for Johnson's errors, wrote Michael Les Benedict, an Ohio State University history professor emeritus.

Lyndon Johnson earned the No. 3 spot by allowing the Vietnam War to intensify, Gregg said.

So what about President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq?

"We're going to have to wait a few more years before we can decide where it belongs,'' said Michael Nelson, a political science professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn.

Nelson added the Iraq war could still end up on a list of good presidential decisions.

"The fact that we don't know shows you how hard it is sometimes to tell how they're going to look with the passage of time. When a president makes a bold decision, it carries great opportunity but also great risk,'' he said.

Where does Bill Clinton's Monica Lewinsky scandal rank? Many scholars said it belonged at No. 10, saying it probably affected Clinton's presidency more than it did U.S. history and the public.

The rest of the top 10 blunders:

4: Woodrow Wilson's refusal to compromise on the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War.

5: Richard Nixon's involvement in the Watergate cover-up.

6: James Madison's failure to keep the United States out of the War of 1812 with Britain.

7: Thomas Jefferson's Embargo Act of 1807, a self-imposed prohibition on trade with Europe during the Napoleonic Wars.

8: John Kennedy allowing the ill-fated Bay of Pigs Invasion to overthrow Cuba's communist government that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

9: Ronald Reagan and the Iran-Contra Affair, the effort to sell arms to Iran and use the money to finance an armed anti-communist group in Nicaragua.

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