Washington’s Birthday.

It was so cold Friday night that I froze myself off. I did not freeze my butt off, my hands off, my feet off, or any other part of my anatomy off. I froze off. My whole entire self. The whole thing. That’s how cold it was.

The federal government calls the third Monday in February “Washington’s Birthday.” That is good. Almost everybody else—states, auto dealers, furniture outlets—calls it “President’s Day.” That is bad. I don’t like President’s Day. It took me half an hour to come up with those five sentences.

Washington deserves his own holiday, even though the observed date no longer falls on his real birthday, the 22nd. Calling it “President’s Day” dilutes the honor we owe to the Father of Our Country. His Presidency was certainly important, probably the most important, but the impact of his whole life on our history was far deeper than that of any of his successors. He led our ragtag troops from a miserable, desperate winter at Valley Forge to triumph against the mighty British army at Yorktown. He presided over the Constitutional Convention, helping to guide us to “a more perfect union.” He once threw a silver dollar across the Potomac so hard that it felled an entire cherry orchard and killed the dinosaurs. When his father asked who had done it, George could not tell a lie.

The only other President worth giving a national holiday is Lincoln. I say, give him the first Monday in February. Wait, better yet—give Lincoln the second Monday! That way, Lincoln’s Birthday might coincide with Valentine’s Day! A whole day off for Valentine’s Day… the chocolate, wine, fake beard and lingerie industries would skyrocket. Lovers, let your imaginations run wild.

Anyhow, in “honor” of “President’s Day,” the University of Louisville surveyed historians to create a list of the Ten Biggest Mistakes made by our illustrious Presidents. George W. Bush was excluded because he’s still in office. The list, with my comments in parentheses:

10. Bill Clinton’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. (I’m feeling generous, so I’ll leave him alone.)

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. (Aside from the fact that it was illegal, many people still have trouble seeing why this was all bad.)

8. John F. Kennedy’s allowing the Bay of Pigs Invasion that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis. (More specifically, “allowing the Bay of Pigs Invasion to go forward without the air support he’d promised.” And he should have ducked.)

7. Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807, a self-imposed prohibition on trade with Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. (This was economically suicidal. By the way, Aaron Burr was not a wise choice for VP.)

6. James Madison’s failure to keep the United States out of the War of 1812 with Britain. (How about his failure to keep the British from burning the White House?)

5. Richard Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate cover-up. (Bad, but as an economist I would have chosen his wage/price freezes and price caps on gas.)

4. Woodrow Wilson’s refusal to compromise on the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. (He had his reasons, but if he’d compromised even a little we might have avoided some later problems. Like World War II.)

3. Lyndon Johnson’s allowing the Vietnam War to intensify. (Maybe bad. Within the context of the Cold War, it might have made sense.)

2. Andrew Johnson’s decision just after the Civil War to side with Southern whites and oppose improvements in justice for Southern blacks beyond abolishing slavery. (Yup. This was bad, but Hayes’ agreement to end Reconstruction was probably worse.)

1. James Buchanan’s failure to avert the Civil War. (He should get a little slack; I think it was almost unavoidable by that time.)

I can think of plenty more mistakes, some of which should’ve made the top ten. I’ll limit myself to Presidents who didn’t make the above list. In reverse chronological order:

• George Bush’s failure to read his own lips, his decision to leave Saddam alive and in power, and his decision to keep Quayle instead of recruiting Powell for the ’92 election.

• Jimmy Carter’s entire term of office. Seriously, he should have just resigned at the end of his Inaugural Address.

• Truman’s refusal to let Patton invade Russia and let MacArthur use nukes on China, according to expert advice from Generals Patton and MacArthur.

• FDR’s “Hoover Deluxe” reaction to the Depression. If he had done nothing, it probably would have turned out better.

• Hoover’s “FDR Lite” reaction to the Depression. If he had done nothing, it definitely would have turned out far better.

• William H. Taft’s failure to buy a bigger tub, or simply use the shower.

• McKinley’s failure to stand behind Teddy Roosevelt, who was bulletproof, at all times.

• James Garfield’s failure to give Charles Guiteau whatever job he wanted.

• Grant’s refusal to put down the bottle.

• Abraham Lincoln’s failure to stay in and rent a movie that night. And he really should have promoted Grant and Sherman a lot earlier.

• Zachary Taylor’s eating that last bit of salmon mousse.

• William Henry Harrison’s failure to use an umbrella.

• Andrew Jackson’s decision not to send troops into South Carolina to treat its early symptoms of secessionitis.

I suppose, to be fair, this should be accompanied by the best or “coolest” things the Presidents have done. I’ll work on that list some other time.

This entry was posted on Monday, February 20th, 2006 at 3:44 PM.

11 Responses to “Washington’s Birthday.”

  1. TheFlyingNone Says:
    February 21st, 2006 at 7:38 AM

While funny, in that dry, sarcastic tone I love and miss, you’ve reminded me of how we view the world from different ends of the spectrum. Vietnam maybe bad? At least the Soviets were just as stupid with their later invasion of Afghanistan…

Iran-Contra good? Besides the illegal thing, the flagrant thwarting of congressional (and public) will, the lying to the public “we don’t negotiate with terrorists”, and the overly simplistic, patronizing way in which it was all done are enough to not only strip Reagan of his Airport, but also to place him and his administration in the “bad” category.

The whole “at least he isn’t a communist” approach to supporting the worlds’ despots was one of the great horrors of the Cold War.

Keep the entries coming – I enjoy the reading.

  1. Vincent Viscariello Says:
    February 21st, 2006 at 5:48 PM

While our “at least he isn’t a communist” approach may have been a horror (I’d call it a “necessary evil,” kind of like siding with Stalin against Hitler), it pales in comparison to the horrors carried out by the likes of Mao and Stalin, who killed tens of millions of their own citizens. Soviet communism was expansionist in nature, so I can see why LBJ (and JFK and Ike before him) would have thought it was important to fight the commies in Vietnam. Considering what happened in Southeast Asia after we left–the North Vietnamese forced a million South Vietnamese into “re-education camps,” the Khmer Rouge killed nearly 2 million Cambodians (about a quarter of the population) in just 4 years, and millions of “boat people” decided they’d rather take their chances on the high seas than stay in communist Vietnam–perhaps the Vietnam War was the “bad” in a choice between “bad” and “even worse.”

As far as Iran-Contra: I didn’t call it “good,” and never would. I said it wasn’t “all bad.” Yes, it was illegal, it meant dealing with terrorists, the Reagan Administration lied about it, and it helped the Ayatollah. That was very bad. But there was an upside: we were fighting against the communist Sandinistas, and the weapons were used against Saddam in the Iran-Iraq War (I think while nominally we supported Iraq, our realpolitik approach was “Can’t they both lose?”). Net result: Big mistake, but not “all bad.”

How’s that for simplistic and patronizing? So, strip Reagan of his airport? Fine. Put him in the “bad” category? Unlikely.

  1. PaxonGator Says:
    February 21st, 2006 at 7:02 PM

Jimmy Carter wasn’t that bad of a president. He just got screwed over by events beyond his control(ie Iran and Three Mile Island)

  1. Vincent Viscariello Says:
    February 22nd, 2006 at 1:03 AM

“Jimmy Carter wasn’t that bad of a president”?

You know what? It’s too easy. I’m going to let that one slide.

  1. TheFlyingNone Says:
    February 22nd, 2006 at 7:24 AM

Let’s look a little deeper….Stalin, Mao – evil men? You bet. “Uncle Joe” was not someone I would want to invite to Thanksgiving. We knew it, yet we sided with the Soviets v. Hitler because Roosevelt felt he could personally “get along famously” with ol’ Joe. We overlooked the purges because it suited us; we put out the propaganda films praising the Soviet people and trounced the evil Germans.

However, Truman’s approach was quite different. He was justified in his mistrust of Stalin and was correct in his approach to the occupation of Japan. What is lost in all of this is George Kennan (article X and the Long Telegram). Rather than simply containing the Soviets, there came a world wide attack on any group that appeared to be communist. InVietnam, Ho was a nationalist before he was a communist. The war was not a communism v. democracy fight, it was an internal civil war into which we inserted ourselves because of our policy based on NSC-68. Nixon’s expansion into Cambodia led to the destablization of that country and we supported the Khmer Rouge for a time. Had we stuck by our word and helped Ho gain independence from the French after WWII, it all could have turned out very differently.

We carried out this policy around the world, including South and Central America. Our “spreading democracy” slapped the label “communist” on anyone who wanted land reform and education. Democratically elected leaders like Allende were “helped” out of office by the U.S. because of their communist leanings. (Admittedly Allende actualy was a tried and true communist.)

Reagan’s massive military buildup and proposed SDI may have accelerated the fall of the Soviet Union, but it had already been in a long decline. Gorbachev was already fishing for a way to cut his own miltary spending in order to feed his people. Andropov, had he not died so soon into his premiership, may have pushed the reforms much earlier. Kennan was right – the Soviet system was rotting from within and would collapse regardless. Historians who credit Reagan with the defeat of the Soviets fail to recognize this. They also tend to gloss over that Reagan’s “reforms” hurt the poor, led to increased urban violence and decay, cut educational funding, and made catsup a “vegetable” in school menus to save money. The highly successful “war on drugs” with the “Just Say No” campaign worked fabulously as did ignoring the AIDS crisis until white suburban moms and kids got the disease. The steel workers, the auto industry workers, anybody living in the “rust belt” in the 80s saw first hand wat a “good” president Reagan was.

The “democratization” of the Middle East and the recent election results remind me of Central America. The terrorists and fundamentalists are now the new communists. When are we going to learn that pushing our values and beliefs on other cultures and countries backfires against us? I am not a supporter of Hamas any more than I would have been a supporter of Stalin. Would I like to see the Middle East become more democratic, see women have equal rights under the law, see the Palestinians have a viable homeland, see Israel free from terror? Absolutely. Do I think we can go in and impose these things by our will and military might? No, I do not.

I know we cannot ignore problems around the world; I am not that naïve. Our lack of true diplomacy and our heavy handed tactics do more harm than good in the eyes of many of the people whose lives we are trying to improve. There is a better way. (Despite the repetition of this very same phrase in the Democratic response to the State of the Union, I failed to hear from them what the “better way” they were proposing was….)

Anyway, it’s your blog – your ideas – this one provoked me. Keep it up.

  1. aabrock Says:
    February 22nd, 2006 at 8:30 AM

“Jimmy Carter? He’s history’s greatest monster!”

  1. Vincent Viscariello Says:
    February 22nd, 2006 at 2:13 PM

I’ll stick to the Reagan comments for now, and leave the current wars for a separate post:

Surprisingly, many “historians who credit Reagan with the defeat of the Soviets” do believe that the Soviet system was doomed to collapse eventually, and Reagan–an economics major, by the way–believed it, too. The USSR was an economic failure from Day One… and yet, it lasted seventy years. Millions died of starvation, and the system kept going. Millions died in purges, and the system kept going.… so, the question wasn’t whether, but when was that collapse going to happen? After how many more dead, imprisoned, subjugated in the USSR, or in its satellites, or in nations that wanted to be part of the Soviet sphere?

(The “Keenan’s Prophecy” belief has a flipside, by the way: as the Soviet Union faced greater economic distress, someone was going to propose reforms like glasnost andperestroika… so, how much credit does Gorbachev really deserve? )

Khrushchev wrote that the Soviets always feared that they couldn’t keep pace with a massive military buildup by the US, and that trying to would ruin the USSR…. but he also wrote that they couldn’t figure out why the US, in turn, didn’t do it (not that the Soviets were complaining). Reagan radically increased the defense budget, looked and acted strong against the Soviets, wouldn’t back down on SDI… and then the collapse came a few years later. So, just how much did Reagan, and Thatcher, and John Paul II, and Lech Walesa hasten the decline of the USSR? Ten years? Twenty? I think that group deserves a lot more credit than they get from the “It was going to happen anyways” crowd—many of whom were in the “They Soviets are going to be around forever, let’s just learn to live with them” crowd before Reagan et al. came along.

Granted, our “allies of convenience” certainly weren’t angels, but in the context of the Cold War we preferred them to people who were trying to buddy up with Moscow or Castro.Presidents of both parties–even before Reagan–took that view (except Carter seemed confused about the whole concept then, and still does now).

Without doing a point-by-point on the domestic policies, I’ll just cut to the chase: How on Earth did Reagan win reelection? With 59% of the vote? And 49 out of 50 states? Against the first major ticket with a female, and a Democratic base that opposed him as fiercely as they oppose Bush now? Was he just sooooo huggable that he tricked people–like those Blue Dog Reagan Democrats in the Rust Belt–into looking past his faults? Did he have any domestic policies that might have lead to that kind of support?

  1. PaxonGator Says:
    February 22nd, 2006 at 3:10 PM

Good things that happened while Carter was in office
1. Camp David accords
2. Full diplomatic relations with China

Sure the economy sucked during his term, but it wasn’t any better than it was during Ford or Reagan

  1. Vincent Viscariello Says:
    February 22nd, 2006 at 3:22 PM

To say that the economy under Carter was no worse than the economy under Reagan is laughable. I would direct you to one of your classmates, who is writing a paper on this very subject…. at this very moment… in fact… she’s RIGHT BEHIND YOU!!!!

He did do some good things. I think, and I think most would agree, that the bad things he did, and the bad things he didn’t fix or attempt to fix, outweighed them. That’s why he wasn’t re-elected.

And aren’t you people in school right now? Why aren’t you doing schoolwork, or testing or something?

And why isn’t anybody criticizing my other comments? For Pete’s sake, I said that JFK should have ducked! Isn’t that tasteless?

  1. PaxonGator Says:
    February 22nd, 2006 at 7:52 PM

-Trickledown economics didn’t trickle down past the millionaires
-The national debt that hasn’t expanded until King George II
-The gap between the rich and poor became great beyond measure
-The only real place to get a job during the 80s was in the military, ask most of my family, including the ones who went to college

I won’t even get into the Market collapse in the late 80s. The only thing he had going for him was the same thing FDR did, he was able to communicate with the common people.Though I did laugh at the bathtub comment. And btw, who is doing a paper on Reagan? You’ll be happy to hear Mrs.Coburn said mine on Imperial Presidents was good, though it should have contained more than 4 citations.

  1. Vincent Viscariello Says:
    February 23rd, 2006 at 12:14 AM

“The only thing he had going for him”? Tell you what: we’ll use three years for comparisons: 1977 (Carter enters), 1981 (Reagan succeeds Carter), and 1989 (Reagan leaves). Look up he following:

Real GDP per capita–make sure you use the same base year.
Unemployment rate.
Total employment.
Inflation–use CPI.
Interest Rates.
“Misery Index” (sum of Inflation and Unemployment Rate)–a stat popularized by Carter against against Ford in ‘76.

This is not a thorough econometric analysis, this is just quick and dirty. But look at the numbers and answer the following questions:

1. Which economy was better? Don’t answer in terms of Reagan or Carter, answer in terms of late 70s or 1980s.

2. Do the answer to #1 and the supporting statistics imply that (a) wealth “didn’t trickle down past the millionaires,” (b) the rich-poor gap became “immeasurably” great (incidentally, this is measurable), (c) there was no place to get a “real” job in the 80s aside from the military (which isn’t included in the employment figures you’re looking up), and (d) “those new jobs were burger flipper jobs” (another myth about the 1980s, I’m surprised you didn’t mention it)? Do you really think that our economy grew that much in the 1980s (DJIA more than doubled, even with the ‘87 slump) based on little more than unbelievable increases in the wealth of the already rich?

Sure, it’s quick and dirty… hopefully the person writing the Reaganomics paper can fill in some more details.

The increase in the federal debt was bad, but not a disaster. There’s much debate among economists regarding the debt; it’s difficult to correlate it to other economic statistics, even the ones that would seem obvious such as interest rates. But even with those deficits, our economy keeps growing; the US government has run deficits in the vast majority of the years it has existed, and our economy has grown most of those years, 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s included. This would indicate that as out of control as it seems, it is still “manageable,” especially when you compare it against the total wealth of the US.

Between “trickle down” and the old “rich-poor” gap story, I should probably just make some new posts.