Image: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton
Alex Brandon  /  AP file
Barack Obama could learn from Bill Clinton's missteps in his first weeks as president. The two are seen here at a rally in Kissimmee, Fla., a few days before the election.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 11/14/2008 2:15:27 PM ET 2008-11-14T19:15:27

“It’s a hell of a way to learn things,” said President John F. Kennedy in 1961, following the spectacular failure of the invasion of Cuba that he ordered three months after taking office.

The CIA-backed invasion by anti-Castro Cuban émigrés, at a place called the Bay of Pigs, was botched from the start.

As some of Kennedy’s advisers had warned him, the CIA didn't send enough troops for the invasion to be successful. Fidel Castro’s forces proved victorious.

The Bay of Pigs fiasco is the classic case of a brand new president blundering his way into calamity.

In this situation, the botched invasion had long-term consequences. Following the failure, Kennedy felt compelled to assure anti-Communist President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam that the Cuban disaster didn’t lessen the U.S. commitment to fighting communism in Asia.

Barack Obama is a man nearly as young as Kennedy was when he became president. Like Kennedy, Obama is a best-selling author with a reputation for being cerebral, articulate and charismatic. As he prepares to become president, he could consider Kennedy’s error.

Inheriting a predecessor's plan
Kennedy erred by adopting a plan from his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower, and by trusting in CIA operations chief Richard Bissell.

But the new president ordered that there be no direct involvement of U.S. armed forces in the Bay of Pigs invasion.

It must appear to be solely the action of Cuban émigrés, Kennedy said. Yet the invasion could not have succeeded without the direct involvement of U.S. armed forces.

In the days following the abortive invasion, according to historian Richard Reeves, the president “was seen talking to himself, sometimes startling his men by interrupting conversations with lines like, ‘How could I have been so stupid?’”

Kennedy invited Eisenhower to confer with him after the fiasco in a show of national unity. The old general gave the young president a scolding, Reeves said. “Mr. President, how could you expect the world to believe we had nothing to do with it?”

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As Kennedy told Bissell later, “In a parliamentary system, I would resign.” But the Constitution gives presidents a fixed four-year term. Early embarrassments, and even disasters must simply be endured.

Most of the errors committed by presidents-elect and new presidents do not involve anything as consequential as matters of life and death.

Cabinet nominations gone astray
For every new president there’s usually at least one misstep — but most of them have involved Cabinet choices that go sour, not invasions of foreign countries.

Video: Secretary of State? In 1977, the newly elected Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, chose Ted Sorenson, who had once been Kennedy’s speechwriter, to head the CIA.

With a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate, Sorenson's confirmation ought to have been easy.

But Carter, an outsider from Georgia, proved aloof and sometimes hostile to the Washington establishment. He seemed to think he could govern without cultivating allies in the Senate.

According to former Defense Secretary Clark Clifford, a sage Washington veteran of three decades and a friend of Sorenson, “no one on the Carter transition team had gone through the tedious but necessary process of checking the candidate’s background — another price of the inexperience of Carter’s team.”

Some senators objected to Sorenson because he had registered for the draft in 1946 as a conscientious objector. Faced with Senate opposition, “the new president did not appear to have the stomach for a fight over the nomination,” Clifford said.

Sorenson withdrew his name. “By pulling away from its very first confrontation with Congress, the Carter administration had offered an early sign that it could be intimidated,” Clifford said.

Bush versus the Democratic Senate
In contrast, in 1989, newly elected President George H.W. Bush stuck with Texas senator John Tower, his embattled nominee to be defense secretary.

Anonymous and uncorroborated sources said Tower had been a heavy drinker and a womanizer. “Alcohol had never affected the performance of my duty,” Tower said later. But “I did drink too much in the early 1970s, had recognized that fact and put a stop to it.”

The Democratic-controlled Senate, led by Tower’s enemy, Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Sam Nunn, rejected the nomination by a vote of 53 to 47. It was the first time a cabinet level nominee of a newly elected president was rejected by the Senate.

One of Tower's most loyal defenders was a young senator named John McCain. "He was with me, fighting all the way. John McCain does not bend or break under any circumstances," Tower said later.

Bush then nominated Dick Cheney to head the Defense Department. Tower was long forgotten two years later after Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell led U.S. forces to victory in 1991 after Iraqi armies invaded Kuwait.

(Tower died in a plane crash in April of 1991, shortly after the war ended.)

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Prefiguring future battles
Yet the battle between Bush and the Senate over the Tower nomination did presage their struggles over tax increases, family leave policy, the Clarence Thomas nomination to the Supreme Court, and the vote on Jan. 12, 1991 to go to war against Saddam Hussein, which passed the Senate on a vote of 52 to 47.

As with the vote on Tower, most Democratic senators voted "no" on the authorization to use force against Saddam Hussein's regime.

One advantage that Obama will have over the George H.W. Bush when he was newly elected in 1989 is a Senate that will be firmly in the grip of his own party, and which will likely do all it can to make him successful.

And unlike Carter in 1977, Obama is not an outsider who disdains the Washington establishment. Most of his closest advisors, such as new chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, are canny insiders with long Washington experience.

Even as rumors float through Washington this week that Obama might offer the job of secretary of state to Sen. Hillary Clinton, her husband’s opening weeks as president serve as a cautionary lesson in how not to deal with nominees and changes in policy.

Clinton was scarred by two battles in the first weeks of his presidency.

Hiring illegal immigrants
After Bill Clinton won the 1992 election, he and Hillary Clinton had decreed that the new attorney general must be a woman. The nominee for secretary of state, Warren Christopher, suggested one of his protégées, corporate lawyer Zoe Baird. 

But she and her husband had hired illegal immigrants from Peru to work for them as a nanny and a chauffeur. “Zoe hadn’t concealed the nanny issue,” Clinton wrote in his memoirs. “We had simply underestimated its significance.”

The attorney general had the job of enforcing immigration laws, and the idea of a law-breaker as the new attorney general was not viable. Baird withdrew.

Looking back on his transition later, Clinton admitted , “I gave almost no thought to how to keep the public’s focus on my most important priorities, rather than on competing stories that, at the least would divert public attention from the big issues and, at worst, could make it appear that I was neglecting those priorities.”

Gays in uniform
On the heels of the Baird embarrassment, Clinton had to fight the Joint Chiefs of Staff over his proposal to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. military.

There was overwhelming opposition in Congress, led by Nunn and by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., who warned that Clinton’s proposal “will lead to same-sex marriages and homosexuals in the Boy Scouts.”

The new president had to retreat.

“I got the worst of both worlds,” Clinton said later. “I lost the fight, and the gay community was highly critical of me for the compromise, simply refusing to acknowledge the consequences of having so little support in Congress….”

Clinton’s GOP foes played up the gays in military furor, “which caused a lot of Americans who had elected me to fix the economy to wonder what on earth I was doing and whether they’d made a mistake.”

But Clinton survived his initial blunders. He would make more, as in his handling of the health insurance reform plan in 1994. But he seemed to thrive on adversity and won a second term in 1996 with even more electoral votes than in 1992.

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