Friday, February 25, 2005


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Fri Feb 25, 7:59 PM ET

By Richard Reeves

LOS ANGELES -- Newspapers around the country celebrated Presidents Day by publishing a couple of new surveys designed to choose America's greatest president. One poll, done for Washington College, selected the old favorite, Abraham Lincoln. Another done by the Gallup Organization for CNN and USA Today chose a new champion, Ronald Reagan (news - web sites), with Bill Clinton (news - web sites) in second place.

Amazing! Reagan and Clinton? Proof positive, I assumed, that Americans have short attention spans and/or just don't know enough about history. That was the reason, I thought, that John F. Kennedy was ranked first in so many polls in recent decades.

To test that theory, I asked my class in "Politics and Media" at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California to rank the top five presidents. I fully expected them -- and any other group of bright young people -- to name Reagan and Clinton, pretty much depending on their own personal politics.

I thought wrong. This was the result, purely unscientific: Lincoln, 27 points; George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Clinton, 18; Kennedy, 15; Theodore Roosevelt, 9; Reagan, 7; Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson, 3; James Madison, 2. John Adams and Lyndon Johnson each got one fifth-place vote. (The LBJ voter added a caveat: "Before Vietnam.")

It's a fascinating game, but one I have always declined to play because I know nothing about most 19th-century presidents -- except that I think James K. Polk is the most underrated, a tough guy who decided to take the West to make the United States a continental country. Manifest Destiny and all that.

Such rankings apparently began in the Nov. 1, 1948, issue of Life magazine. That journal, the television of its day, commissioned Arthur Schlesinger of Harvard (the father of the one still writing interesting history) to rank our chief executives, and he came up with a list of "The Great ... Near Great ... Average ... Below Average ... Failures." The great ones, rated by 55 historians, were the men who served at great turning points in history: Lincoln, Washington, FDR, Wilson, Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.

To put that into perspective, the same issue, which hit the newsstands a week before the election that pitted New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey against President Harry S. Truman, ran a two-page photograph of Dewey captioned: "The Next President Travels by Ferry Boat Over the Broad Waters of San Francisco Bay."

In thinking about this, I came across a couple of surveys that make you think you don't know what to think.

Who were the most successful modern presidents in terms of preserving or improving the national economy? The best, according to an index created by Forbes magazine, which is the professional home of would-be Republican nominee Steve Forbes (news - web sites), was none other than ... Bill Clinton! Yep. If you crunch the numbers of gross domestic product growth, per capita income growth, employment gains, unemployment rate reduction, inflation reduction and federal deficit reduction, you come up with the man the Republicans wanted to impeach. In second place, it's Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy is third. Liberals all.

In fourth place, according to Forbes, comes Ronald Reagan, who had a great economy during his second term after a nasty recession in his first. But he always blamed the bad times on Jimmy Carter, who, Forbes adds, had the greatest job growth record of any president in history -- unfortunately he also broke records for inflation and interest-rate growth.

Finally, there are the rankings of, which advertises itself as "The Antidote to the Liberal News Media." Bruce Walker of that organization ranks the five best presidents this way: 1. Washington; 2. Jefferson; 3. Reagan; 4. Lincoln; 5. George W. Bush.

Walker should have quit while he was ahead. He downgrades Lincoln, not without reason, for accomplishing his goals by bloodshed, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of American lives, and for choosing a vice president, Andrew Johnson, who became one of the worst presidents in American history. Interesting.

I suppose I could be the antidote to Walker, but, in fact, I agree with him and his reasoning on George Washington. Says Walker: "Not just the father of his country, but in many ways the father of limited and representative government, Washington changed political history forever and for the better."

The greatest political event in our history, perhaps all history, was Washington's rejection of monarchy or of a presidency for life. His decision to go home in 1797 was what made our democracy and others possible. There was a man!