Opinion: C-SPAN ranks presidents: Abe still on top, shocker at the bottom


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Today is President’s Day, that sacred holiday on the United States calendar devoted to honoring the births of the two most important presidents in the nation’s history by selling bed linens and used automobiles at discount prices.

There was a time in not-too-distant American history when the country could afford to give President Washington and President Lincoln each their own holiday in many places -- Feb. 12 for Abe and Feb. 22 for GW.


But those fat days are gone. However today, as an added bonus, whether you buy new sheets or not, we’re throwing in publication of the intriguing results from C-SPAN’s latest ranking of past chief executives by leadership qualities.

It may not be a coincidence that the top five presidents of all time, as ranked by the cable channel’s panel of 65 historians, all come from the era before video clips and television.

Would Abe still be No. 1 if we’d seen a million replays of that vintage Civil War footage of him hitting his burly head on the log cabin door?

Or would a bald George Washington be No. 2 if his powdered wig had gotten blown out of the presidential carriage in a Washington wind, revealing the shiny presidential pate?

Or FDR, TR and Harry Truman at Nos. 3, 4 and 5 if we’d heard audio tapes of their candid opinions of Henry Wallace, William Howard Taft and Strom Thurmond, respectively?

As evidence suggesting that absence does make the memory grow softer, Bill Clinton slipped up from No. 21 in 2000 to No. 15 now, Ronald Reagan up to 10 from 11 and Bush I from 20 to 18. His son, Bush II, remains mired at No. 36 since he became a former president nearly four weeks ago. Hasn’t budged a notch.

Ulysses S. Grant, however, made a major leap from No. 33 to the 23d spot. Must be the beard.

On the other hand, despite a post-presidential record of building lots of houses, Jimmy Carter doesn’t seem to be doing himself much good more recently, falling from 22 to 25 in the last nine years.

Other dropsies in the latest C-SPAN presidential rankings: FDR from No. 2 to 3, Millard Fillmore (35 to 37), Woodrow Wilson (6 to 9) and the real shocker, James Buchanan brings up the presidential bottom again, this time at No. 42, with Andrew Johnson still just above him. Their belittled presidencies bracketed Lincoln’s, apparently a tough act to precede as well as follow.


The presidency of Buchanan, the only American bachelor president and, significantly, the only one from Pennsylvania, is consistently rated as the worst ever for his failure to avert the Civil War. And Barack Obama thinks he inherited trouble!

Historian Richard Norton Smith notes two things about the latest rankings of America’s 42 ex-presidents: ‘the fluidity with which presidential reputations are judged and the difficulty of assessing any president who has only just recently left office.’

“How we rank our presidents is, to a large extent, influenced by our own times,’ notes historian Edna Medford. ‘Today’s concerns shape our views of the past, be it in the area of foreign policy, managing the economy or human rights. The survey results also reinforce the idea that history is less about agreed-upon facts than about perceptions of who we are as a nation and how our leaders have either enhanced or tarnished that image we have of ourselves.’

Lincoln, she adds, ‘continues to rank at the top in all categories because he is perceived to embody the nation’s avowed core values: integrity, moderation, persistence in the pursuit of honorable goals, respect for human rights, compassion; those who collect near the bottom are perceived as having failed to uphold those values.”

Makes you wonder how someday the panel will view President Palin.

As long as you’re here, scroll down (or click the ‘Read more’ line below) to see a fascinating video as the presidents’ faces morph into each other, one after the other.

--Andrew Malcolm

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Photo credits: Getty Images (Abraham Lincoln with son Tad shortly before the president’s assassination in 1865); Ulysses S. Grant and, bringing up the bottom ranking of 42 ex-presidents, James Buchanan.