Who Is Your Favorite President?

Edna Medford, professor of history at Howard University in Washington, D.C., analyzes C-Span's Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership. Also, cast your vote for your favorite president.

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LYNN NEARY, Host:

It's President's Day and what a better way to celebrate then a contest? Well, actually, a survey. In honor of the holiday, C-Span released the results of its second Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership. Sixty-five presidential historians ranked the 42 former occupants of the White House on how well they did their job. Edna Greene Medford is one of the historians who helped design the survey. She's a professor of history at Howard University and joins us now from her home in Maryland where she's tending the flu. Thanks for joining us, especially given that you are tending the flu there. How are you feeling?

Dr. EDNA GREENE MEDFORD (Professor of History, Howard University): I'm doing fine. Thank you.

NEARY: Great. Well, we'll keep our listeners on the edge of our seats for a few minutes while we ask them to join in. Who is your favorite - we want them to tell us who's your favorite president and why? Give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255, and our Email address is: talk@npr.org. So, Ms. Medford, tell us who is the winner of this year's survey?

Dr. MEDFORD: Well, in terms of - we did this based on who we thought were the most effective and the person who came out on top with no surprise, it was Abraham Lincoln and the others were George Washington, FDR, Teddy Roosevelt and Truman.

NEARY: Now, before we get into the individual winners, let's put it that way. Explain what the criteria were that you based these on?

Dr. MEDFORD: Yes. There were ten categories that we had to judge them on - public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, administrative skills, relations with Congress, vision or setting an agenda, pursued equal justice for all and performance within the context of their time.

NEARY: Now, this is the second year you've done it, is that correct?

Dr. MEDFORD: Yes, the first one was in 2000.

NEARY: And Abraham Lincoln came out on top both times?

Dr. MEDFORD: Yes, he did.

NEARY: What is it about Abraham Lincoln, do you think?

Dr. MEDFORD: I think the country believes that Lincoln was the one president that seemed to honor the nation avowed core values. Things like moral authority, things like compassion, perseverance toward an honorable goal, integrity and honestly, those kinds of things. So, what we tend to do is, we tend to determine what those core values are and the extent to which leaders are able to enhance those values determines where they're going to be ranked or whether or not they are tarnishing those values.

NEARY: Yeah. Now, of course, George Washington not surprising. FDR not surprising. Truman, not surprising at this point, but it would have been very surprising to hear Truman in that top five, a number of years back, correct?

Dr. MEDFORD: Well, certainly, he did pretty well in the first survey, as well he scored in the top five in 2000, as well.

NEARY: But I mean, right after he was president.

Dr. MEDFORD: Oh, heavens no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: So, what does that say, what does that say about how we judge our presidents?

Dr. MEDFORD: Well, it says that the times in which we judge them matter. We really are very presentist. We are supposed to be looking at these administrations based in their times but we bring certain baggage to the study of history so we cannot separate ourselves from the times that we live in. So, if we are focused on economic management today, if we're focused on foreign policy today, if we're focused on human rights, then we're going to view these administrations very differently.

NEARY: Now, there are a couple of presidents I wanted to talk about that had something interesting happen in this particular survey. Bill Clinton and Ulysses S. Grant, who you point out in your press release, are not often mentioned in the same sentence (laughing), but they had something in common in the survey. What was it?

Dr. MEDFORD: They both advanced in this survey with Bill Clinton gaining six positions, actually.

NEARY: From what to what?

Dr. MEDFORD: From the 21st to the 15th.

NEARY: Now, how do you explain that?

Dr. MEDFORD: Well, he gained in crisis management, in international relations, in relations with Congress in vision or setting an agenda, but he also gained in moral authority (laughing) which I find interesting...

NEARY: Yeah.

Dr. MEDFORD: And I think it's because when we took the survey in 2000, of course, the Monica Lewinsky situation was so new to us, and so he was ranked lower because of that, and I think as time has progressed, people had given less interest to that, and have looked more closely at the other things that may have been more positive in his administration.

NEARY: So again, that speaks to the point that you made about the fact that what you think about a president can be influenced by your own times, by what sentiment that mean.

Dr. MEDFORD: Absolutely. And Grant is up by 10 spots from 33rd place to 23rd.

NEARY: How do you explain that, though?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MEDFORD: I think it has a lot to do with what's been happening in the last several months with Lincoln, with the bicentennial.

NEARY: Uh-huh.

Dr. MEDFORD: Grant has been highlighted because of the role he played in the war. And I think he's absolutely linked with Lincoln and so, he's sort of riding Lincoln's coat tails (laughing), I think.

NEARY: Now we should, before we go to our listeners, I'd also like to hear you talk a little bit about the bottom five. Who are the bottom five and why?

Dr. MEDFORD: Oh, yes. Those are Hayes, Hoover, Tyler, George W. Bush and Fillmore.

NEARY: OK.

Dr. MEDFORD: And Bush finished at 36, and of course, he wasn't included in the 2000 survey.

NEARY: Yeah.

Dr. MEDFORD: And of course, his scores I think reflect to a great extent - well, I can tell you exactly what they reflect in terms of - he's ranked as 36th. He's ranked at 36th in public persuasion, 25 in crisis management. He's ranked at 40 at economic management and at 41 at - on - in international relations. The 42nd person is William Henry Harrison, who, of course, died in office after 30 days. So, he pretty much ranks dead last.

NEARY: Yeah.

Dr. MEDFORD: In terms of international...

NEARY: Which is not really surprising given...

Dr. MEDFORD: Not at all. Now, is he going to stay there in the coming years? We don't know. You know, there is so much that does change based on what's happening to the country at any given time.

NEARY: We're talking with Edna Medford who is a professor of history at Howard University. She helped design the C-Span Historians' Presidential Leadership Survey and we want to know who your favorite presidents are, who you would vote for? So, give us a call at 800-989-8255 and we're going to take a call now - we're going to go first to Rick in Portland, Oregon. Hey, Rick, how are you?

RICK (Caller): Yes, hello. Thank you for taking my call.

NEARY: Go ahead.

RICK: I'd have to say, my favorite president is Eisenhower.

NEARY: Why is that?

RICK: Well, I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. I was born in '52, and I remember distinctly playing on big piles of little rocks and big piles of sand as they were building the highway system. And as I grew older and studied more and learned more about World War II, I came to fully appreciate his being the supreme commander of the allied forces in World War II and the part that he played as a military man in helping us get through that conflict. And it's just been, to know he's always been my favorite, I guess, for those two primary reasons.

NEARY: Great. Thanks for calling in.

RICK: Absolutely.

NEARY: And Ms. Medford, maybe you can tell us where did Eisenhower rank, by the way, on this?

Dr. MEDFORD: He ranked number eight.

NEARY: So he was pretty high up there.

Dr. MEDFORD: Yes, absolutely. And I think your caller is absolutely right. That's exactly why he ranked so high. People remember him, you know, as the supreme allied commander. He is the person who's overseeing it - at least the early years of the Cold War. He also warned of the military industrial complex. So, I think people are remembering those kinds of things even though we were told to stick to the administrations of these people, all of the - the whole person comes in, you know, what they did before they were president and what they did after they were president.

NEARY: Right. All right, let's go to Sherry(ph). She's in Statesborough, Georgia. Hi, Sherry.

SHERRY (Caller): Hey, there.

NEARY: Hi. Go ahead.

SHERRY: OK. I was - I'm interested. And this is very good conversation. My favorite president is Richard Nixon.

NEARY: Why is that?

SHERRY: He inherited a very bad situation with the war. He promised he would get us out. It took a while but he did. I think he got a - extremely raw deal with the Watergate situation, and even to this day, I don't understand what the big deal was all about. I grew up in a military family. So, his support of the military to me was very important. His international relationships to me, and I know that there are people out there who will disagree with me, but his international relationships, especially in the area of China were groundbreaking to me. I've just always honored the man and next to President Reagan, he was a very strong president and worthy of our admiration.

NEARY: All right, well, thanks so much for calling in, Sherry.

SHERRY: Thank you.

NEARY: And what was his ranking? What was Nixon's ranking?

Dr. MEDFORD: Nixon is down by two points from the last time to 27.

NEARY: Uh huh.

Dr. MEDFORD: And your caller is absolutely right. He gets high marks for international relations. He's ranked at number 11, but his mark for moral authority is 41.

NEARY: Uh-huh.

Dr. MEDFORD: He will never be able to live down Watergate, I think.

NEARY: All right. Let's go to Troy(ph) who is calling from Iowa City. Hi, Troy.

TROY (Caller): Hi. Andrew Jackson.

NEARY: Andrew Jackson, why?

TROY: He eliminated the centralized bank.

NEARY: Uh-huh. Is that your favorite thing about - the main thing, explain why that's so important to you?

TROY: Because he's learned that the bankers really control the world and this Federal Reserve is not part of the Federal government. It is an enterprise to make money. And right now, the centralized bank where the Federal Reserve is broke and it needs money, and the only way it can make money is to print money.

NEARY: All right. So you're...

TROY: So, Andrew Jackson because he eliminated the centralized bank.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Troy.

TROY: Thank you.

NEARY: Appreciate it. And how did Andrew Jackson do in your survey, Professor Medford?

Dr. MEDFORD: Overall, number 13.

NEARY: So he's pretty high up there.

Dr. MEDFORD: Yeah. But in terms of economic management, he's at 29.

NEARY: Great.

Dr. MEDFORD: And in terms (laughing) of pursued equal justice for all, he's at 35.

NEARY: All right. Well what, what did he do so well? What did he do well on then?

Dr. MEDFORD: Well, he did - in terms of - well, his crisis leadership, he's at sixth and public persuasion is at seven. And I think he did well in that regard and vision of setting an agenda, as well. He's the one who is generally recognized as having expanded democracy, although historians will argue with you about whether or not he was responsible or something else was. But his is supposed to be the period of the common man and the extension of voting and better political participation to the common man. Of course, the common man did not include Native Americans. It did not include African-Americans. He enslaved African-Americans and hunted down Native Americans. So, you're going to get a lot of disagreement on Mr. Jackson, but he does rank number 13.

NEARY: Edna Medford is a professor of history at Howard University and you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. We're going to take another call now. We're going to go to Craig(ph), and he is calling from Elkhart, Indiana, I believe.

CRAIG (Caller): Yes, hello.

NEARY: Hi. Go ahead, Craig.

CRAIG: Yes, Dr. Medford...

Dr. MEDFORD: Yes.

CRAIG: I picked as my choice someone that probably would not fit in everyone else's which is Lyndon Johnson because he had the backbone to stand against his conservative party and to bring justice finally after 99 years to the African situation that had been opposed in the South which was his area. And he kind of caused this whole...

NEARY: Well, he was very - let's have - I'd like to hear Professor Medford respond to your choice because of...

CRAIG: Well, he caused the Republicans to be the conservative party now, because they all went against what he did and became Republicans instead of southern Democrats.

NEARY: All right, let's - Professor Medford, maybe you can respond and tell us a little bit about Johnson and thanks so much for your call, Craig.

CRAIG: Thank you.

Dr. MEDFORD: There's a lot of truth to what your caller is saying. Actually, Johnson finished number 11th overall. That's pretty good. And he gets his highest mark at pursued equal justice for all.

NEARY: Uh-huh.

Dr. MEDFORD: At number two, because even though a lot of us remember Kennedy as a part of the whole civil rights legislation, it was Lyndon Johnson that got that legislation through after Kennedy was assassinated.

NEARY: All right. Let's - we're going to move quickly to another caller so we can get a few more calls in here.

Dr. MEDFORD: OK.

NEARY: Sarah(ph) from Paddock Lake, Wisconsin. Sarah.

SARAH (Caller): Hi. Thank you. I really like Jimmy Carter. I was barely alive but I like a lot of his energy plans. But was - two really quick questions, number one, does the media from the newer presidents affect from their rankings and number two, are you - from the older presidents, do you see the overall legislature they put in and do you see how that changes does that affect their ranking?

NEARY: All right, good questions. Thanks, Sarah.

SARAH: All right, thank you.

Dr. MEDFORD: OK. Carter is down two spots from - actually three, from 22 to 25. So, he has lost ground. And he - he scores rather poorly in public persuasion. He's at 35 there and at 35, as well, for crisis management. Well, we think that he probably has lost some ground because of some recent statements he has made...

NEARY: Right.

Dr. MEDFORD: About the Palestinians...

NEARY: Again, context as you said. The sort of...

Dr. MEDFORD: Yes. Absolutely. But I don't think he will go down too far because people really do appreciate what he's done as a former president in terms of human rights, in terms of his involvement with Habitat for Humanity, and so forth.

NEARY: Now, I think that Sarah was asking if the media can affect the rankings in any way?

Dr. MEDFORD: Oh, there's no question about that. I think the media does play a significant role in this. I - historians and scholars of these presidential administrations are - tend to be objective and not be influenced by the times or by the media, only human beings and we are influenced by it.

NEARY: All right, let's see if we can get more person in here. Gregg(ph) from Rocky Hill, Connecticut. Go ahead.

GREGG (Caller): Yes, I know I have to say Reagan because he brought us out of the misery of the 1970s with the stagflation and the hostage crisis and Vietnam and Nixon resignation and so forth, he made us believe in ourselves again.

NEARY: All right, thanks so much for your call, Gregg and we're going to take - let's see if we can get one last one in here. Roberta in Bonita Springs, Georgia. Oh, who's your favorite president?

ROBERTA (Caller): Hi. Thank you. It's Florida. Bonita Springs, Florida.

NEARY: OK. Go ahead, quickly.

ROBERTA: My favorite president is Truman.

NEARY: Truman, OK. Why?

ROBERTA: Because I think that he gave people a greater view of themselves as a member of an American lifestyle whether that's positive (laughing) or negative at this time that I'm not sure of. But there was something about him that represented a handshake and Americana and straight talking and simplicity also, I think, in life.

NEARY: All right.

ROBERTA: Like, had some modesty about him.

NEARY: Thanks so much for calling in, Roberta. Well, we got a very nice range there, I think, Professor Medford of people's favorites and we thank you for joining us today to honor our presidents.

Dr. MEDFORD: OK.

NEARY: Edna Medford is a professor of history at Howard University and she helped designed the C-Span Historians' Presidential Leadership Survey. And tomorrow in hard times, families often come together, but what do you do when they refuse to leave? Ask Amy, of course. Join us. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

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