Public's taste in presidents suggests ignorance

A new poll rates the best presidents, in rather shocking order.

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George W. Bush (2002): In the top ten presidents of all time?

A new poll rates the best presidents, in rather shocking order.

A USA Today/Gallup poll, taken a few days ago, provides dismaying insight into Americans' knowledge of American history and past presidents.

One enduring lesson in politics: Take nothing for granted, including public knowledge of the most basic things.

I was shocked, during the first year of the Lyndon Johnson presidency (1964), to see reputable polling data indicating some 4 percent of registered voters still thought the late John F. Kennedy was president. Somehow they had missed the news of his assassination the previous November.

The USA/Today Gallup survey carries some surprises of its own. It found present-day Americans regarded Presidents Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton, Kennedy, and George Washington, in that order, as our best presidents. The next five, in order, were Franklin Roosevelt, Barack Obama, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and George W. Bush. Presidents Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Wilson, Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson, among others, did not make the Top Ten cut. Reagan drew by far the strongest support as No. 1 — fully 20 percent of those polled.

Clinton and JFK rated ahead of George Washington and in the top five ahead of FDR, Adams, and Jefferson? Obama and George W. Bush in the second five? It appears that name familiarity, and just plain ignorance, contributed to such rankings. Clinton was an effective political campaigner and presided over economic growth. But his terms of office otherwise were scandal-ridden and unremarkable. JFK was attractive and showed promise; but he served less than three years and had some notable stumbles, including the Bay of Pigs and entry into the Vietnam War.

Obama? Two years in office marked by polarization and a huge electoral defeat at midterm. George W. Bush? No comment necessary.

The survey underscored anew the failings, in particular, of an educational system which is not producing citizens with even the most basic knowledge of their own country — or watching very closely the most recent events. Up until now I've thought Sarah Palin had absolutely no chance of either being nominated for or elected to the presidency. The USA Today/Gallup findings make me second guess that assumption. How dumb are we anyway? Don't answer.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of