February 16th, 2009
02:50 PM ET
5 years ago

Lincoln wins: Honest Abe tops new presidential survey

 Historians have ranked Bush the seventh worst president.
Historians have ranked Bush the seventh worst president.

(CNN) – It's been 145 years since he appeared on a ballot, but America's admiration for the man who saved the union and sparked the end of slavery is stronger than ever, according to a new presidential survey.

Abraham Lincoln finished first in a ranking by historians of the 42 former White House occupants released over Presidents Day weekend.

The news wasn't quite as good for the latest addition to the nation's most exclusive fraternity; George W. Bush finished 36th in the survey, narrowly edging out the likes of historical also-rans Millard Fillmore, Warren Harding and Franklin Pierce.

James Buchanan - the man who watched helplessly as the nation lurched toward civil war in the 1850s - finished last.

"As much as is possible, we created a poll that was non-partisan, judicious and fair minded," said Rice University professor Douglas Brinkley, who helped organize the survey of 65 historians for cable television network C-SPAN.

The survey - which asked participants to rank each president on 10 qualities of leadership ranging from public persuasion and economic management to international relations and moral authority - was the network's second since 2000.

The hero of Springfield, Illinois, finished first nine years ago as well.

"It's fitting that for the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln that he remains at the top of these presidential rankings," Brinkley said.

"Lincoln 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," Howard University's Edna Medford added.

Founding father George Washington finished second in the new survey, followed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, and Harry Truman, in that order.

Bill Clinton registered the greatest gain among recent presidents, jumping from 21st to 15th in the survey. Ronald Reagan edged forward from 11th to 10th overall, while George H.W. Bush moved up from 20th to 18th.

The prize for the greatest jump in approval from historians over the last nine years, however, went to a president who has often sat near the bottom of such rankings: Ulysses S. Grant. The Civil War general jumped 10 notches, from 33rd to 23rd.

"Bill Clinton and Ulysses S. Grant aren't often mentioned in the same sentence - until now," historian Richard Norton Smith said. "Participants in the latest (survey) have boosted each man significantly higher than in the original survey conducted in 2000. All of which goes to show two things: the fluidity with which presidential reputations are judged, and the difficulty of assessing any president who has only just recently left office."


Filed under: President Bush
soundoff (127 Responses)
  1. Scott, Mizzou

    Are you kidding me? How in the world could bush not easily be in the top 3 worst presidents ever? 7th, historians are being way too nice. OOPS, did I say that out loud? I must be another one of those bunny killing, baby tossing, welfare loving liberals out to doom the country!! Please Republicans, most of your own party is done slipping on your tears.

    February 16, 2009 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  2. R in Maine

    So he doubles he deficit and establishes torture as the rule for behavior of the United States, do you really need eight to twenty years to know that he was not up to the standards of American presidents? It is people like you who are responsible for his bad behavior and bad record.

    February 16, 2009 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  3. Mike

    IN the case of Bush, I think it's fair to judge his as one of the worst Presidents to ever take office. He was horrible! Wake up people! His only concern was making is Oil thug friends rich and seeking revenge on Iraq. What a joke he was. Same goes for Cheney as well

    Waith 10-20 years.. PLease!

    February 16, 2009 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  4. Steve

    Wait until Europe and the rest of the World tries him on war crimes. Then he'll become the worst.

    February 16, 2009 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  5. Lois

    I think most or all of us will be dead and gone before Bush's place in history is set. Remember Lincoln was also criticized and hated by many people of his day (and not just southerners) for an unpopular war that killed many Americans (sound familiar?).

    I don't think anyone can predict the outcome of a president's historical significance until he or she has actually become history and is not still last week's news.

    February 16, 2009 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  6. Mike

    This boob got us into a non-winable war, stripped of of our rights, spied on us as a nation and he is only 7TH??? Get real everyone knew he was the worst after his first day in office.

    February 16, 2009 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  7. Ph.D

    These historians are scholars. What's your degree in, fairytales? GW Bush should be labeled the worst in history. He did nothing to prevent this disaster.

    February 16, 2009 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  8. thought crime

    There are some considerations that have not been addressed. First, who are these historians? What are their political views? Who did they study under or what influenced their learning? What are their eras of interest [I'm assuming all are American Historians]?

    It is interesting to note that since the 2000 rankings, the order has changed almost completely [Lincoln still number 1, I think Washington was better]. Clinton jumped like 5 spots... so it's obvious that time is a factor. And that most people, Dutch/Hampton Roads, VA as a prime example, are very near sighted in regards to history.

    But on my personal opinion... Washington is number 1 with Lincoln being a close second. I think Bush senior was a top ten, if he'd been re-elected top 5. FDR is overrated and Andrew Johnson is very underrated, because he was extremely misunderstood. Like Johnson, Bush has a very misunderstood presidency, at least at this point. Time will tell.

    February 16, 2009 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  9. Obama Victim

    Obama will make W look like Thomas Jefferson..................

    February 16, 2009 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  10. Tre'

    oh yea, Jimmy Carter is better than W...

    February 16, 2009 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  11. Zee

    Oh Chris, you act like being a socialist liberal is a bad thing. I'd much rather be socially liberal at this point. The alternative is being a conservative, a much worse thing if you ask me.

    February 16, 2009 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  12. Pat F

    Liberals hate Bush. Dog bites man. Stop the presses.

    February 16, 2009 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  13. NC Republican

    To all that seems to think and have their opinions of our former President Bush. His way of doing things may not have been to the likens of the american people, however he certainly saw to it that our country was being protected from any further terrorist attacks and President Bush gets a big applaud from our household. He did the best he could considering his congress and senate seats that stood very much in his way of final decisions. Another thing," DO NOT FORGET President Bush and this country inherited quite a few problems that trickled down to his administration from former Presidents. Go back and study your History Americans.

    February 16, 2009 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  14. JIm

    The only list Bill Clinton belongs on is a prison roll call list. Bill Clinton as history will prove is just above Jimmy Carter, as the two worst presidents in American History. Historians that answered that question now about George Bush are evidently at the bottom of there respective career.

    February 16, 2009 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  15. Sharon Kitchen

    The past pres should have been on a list all his own.
    What with torture/running the country in the ground/financial mess/not to mention the "criminal rulings" that should be coming his way.
    Being listed as 7 was way to kind.

    February 16, 2009 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  16. KLS

    Based on the data available to the historians I'm surprised Bush isn't rated lower. Time will tell if he will move up or down in the ratings.

    February 16, 2009 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  17. Steve, San Antonio

    I think the perspective of a few more years will put Mr. Bush at the very bottom of the list. His arrogance and incompetence have set our nation and our planet back more than eight years' worth. He has been a very negative factor on many, many fronts.

    February 16, 2009 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  18. Clarke

    His standing MAY change; however what they said about Nixon when I was a little kid still stands unchanged = great foreign policy vision RE China & USSR, but a vicitm of his own paranoia. What CAN be said about GW is the stunning sloppiness of decision making & chronic lack of " doing homework" bordered on incompetence. Which aint good.

    February 16, 2009 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  19. Justin from New Haven, CT

    I love how people are whining about Bush being 36th, he really should be 44th for how bad he was. There is no need to wait because the effects of his presidency are already felt and he didn't turn the tide on anything before he left office and set no foundation for the future.

    February 16, 2009 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  20. thanks, but not thanks

    Yeah right. Wait 10 to 20 years. After that wait another 20 years, or let say 100 years. Historians are socialist liberals. Do you people have any idea who used this type of language? Take a guess..Yeah right, commies and their close friends and foes fascists. You are either with us or against us. It does sound like democracy. You people should be shipped to either Cuba or North Korea. Good luck morons.....

    February 16, 2009 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  21. Matt

    I was intrigued by this list until I say Jimmy Carter at #25... There is no way that George Bush was worse that Carter, come on...

    February 16, 2009 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  22. Matthew

    How is Ronald Reagan 10th and Jimmy Carter 25th?

    February 16, 2009 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  23. James

    Why is Ronald Reagan SO OVERRATED?

    His administration had the most corruption charges of high government officials than any other administration in HISTORY (138 in total). Iran-Contra anyone?

    Reaganomics didn't get us out of the recession, the Fed lowered interest rates. That got the economy moving again until his failed policies got us into another recession. He tripled the national debt! And he's a "conservative"?

    He did NOT end the Cold War by expanding the military. It wasn't his doing.

    He de-unionized the country, expanded the gap b/w the rich and poor, and sold out America to corporate industries. He's the reason we have so many problem today with less than 1% control the country.

    And yet he's considered a top 10 president? He was an actor playing president. He wasn't good. But overrated by the pro-Reagan media.

    February 16, 2009 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  24. lindy

    Why would anyone protect Bush? His administration was a debacle. He was clearly not intellectually or morally up to the task. He is a dry drunk people.

    February 16, 2009 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  25. Tom in Wheaton, Illinois

    Well, the good news is he doesn't have far to fall and I doubt he'll ever beat out Buchanan – the one thing you CAN say about W is that he the South didn't secede during his miserable 8 years. How about Cheney, though? Do they rate evil Vice Presidents? If they do, he's a shoo-in for worst ever.

    February 16, 2009 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
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