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

Lincoln wins: Honest Abe tops new presidential survey

[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/02/16/art.bush1.gi.jpg caption=" 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. Joe in Austin

    It's BS. It's too early. Wait 10, no 20, years.

    February 16, 2009 11:16 am at 11:16 am |
  2. Chris

    This is a waste of time. You cannot judge a president until after he has been out of office for at least 8 years. These historians are nothing more than socialist liberals.

    February 16, 2009 11:16 am at 11:16 am |
  3. Dutch/Hampton Roads, VA

    Ronald Reagan before Bill Clinton? These historians aren't too bright. George W. Bush should be at the very botton.

    February 16, 2009 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  4. a REAL American

    This is a joke.... anyone with a serious knowledge of history knows that it takes much longer than a month to see how a president's policies pan out.

    An impeached president at 15th? Carter at 25th? Must've been a lot of liberal historians contacted for this survey.

    February 16, 2009 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  5. Rob

    No serious historian of any merit would make such an assessment this soon after GWB's presidency. This reporting of such a ranking can be immediately discredited on that basis alone.

    February 16, 2009 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  6. jw

    Give it time......ol' Dubya will achieve that glorious status as nation's worst once all the secrets come out about manipulating the Constitution, illegal wiretapping, torture, raping the environment, and everything else we haven't heard about yet. I can't believe Reagan ranked ahead of Clinton or that Bush Sr ranked so high.

    February 16, 2009 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  7. CHANGE we need

    Of course this news agency would find a poll that pounds Bush. Anything to get the Obamamania going again. Nicely done, CNN.

    Next headline...implement the 'Fairness Doctrine' and bring political fairness to media. Then, CNN can change their format to glorifying BO and THEY can change their name to Bush Bashing Channel...no, wait, BBC is alreay taken.

    Thank you for your responsiblity, CNN.

    February 16, 2009 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  8. Ryan

    How did he score so good? Must have been a 60 member panel of hard core Republicans. Only way I can imagine him scoring so well on this

    February 16, 2009 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  9. Carlos

    Why should this low result be shocking? George W. Bush started an illegal war of aggression against a country who had not posed a national security threat to our country using false pretenses, in violation of the UN Charter and the very US Constitution. This war has misplaced 4 million out of 25 million Iraqis – that would be the equivalent of 48 million displaced Americans. This war has led to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths, the rise of Islamic extremism in a previously secular Arab state, the emergence of Iran as the regional power (Saddam Hussein's Baath regime was a buffer against Iran), not to mention more than 4 thousand dead US servicepersons and dozens of thousands of injured US troops.

    Bush is a traitor, a terrorist, a mass murderer, and a war criminal.

    February 16, 2009 11:23 am at 11:23 am |
  10. Mark Dover, Delaware

    Give him time.. he will move up to the all time worst.

    February 16, 2009 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
  11. Scott in Lexington

    Bad President? Ya think?????

    February 16, 2009 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
  12. Kevin in Ohio

    Way too soon. Tainted by the left-wing hatred that has yet to dissipate. And Dutch in Hampton Roads.... YES Reagan before Clinton. Thats a no-brainer. Reagan LED the nation through his eight years. Clinton followed whatever way the wind was blowing the polls.

    February 16, 2009 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
  13. Abraham

    They actually gave him FAR better than he deserves. The one category they use" pursue equal justice" gies modern presidents a very unfair advantage. bush belongs in a sparring match with buchannan for last place, and if you remove that one category he is.

    February 16, 2009 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  14. J S Ragman

    He came in 36th? Surely you jest. He should either be last (43rd) or not even be mentioned in future history books.

    February 16, 2009 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  15. Angie in Pa


    Bush-Nearly Destroyed our country! WORST PRESIDENT EVER! Well atleast I can say Proudily I never voted for the Moron! not The first time or the Second!

    February 16, 2009 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  16. Joe

    Oh wait though...bush got reelected didn't he? Obama's not really on the road to do that at the the rate that he's headed...love how the media just keeps bashing bush though...nah...they're not living in the past

    February 16, 2009 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  17. Ted

    Dubya needs to just go into hiding and not try to say or do anything for about 20 years. That will give the repub history revisionists enough time to do what they do best. By that time, no one, including me, will care.

    February 16, 2009 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  18. John G

    When a Presidency ends it takes 20-30 years before documents are declassified and released to the public. This means that these alleged historians are making judgments based on polling data that we all knew was low before he left office.

    In the end, history may not be kind to former President Bush but it should be noted that he did the best he could under circumstances that would try anyone in the office.

    February 16, 2009 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  19. Norman

    These "historians" were far too generous with Bush by not putting him at the verty bottom of the heap.
    If they wait a while, they will find out the crimes that his administration has commiteed in those awful 8 years.

    February 16, 2009 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  20. Joe

    All Bush cared about was getting rid of Saddam, nothing else. He abused his power to exact a personal revenge. He did not think in the best interest of the country. When he kept saying the troops will remain in Iraq so long as I am president, I lost all respect for him.

    February 16, 2009 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  21. Bush did all right

    Historians are unemployed liberals with notihng better to do than criticize great american patriots . President Bush did all right - History will show he kept us all safe after 9-11 - gave us an all important foothold in the mid east – took care of terrorists - and for the better part of his 2 terms, this country was robust in growth and prosperity

    To the naysayer historians and liberals -- go collect your welfare chack and be quiet

    February 16, 2009 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  22. Dutch/Hampton Roads, VA

    Bushs' presidency can be described as the "Dismantling of the United States Constitution." History will get the verdict correct. He was the worst president. I can't think of any other president in history who sent American soldiers to war under false pretenses.

    February 16, 2009 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
  23. Mary Kay

    Wait 10, no 20 years, and Bush will have surpassed Buchanan as the worst President. Good suggestion, Joe in Austin!

    February 16, 2009 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
  24. Bush Was a Spendthrift

    Borrow & Spend ... The New Name For the Republicans ...

    In each year that he was President ….

    Democrat Jimmy Carter increased the national debt by $80B

    Republican Ronald Reagan increased the national debt by $200B

    Republican George H. W. Bush (41) increased the national debt by $400B

    Democrat Bill Clinton increased the national debt by $185B

    Republican George W Bush (43) increased the national debt by $640B

    So they next time the Republicans use the “Tax & Spend Liberal” gimmick against Democrats, remember these HARD facts.

    Republicans are responsible for the clear majority … over 80% of the balance on our national credit card …..

    So who are the Borrow & Spenders and who tends to clean up their mess?? That would be the Democrats...

    Now Bush has saddled Obama with an economy that needs to have CPR and electric shock applied to bring it back to life. This requires additional spending to counteract the money Bush wasted during his presidency.

    February 16, 2009 11:28 am at 11:28 am |
  25. Susan L.

    CNN is on a mission to white-wash the obstructionist Republicans and make them out to be the heroes of America for their ignoble attempt to block the Stimulus bill. Good job, CNN! You only report Republican Talking Points. It's funny that the righties call you Communist News Network because the truth is it's more like Conservative News Network. You are FAR from fair and balanced. Do a study on yourselves and count how many Democrats you have come on your shows vs. how many Republicans. We have a Democratic House, Senate, and Executive and STILL you give WAY more voice to the Republicans! What are you so afraid of???

    February 16, 2009 11:28 am at 11:28 am |
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