C-SPAN survey of presidential leadership adds sparkle to Eisenhower, Truman

Ike ranks 5th, Truman at 6th and Trump ties for 41st

By: - July 6, 2021 11:56 am

(photo courtesy of the National Archives)

TOPEKA — Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman played pivotal roles in World War II and remain affixed to one another near the top of C-SPAN’s ranking of U.S. presidents based on leadership.

Eisenhower finished fifth behind No. 1 Abraham Lincoln, No. 2 George Washington, No. 3 Franklin Roosevelt and No. 4 Teddy Roosevelt. Eisenhower’s position was unchanged from the previous survey of historians in 2017.

Truman, of Independence, held sixth ahead of No. 7 Thomas Jefferson, No. 8 John Kennedy, No. 9 Ronald Reagan and No. 10 Barack Obama.

Bringing up dead last in the 2021 survey was James Buchanan, who finished 44th. Andrew Jackson stumbled to 43rd. Tied for 41st: Franklin Pierce and newcomer Donald Trump, who was eligible for the first time.

“What stands out to me here is the stability,” said Richard Norton Smith, who led the Dole Institute of Politics in Lawrence and also presidential libraries of Eisenhower, Reagan, Ford, Lincoln and Herbert Hoover. “It’s interesting, particularly at the top and bottom of the list, how little significant movement there has been.”

“By contrast, the living presidents seem much more likely to fluctuate,” the historian said. “It’s almost as if there was a boomerang effect where historians go overboard a bit when presidents leave office and they are at the nadir of their partisan reputation, and then they graduate to a less political status.”

Obama entered the rankings at No. 12 four years ago, but improved two spots in 2021. George W. Bush continues to climb the mountain from No. 36 in 2009 to No. 33 in 2017 and to No. 29 in 2021.

Ulysses Grant logged the largest overall gain over the four C-SPAN surveys of presidential leadership, jumping 13 spots from No. 33 in 2000 to No. 20 in 2021.

“Grant is having his ‘Hamilton’ moment,” said Douglas Brinkley, a professor Rice University in Texas.

For the new survey, C-SPAN asked 142 presidential historians and professional observers of the presidency to rank the country’s 44 former chief executives on 10 characteristics of leadership. Released in conjunction with Independence Day, the 2021 results were the work of twice as many reviewers as in 2017. The roster of analysts was changed to broaden diversity in philosophy, age, gender and race.

Trump, who lost re-election in 2020 to President Joe Biden, received his best marks in public persuasion, ranking 32nd, and economic management, ranking 34th. The panel placed Trump last in the categories of moral authority and administrative skills.

Brinkley said Trump’s connection to impeachment had a negative impact on his score in the way that process also undermined Nixon and Clinton. In 2000, Nixon was ranked 26th but has fallen to 31st. Bill Clinton opened at 21st, peaked at No. 15 in 2009 and 2017 before sliding to No. 19 in 2021.

“This year, people compared which is worse: Watergate or the Trump impeachment?” Brinkley said. “The word ‘impeachment’ probably cost Nixon a few spots downward this year, and maybe Clinton, too.”

Edna Greene Medford, of Howard University, said appreciation for historical implications of racial injustice in the United States had grown but slaveholding presidents remained near the top of the list.

“Even though we may be a bit more enlightened about race today, we are still discounting its significance when evaluating these presidents,” she said.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter is Senior Reporter for Kansas Reflector. He's reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.