Dr. Paul Kengor, executive director of The Center for Vision & Values and professor of political science at Grove City College, was among 65 presidential scholars surveyed by C-SPAN for its Presidents’ Day 2009 ranking of American presidents, the first major C-SPAN rating since 2000. The team of advisors heading up the project included Douglas Brinkley, Richard Norton Smith, Edna Greene Medford, and Harvey Mansfield.
“It was an honor and thrill to be asked to participate,” says Kengor. “I respect C-SPAN very much. I knew that when C-SPAN decided to do this it would be done with C-SPAN’s characteristic, unequalled political fairness.”
Kengor says that such fairness is “badly needed,” given that “most of these rankings of presidents by academics are merely rankings of the liberal bias of academic historians and political scientists—and certainly not representative of America.”
Kengor says that Americans are “split pretty much evenly” among registered Democrats and Republicans. He adds that the number of self-identified conservatives out-ranks self-identified liberals by about two-to-one. “To the contrary,” says Kengor, “surveys of academics, especially in the social sciences and humanities, consistently reveal that liberal Democrats comprise upwards of 90 percent of professors.”
Thus, says Kengor, it is no surprise that conservative presidents like Ronald Reagan rank among the general public’s top “one to three” presidents but are “disregarded” by the academy.
“What’s great about the C-SPAN survey,” notes Kengor, “is the desire to do a genuine, accurate ranking of presidents by historians, scholars, and biographers outside the cloistered, ideologically monolithic halls of the academic left.”
Kengor asserts that C-SPAN developed a list of criteria that “do an excellent job” of removing partisanship from the ranking process, including criteria such as “vision/setting an agenda” and “performance within context of times.” “Those are important when you’re trying to be an impartial judge of things like leadership,” states Kengor.
And what were the results?
The C-SPAN survey generated the following top 10 list: 1) Abraham Lincoln; 2) George Washington; 3) Franklin Roosevelt; 4) Teddy Roosevelt; 5) Harry Truman; 6) John F. Kennedy; 7) Thomas Jefferson; 8) Dwight Eisenhower; 9) Woodrow Wilson; and 10) Ronald Reagan. (Click here to go to the survey.)
“I’m not surprised by most of the top 10, which is close to how I personally voted,” says Kengor. “The top three are exactly what I expected.”
Although Kengor gave a “very strong” rating for Harry Truman, and “good rankings” for Teddy Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, he did not expect them to finish so high. “I’d put Truman and TR in the top 10, but not in the top 5. But, still, that’s not a huge difference from how I rated them. JFK, in my view, should not be in the top 10.”
Kengor says the “most interesting” choices in the top 10 are Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan. “I suspect that those two involved more political bias than any others. I imagine that Wilson got pumped up by the liberal rankers and zinged by the conservatives, whereas Reagan was just the opposite. But both, I imagine, got enough very high marks from advocates to push them into the top 10. Both were clearly among our 10 most consequential presidents.”
Kengor believes that Ronald Reagan will continue to climb up the survey, much like Harry Truman: “Reagan will slowly climb to the top 5 as those who despised him and never voted for him eventually are replaced by historians who cannot objectively deny his remarkable historical impact.”
Will the same be said about George W. Bush? “Possibly,” says Kengor, “but right now it’s too early to judge. It all depends on what happens in the Middle East, and whether his long-term plan to democratically transform the region pans out.”
For now, though, the C-SPAN scholars relegated Bush to the bottom—36th out of 42 presidents.
Other “surprises,” by Kengor’s estimation, was Bill Clinton being ranked an impressive 15th, up six points from 2000, and George H. W. Bush moving from 20th to 18th. Kengor also believes that Republican Gerald Ford was ranked “too high” at 22nd, and likewise for Democrat Jimmy Carter, who polled at 25th. “Neither was a good president,” says Kengor. “Carter actually dropped three points from the 2000 survey. That downward slide will continue over time, I think.”