American Presidents

Historians Rank Presidential
Leadership In New C-SPAN Survey

Monday, February 21, 2000

Ten Leadership Qualities Assessed Across US History

Historians have given Abraham Lincoln, FDR, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman the top five honors for presidential leadership in a survey of historians conducted by C-SPAN in December and January.

Fifty-eight historians from across the political spectrum who contributed to C-SPAN's year long series, American Presidents: Life Portraits participated in C-SPAN's survey. They rated the 41 men who have served in the White House on ten different qualities of presidential leadership. Results of this survey, overall rankings and each president's scores in individual categories, are being released by C-SPAN to coincide with the February 21 observance of President's Day.

President Clinton rated 21st overall and in the center in most categories: 20th in Crisis Leadership; 21st in International Relations; 21st in Administrative Skills; 22nd in Vision/Agenda Setting; and 21st in Performance in the Context of the times. His high scores were in Pursuing Equal Justice (5th), Economic Management (5th) and Public Persuasion (11th); his low scores were in Relations with Congress (36th) and Moral Authority (41st).

Rated worst overall as leaders by participating historians were William Henry Harrison (37), Warren G. Harding (38), Franklin Pierce (39), Andrew Johnson (40) and James Buchanan (41).

This is C-SPAN's first effort at surveying presidential leadership. "We spent all of 1999 learning about these men through our American Presidents series. A formal survey of historians seemed like a natural conclusion to that effort," said C-SPAN CEO Brian Lamb. "It also seemed like a useful project for an election year, when Americans are making the same kind of judgements about who they want to inherit the White House."

The cable public affairs network was guided in the survey effort by a team of four historians and academics: Dr. Douglas Brinkley, Director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans; Dr. Edna Greene Medford, Associate Professor of History, Howard University; Richard Norton Smith, Director of the Gerald R. Ford Museum and Library; and Dr. John Splaine, Education professor, University of Maryland.

The four survey advisors devised a survey which asked participants to use a one ("not effective") to ten ("very effective") scale to rate each president on ten qualities of presidential leadership: "Public Persuasion," "Crisis Leadership," "Economic Management," "Moral Authority," "International Relations," "Administrative Skills," "Relations with Congress," "Vision/Agenda Setting," and "Pursuit of Equal Justice for All". And, to reflect the changing role of the presidency over the course of US history, the advisory team chose as the tenth category, "Performance Within the Context of His Times."

The survey was sent by mail in December to 87 historians and other professional observers of the presidency whose work contributed to C-SPAN's 41 week biography series, American Presidents. Fifty-eight agreed to participate. Survey responses were tabulated by averaging all the responses in any given category for each president. Each of the ten categories were given equal weighting in the total scores. Overseeing the tabulation were Robert Kennedy, C-SPAN CFO and Dr. Robert Browning, a political scientist who serves as director of the C-SPAN archives.

Interested C-SPAN viewers were also given the chance to participate in a separate tabulation. The complete survey was available online for a ten-day period at the end of December. The online program was designed for one-time participation from a computer address; 1145 people took part in the survey which its designers estimate took at least 45 minutes to complete. Full results of the public version of the presidential leadership survey are available on C-SPAN's web site at

C-SPAN, which marks its 21st anniversary in March, offers commercial-free round-the-clock coverage of public affairs via cable and satellite and on the Internet. C-SPAN was created in l979 by the cable television industry as a public service to the nation.

This year, C-SPAN moves from its year long focus on presidential history to offer extensive coverage of its fifth presidential election, including gavel-to-gavel telecasts of the Republican, Democratic, Reform and Libertarian Party conventions.

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