Alex Massie

The Most Over-Rated US Presidents

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Here's the core finding of our quest to discover the Most Over-Rated and Most Under-Rated Presidents in US history: history has pegged Herbert Hoover absolutely right. Hoover was the only 20th century president who did not receive a single vote in either category. Uniquely amongst modern presidents, Hoover draws no controversy. He is the rock* upon which our survey can be built, the constant, universal dividing line between those who are over-rated and those whom history has foolishly frowned upon.

There was, I'm pleased to say, a healthy response. Equally happily the voting sample was reasonably evenly divided between conservatives and liberals with a fair sprinkling of libertarians and non-Americans to keep matters honest and diverse. 

Here then, are the results in the Over-Rated category. As you see there is a clear 1,2,3 followed by a pair at 4 and 5 and another couple at 6 and 7. You will also note that the top ten is in fact a top eleven. A reminder: ballots were scored on a 3,2,1 points system. If no order of preference was specified, each nominee was awarded 2 points. The results are given thus: total number of points collected, then, in brackets, each presidents' ranking in the Wall Street Journal's 2005 survey of historians.


1. 111 (6) Ronald Reagan

2. 92  (15) John F Kennedy

3. 67 (11) Woodrow Wilson

4. 45 (22) Bill Clinton

5. 41 (3) Franklin Delano Roosevelt

6. 29 (10) Andrew Jackon

7. 23 (4) Thomas Jefferson

8. 17 (5) Theodore Roosevelt

9. 11 (34) Jimmy Carter

10. 9 (2) Abraham Lincoln

10. 9 (18) Lyndon B Johnson

Others: 12. 8 (1) George Washington 13. 7 (17) James Madison 13. 7 (8) Dwight Eisenhower 15. 6 (21) George HW Bush 16. 5 (19) George W Bush  16. 5 (7) Harry Truman 16. 5 (23) Calvin Coolidge 19. 3 (12) Grover Cleveland 19. 3 (32) Richard Nixon 21. 2 (14) William McKinley 21. 2 (13) John Adams 23. 1 (9) James Polk.

In other words voters have judged that Polk is the least over-rated over-rated President. 

I should perhaps observe that Reagan's romp to victory was not the result of a liberal betting coup or court-packing conspiracy. Plenty of self-identified conservatives voted for him too, mostly on the not unreasonable grounds that Reagan's recent beatification over-estimates his ability to turn night into morning or cause walls to tumble with a single blast of his trumpet.

The reputations of JFK and Woodrow Wilson (ranked 4th in Arthur Schlesinger's original 1948 edition of this parlour game) have been sliding for some time, so it is not surprising to see them score well here. Wilson in particular attracted an impressively diverse barrage of scorn from voters of all political persuasion.

Of the rest, I had thought more voters might think that Harry Truman's reincarnation as a model Chief Executive might have led to him being over-rated. Perhaps his counter-evaluation still lies in the future, just as one would expect Clinton to fall down the rankings once the memory of his administration fades some more.

Many thanks to all of you who participated.

*Five other Presidents failed to trouble the scorers in either category: Benjamin Harrison, Rutherford B Hayes, James Buchanan, Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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