Founding fathers must make room for the new guys

Source: Scripps Howard News Service
Date: February 06, 2003

Modern-era presidents like John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have eclipsed most of the denizens of Mount Rushmore in the hearts and minds of the American people.

The traditional founding fathers like George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson are rarely cited as favorite chief executives, according to a survey of 1,039 adult residents of the United States conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University.

"We are losing our history, or at least an understanding of our history, by much of the American population," concluded James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.

"I see this in the classroom all the time. Students are influenced according to who was president when they were growing up. They don't know who the founding fathers were, except intellectually. Many Americans just don't understand much about their presidents, mostly because of apathy," Thurber said.

Participants in the survey were asked: "Who would you say is your favorite American president, either living or dead?"

The only president portrayed on the national monument at Mount Rushmore, S.D., who did well in the survey was Abraham Lincoln, topping the list with 16 percent.

Kennedy came in a strong second with 14 percent, followed by Clinton at 13, Reagan at 10, Franklin Roosevelt at 7 percent and current President George W. Bush at 6 percent.

George Washington - first president of the United States, commander in chief of American forces during the Revolutionary War and the presiding officer at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 - came in seventh place with only 5 percent.

"The contribution that a president makes is quiet a different question from that of their popularity," Thurber said. "Kennedy really didn't contribute anything. But as soon as he was assassinated he became a myth."

The popularity of presidents varied considerably according to education. Lincoln was twice a popular among college graduates than he is among people who did not finish high school. Kennedy and Clinton, meanwhile, were twice as popular among high school graduates than among college graduates.

There are also considerable gender gaps, with the clear majority of Reagan supporters being male and most of Kennedy's supporters being female.

Nearly half of Clinton's supporters are black while nearly all of Reagan's supporters are white. Even though he signed the Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery in the South, Abraham Lincoln was picked by only 8 percent of African Americans in the poll.

Lincoln, who was born in Kentucky and raised in Illinois, was clearly preferred among Midwesterners and did least well among Southerners.

The poll was conducted at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. Residents of the United States were interviewed by telephone from Jan. 17-30 in a study funded by a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation.

The poll has an overall 4 percentage point margin of error, although the margin increases when examining attitudes among smaller groups within the survey. The margin among blacks in the poll, for example, is 9 percent.