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FDR top, George Dubya near bottom in British ranking of US presidents

UK scholars draw up league table of past American leaders that sees Abraham Lincoln lose his customary top slot to the architect of the New Deal.

LONDON // Franklin D Roosevelt has emerged as the best, and George W Bush as one of the very worst, in the first "league table" of US presidents produced by British scholars.

The survey, conducted by the United States Presidency Centre (USPC) at London University's Institute for the Study of the Americas, involved 47 UK specialists on American history and politics rating the performance of presidents from 1789 to 2009.

Two, William Henry Harrison (1841) and James Garfield (1881), were ignored because they died shortly after taking office, while there was only an interim assessment of Barack Obama, though he did rather well in the Britons' eyes.

The survey, funded by the US Embassy in London, ranked 40 presidents on their vision and agenda-setting, their domestic leadership, foreign policy initiatives, moral authority and positive historical significance of their legacy.

It was FDR who first, in marked contrast to similar exercises in the US where, invariably, Abraham Lincoln occupies the top spot.

Prof Iwan Morgan, the USPC director, said after the results were published on Monday night: "The results show some interesting differences between UK and US presidential rankings.

"US polls habitually place Abraham Lincoln first because of his achievements as Civil War leader in restoring the Union and ending slavery. In addition, they often put George Washington second ahead of FDR because of his significance in establishing the authority of the presidency.

"UK scholars, by contrast, have elevated Franklin D Roosevelt to first place in recognition of the breadth of the challenges he faced as president during the Great Depression and World War Two, his confident and inspirational leadership in both of these crises, and the enduring significance of his New Deal legacy."

Prof Morgan also accepted that it was probable that FDR's stock rose because the survey was conducted against the current backdrop of the worst economic troubles since the 1930s.

The survey also produced significant differences between US and UK rankings of individual presidents outside the top three.

John F Kennedy, for instance, was ranked sixth in a poll of American historians conducted by C-Span 18 months ago but only made it to 15th in the UK survey.

"UK academics seemingly faulted JFK for the gap between his rhetoric and his substantive achievements as president," Prof Morgan said. "Bill Clinton, who has fared well in recent US polls, coming 15th in the C-Span survey, slipped somewhat in the UK survey, mainly because of a very low rating for moral authority, but also because his legacy, particularly his economic achievement, looks less robust 10 years on from the time he left office."

Prof Morgan said that a criticism of similar surveys in the US tended to be that they were driven by a liberal bias. Although the British survey has a preponderance of what are regarded as liberals in top positions, Thomas Jefferson, Ronald Reagan and Andrew Jackson all make it into the top 10.

But George W Bush fared the worst of any post-war president, only making it to 31st on the list. By contrast, Mr Obama's assessment would have put him in eighth place had he been included in the poll, Prof Morgan said.

Bottom place on the list was reserved for James Buchanan, the only US president never to marry and who, during his presidency, from 1857 to 1861, succeeded in angering both the North and South in the years leading up to the Civil War.

dsapsted@thenational.ae

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