The public perceptions of former presidents in the modern political era have sometimes changed for the better or worse, compared to how they were seen while in office, but the one constant in Gallup's polling of views of nine chief executives who served during the last 50 years is that John F. Kennedy still comes out on top.
Eighty-five percent of those surveyed by Gallup Nov. 19-21
said they approved of how Kennedy performed in office, about the same percentage as in 2006. Gallup says Kennedy has consistently ranked first since it started asking the question in 1990.
Ronald Reagan comes in second at 74 percent, showing that the rough times he weathered in both his terms -- with his job approval dropping to the 40 percent neighborhood during the 1982 recession and then falling again during the Iran-Contra scandal that overshadowed 1986-87 -- were the kind of time-limited travails that fade when other qualities loom larger in the public memory.
Richard Nixon, driven from office because of his role in the Watergate, may have rehabilitated his image somewhat in later years, as kind of an elder statesman still credited for his grasp of foreign affairs, but he never recovered from his scandal as Reagan did from Iran-Contra. He ranks at the bottom of Gallup's survey, with 29 percent approving of the job he did.
The most noticeable change in this year's survey is the rise of Bill Clinton and fall of Jimmy Carter.
In 2006, Carter and Clinton each got a 61 percent approval rating in the Gallup poll, tying them for third place.
The new poll has Clinton still in third, with his job approval rising to 69 percent, while Carter dropped to sixth, with an approval rating of 52 percent.
Carter had left office with a dismal 34 percent approval rating in a Gallup poll after his one term, compared to Clinton's rebound to 66 percent in 2001 despite the cloud over his presidency from the 1998 Monica Lewinsky affair.
Clinton ended his term on a high approval note, thanks to a booming economy that offset the damage from the Lewinsky scandal. Gallup surveys at the time suggested that the public separated in its mind
how he was doing his job as president compared to its opinion of Clinton's personal behavior (only 24 percent considered him "honest and trustworthy" in January 1999).
Two other former presidents saw their rating numbers rise with the passage of time. George H. W. Bush went from a 54 percent approval rating in 2006 to 64 percent in the new poll. (His son, George W., ranked in this list for the first time, came in second-to-last at 47 percent). Lyndon Johnson's numbers improved from 41 percent to 49 percent.
The swap in positions between Carter and Clinton merits a look at their career trajectories since leaving office.
While Carter's presidency may have been viewed as a failure by many, his post-White House stature rose because of his work in humanitarian activities and his one-man international diplomacy that led to a Nobel Peace prize in 2002 for his work in trying to find "peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development."
Clinton began his post-presidential career on a decidedly down note due to the controversy that erupted on his decision to pardon Marc Rich
, a billionaire fugitive, on his last day in office. Rich, who fled abroad after being indicted on charges that included tax evasion, mail fraud and trading with the enemy, had worked his pardon request through Clinton's former White House counsel, Jack Quinn. (In the small-world way of things, Eric Holder, then a deputy attorney general and now attorney general, told the White House he was "neutral leaning favorable" on the pardon).
His reputation probably didn't fare much better during the 2008 campaign, when he aggressively supported Hillary Clinton's run for the Democratic nomination against Barack Obama. His apparent anger and bitterness after things started going Obama's way culminated in Clinton being accused of engaging in racial politics
and likely sunk his popularity to its lowest point.
But in recent years, Clinton's stock and popularity have risen, with one measure being the value that Democrats put on his presence on the campaign trail in the midterm elections. Even some Republicans were finding a "soft spot" in their hearts for Clinton, if a New York Times piece
last October is to be believed. Said the Times of Clinton: "Many Republicans with a deep animus for President Obama find their hearts aflutter with the memory of a former leader. He was a compassionate conservative, a guy who cared about free trade, a man who reached across the aisle."
As for Carter, the former president has continued to play a role on the international scene, winning the freedom
last summer of an American imprisoned in North Korea. He has also had his share of controversies stemming from strong views, particularly on the Mideast
, that have been at odds with U.S. foreign policy and traditional American allies such as Israel, which regarded him as hostile to its interests particularly after publication of his book, "Palestine Peace not Apartheid
Carter also stirred the partisan pot in 2007 with a widely-publicized interview
in which he called the Bush administration's handling of international relations "the worst in history." A Bush spokesman, in turn, said of Carter
, "I think he is proving to be increasingly irrelevant with these kinds of comments.''
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