A number of sources are reporting on a recent Gallup poll on the approval ratings of past presidents. The Atlantic provides a quick round-up of the trends: Kennedy has a strong legacy (85% approval), Clinton and the first Bush are both up 8% compared to 2006 (up to 69% and 64%, respectively), George W. comes in at 48%, and Nixon is still in the dumps (29%).
What is fascinating to think about is how these legacies get constructed. Part of it is based on the performance of the president while in office. But part of it is also based on what happens after the president leaves office and how the cultural narrative develops about that time period. Richard Nixon can’t shake Watergate and Lyndon Johnson can’t escape the turmoil of the mid 1960s. In contrast, Bill Clinton was president during a prosperous era and JFK is still seen in glowing terms. All of these presidents except for JFK had some years to tell their story and become involved in other causes, if they so chose. These legacies are shaped by cultural narratives, common stories by which a country understands its own history.
I would be interested in see how these figures break down by different demographics. For JFK: is his support higher among those who were alive at the time or younger people today? For Reagan: what is his legacy support among Democrats?
This reminds me of a lesson I once heard in class from a professor: don’t trust the information in political memoirs because the purpose of such texts is to promote a particular legacy.