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JFK upstages Rushmore Presidents

SOME historians contend that John F. Kennedy was not in office long enough to be rated among the great presidents. Yet there it is: A new Gallup survey shows Kennedy leading the field of presidents -- above Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and George Washington. One might have thought the appreciation of JFK would have lessened a little bit in the years since he was assassinated -- when a wave of sympathy for Kennedy might well have elevated him to his high standing in the public's eyes.

But his No. 1 rating has not only held -- it has increased. In 1975 Kennedy, according to Gallup's findings, topped Lincoln 52 percent to 49 percent. Now his lead is 56 to 48 percent.

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Harry Truman, too, is up there among the giants, between Roosevelt and Washington. Yes, above Washington!

And Richard Nixon has moved up in public esteem to eighth place, just below Dwight Eisenhower.

Ronald Reagan is in sixth place, just below Washington and just above Eisenhower.

And Jimmy Carter follows Ike, with Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson next -- tied for 10th.

Is this really significant? Will this be the historical perspective of great American presidents? Probably not. A good guess is that 100 years from now Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, FDR, and Teddy Roosevelt, will be right at the top of carefully researched historical assessments.

It is true that among Republicans, Gallup finds their first choice to be Lincoln. But their second choice is Kennedy, followed by Reagan, FDR, Washington, Eisenhower, Truman, Nixon, Jefferson, and Carter. Republicans putting Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt above Washington and Eisenhower? It's mind-boggling for anyone who remembers the strong antipathy to FDR among Republicans back in the 1930s and '40s and the strong Republican feelings against Kennedy when he was running for president, feelings that co ntinued up until his assassination.

One of the most interesting of the findings is that which shows Reagan being put in the top 10 among the ``greatest'' by both Republicans (3rd) and Democrats (8th) -- even before he is out of office. This public perception, too, may not be lasting -- or, indeed, Reagan may be upgraded, particularly if his last years in office are marked by some signal accomplishments, such as in nuclear arms controls and the Mideast.

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But this poll on presidents over the years discloses an appreciation for Mr. Reagan that transcends even that which is being shown in the national polls which measure his current per- formance. Such polls now are showing Mr. Reagan's popularity rating to be particularly high -- pushed upward by the public sympathy evoked by the President's operation.

The Gallup rating of presidents presents evidence of a segment of voters -- Democrats included -- who rank Reagan among the ``greatest'' presidents since the beginning. Such public esteem carries with it a lot of presidential clout.

Perhaps there really is no way that an objective rating of our presidents can be made. We do tend to rely on our historians and their judgment. And perhaps there is no better way of assessing our leaders than through the eyes of these scholars.

Yet some observers contend there has been for years -- certainly since FDR came on the scene -- a liberal bias among historians that is reflected in their ratings. These critics think that too many historians have started out with the assumption that government should find solutions to problems -- and that those presidents who bring more and more government into problem solving, as FDR certainly did, are performing admirably.

But today there are historians emerging with new views. This younger group is saying that spending has gone too far and that a stable economy is of utmost importance -- for the public at large, including the poor and disadvantaged. So there are new views and new biases, too, it seems, as to what a president should do -- and what makes him great.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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