It turns out Mount Rushmore got it right, according to historians and political scientists, anyway.
An aggregate of three surveys of historians since 2009 puts Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the best president of all time, fivethirtyeight.com reported Monday. FDR had yet to enter the White House when work began on the South Dakota monument in 1927, but the next four on the historians’ lists — Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson — are the ones depicted in the Black Hills.
The rankings have been pretty static for years among those who study presidencies. But ask a person on the street for their favorite president, and the answers will vary. A lot.
The one common thread: When asked why they chose a given president, respondents talk about how he made them feel as much as about what he did.
On a blustery Presidents Day, in a wholly unscientific survey, here is a sampling of some people’s favorite presidents:
If it’s Presidents Day that means there has to be a mattress sale, and Chris Zoas, co-owner of Mega Mattress in Wilton, was on the phone talking about a deal. As soon as he hung up, the 53-year-old Saratoga Springs man jumped all over the president question with zeal.
“Ronald Reagan. No. 1. You felt safe,” he said. “[Before Reagan] the country was like it is today: People were fearful for their kids, their grandkids. He re-inspired the country. Today he enjoys a godly status.”
Reagan got multiple votes among people interviewed in the Wilton area.
“I just liked his personality,” said Peter Copeletti, 61, of Saratoga Springs. “He represented the country — all of the country.”
“And he was firm,” added his wife, Debby Copeletti, 60. “He had a handle on all that was going on.”
Along with Reagan, the most popular response was … “None of them,” usually said with a smirk and a dismissive wave.
Who said cynicism is dead?
Actually, no one.
Regina Rielly didn’t look back far in history for her answer.
“[Barack] Obama,” the 64-year-old Saratoga Springs woman said. “He has excellent ideas. He is very calm and deliberative, and has excellent intentions.
“And he has a good sense of humor.”
Ask random people a question such as their favorite president and you will get expected answers …
“Abraham Lincoln,” said 50-year-old Julie Ortiz of Saratoga Springs. “His honesty: It stands out more … especially with the [recent] presidents. He lived a simple life.”
… And unexpected answers.
“Gerald Ford,” said Niki Russell, 53, of Gansevoort. After Watergate, she said, “he picked up the pieces and did very well.”
With her, Mary Russell, 78, of Charlotte, N.C., went with a more recent president: “Daddy Bush, George (H.W.) Bush.” Again, like many it was not his accomplishments, but the impression he left that stayed with her.
“He was a good person,” she said. “I respected him.”
Sometimes that impression can be formed at an early age. So it went for 23-year-old Devon Rinn of Queensbury. She discovered her favorite president in third grade.
Chester Arthur. Yes, there was one vote for the native son, the one-term 19th xentury president (21st on the roster), the pride of Schenectady and Union College who is buried at Albany Rural Cemetery. He doesn’t pop up high on many “Best-of” lists, but there he is on this one.
“He is the one everybody forgets,” Rinn said. But why is he her favorite?
“I had to do a report on him,” she said.
It’s as good a reason as any.