How Long Do We Remember A President's Legacy?

Dec 9, 2014

The Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota, seen from the viewing plaza on June 4, 2003.
Credit deanfranklin / via Flickr

Quick: How many presidents can you name?

From the start, there was George Washington. Then John Adams. Thomas Jefferson. Then ... 

Two Washington University researchers have found that most presidents are forgotten 50 to 100 years after leaving office, “unless something really, really important happened in their regime, or they’re one of the early presidents,” said Henry “Roddy” Roediger, a Washington University psychology professor.

“For example, Abraham Lincoln, most people get him. Not everybody, but most people get him because, of course, of his being instrumental in the Civil War and ending slavery. So that’s one exception. But the middle presidents are very hard.”

Roediger began asking college students to name as many presidents as they could 40 years ago. Their findings appear in the Nov. 28 edition of Science magazine.

“Presidents like Lyndon Johnson or Gerald Ford, everyone knew them in 1973 or 1974 when I began this study,” Roediger told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Tuesday. “In 1991, when we asked college students to think of all the presidents they could in five minutes, 71 percent got Johnson. He dropped about 29 percent in that time.

“When (graduate student) Andy (DeSoto) repeated that experiment in 2009, only 42 percent of Washington University students could think of Johnson when given five minutes. He’s dropped from almost perfect recall or perfect memory of those college students down to less than half being able to think of his name.”

Only 20 percent of those students remembered where Johnson belonged in order. Johnson took office after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

Roediger and DeSoto have plotted forgetting curves for six presidents — how quickly the legacy of each will linger or be forgotten.

“We show that Johnson and Ford are being rapidly forgotten, relatively speaking,” Roediger said. “We predict by 2050, 2060 they will have dropped out of collective memory. Whereas others, like Kennedy and Nixon, are being remembered much better. Their forgetting curves are much more shallow.”

Assassination or scandal doesn’t guarantee a president will be remembered, Roediger said.

“James Garfield was assassinated. William McKinley was assassinated. Neither of them are particularly remembered today,” Roediger said.

Collective memory helps create a sense of identity, DeSoto said.

“The study of collective memory is kind of remembered history,” he said. “People use memory for their own purposes. It provides us with our sense of identity.”

He pointed to the different ways Germany and Japan have remembered World War II.

As people get older, they’re more likely to remember presidents and historical events that occurred during their life. Neither Roediger nor DeSoto said they could rattle off all 44 presidents in five minutes, but DeSoto said with time he believes he’ll be able do better.

“One reassurance that I have, is that if you ask me again in about 40 years or so, we do see that those who are older who participate in our experiments are able to generally remember the presidents who served in office during their lifetimes.”

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.