The Proof is in the Progeny

by Bill Reagan

18 March 2007

Each child named with a presidential surname is in fact a living memorial to that president. So if we count these living memorials, we'll know who the best US presidents really were.
Photo from Children's 

With the 2008 US Presidential election just around the corner (a calculation based not on the calendar, which inexplicably reports the election to be 20 months away, but on the news, which devotes 15 minutes of every hour to the irrelevant posturing of the 18+ candidates) historians are lining up to summarize George W. Bush’s legacy, eager to condense eight years of governing into a few sentences that will play well on Good Morning America. And while there are numerous citizens who would relish the opportunity to provide posthumous commentary on the current administration (“I can besmirch this administration in seven words!”), quantifying the quality of a Presidential administration is a slippery task. 

What standard do we use to define success: Is it better that a term coincide with a triumphant war, or does a period of peace indicate a triumph of diplomacy? Is greatness found in the expansion of the nation’s strength, or in securing the welfare and care of its residents? Is contemporaneous popularity an accurate yardstick, or is an unpopular vision that wisely anticipates the future needs of the people an indication of a leader’s custodial skills?

Because these various measures document different dimensions of the same multifaceted subject, we are inevitably comparing apples to oranges.  For example, Jimmy Carter’s administration was forced to face the finite supply of oil and began assembling a national infrastructure to contend with the issue, a circumstance with no plausible parallel in William Taft’s tenure; John F. Kennedy stood toe-to-toe with the Russians during the Cuban missile crisis, a reality that never confronted James Polk.

In fact, it’s not even apples and oranges—at times it’s more like apples and an empty bag. Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery, a single monumental act that outshines the accomplishments of many presidents’ entire careers. But in doing so, he inadvertently prevented any successive president from abolishing slavery, donning a political feather than fits his stovepipe hat alone. I can’t help but think that our current president would relish the opportunity to abolish slavery today; in Bush’s global game of Monopoly, it would be like a Get Out of Iraq Free card. But Lincoln gets to keep that for himself, just like Wilson gets credit for ensuring women the right to vote and Reagan for putting an end to the cold war.

In fact, so much of the choice moral high ground has been previously staked that modern presidents are left to cobble together disparate achievements in hopes of fashioning a positive legacy, a fabrication job that would challenge even the talents of television’s MacGyver. (Unfortunately, G.W. is no MacGyver.)

To accurately gauge the quality of an administration, we need a single standard that can be applied to any president, a means of measuring public respect outside of historical and partisan biases. I believe I have formed the mathematical equation that allows exactly that measurement:


Where Q is the quality, P is the president, and bn is the frequency of that president’s name appearing as a baby’s name. 

The premise is simple: this is a nation that names things after its favorite presidents There’s the George Washington Bridge, the Lincoln Tunnel, and John F Kennedy International Airport to name just a few. Yet outside of the national public school system, geographical landmark names are infrequently repeated. (No one ever says, “No, the other John F. Kennedy International Airport.”) The naming of children, on the other hand, has no such limitations, so we can extrapolate that since folks name things after presidents they admire, each child named with a presidential surname is in fact a living memorial to that president. All that is required is to count these living memorials and we’ll know who the best presidents really were.

I know what you’re thinking: Wait a minute—not every “Arthur” is named after President Chester Arthur. And there may be some truth to that assertion. But factoring in such an anomaly will almost certainly be detrimental to my thesis, so rather than adhere to the rigorous standards of the scientific community (which would require me to investigate the motive behind every Arthur), I am instead adhering to the rigorous standards of a United Nations presentation.  The evidence that supports my theory? Included. The evidence that refutes my theory? Not so much. By that standard, every Pierce is named for Franklin Pierce, every Kennedy named for JFK.

This theory took root at a recent dinner outing where a mother at a nearby table issued a shrill, menacing demand: “Madison! RIGHT NOW!” While the woman behind the bellow was calling only one child, there is a particular tone in some parental admonishments that conveys its urgency across blood lines, and a moment later a small parade of Madisons filed past our table. Were these children each an homage to our fourth president, James Madison? Madison had earned the nickname “The Father of the Constitution”.  Had nostalgia for that document led to new found respect for the man most responsible for its creation? (Perhaps nostalgia is an overstatement, as there are some sections of that document that are still in use today.) If the five-and-under crowd in my city was an indicator, I felt certain that Madison was our most popular commander in chief.

Evidence found at confirmed my suspicions. Laura Wattenberg posted a graph that compared the frequency of presidential surnames being recycled as given names.  James Madison’s domination of that bar graph shows the stunning political revival he has enjoyed in the 21st century. (Though I admit, I was surprised to see how much America loved John Tyler and Zachary Taylor, two presidents who garnered about 10 minutes each during the month-long US Presidents portion of my junior high Civics class.) verifies Wattenberg’s data, showing Madison as the most popular girl’s name in 2005, 2004, 2003 and 2002. (In 2001, it was second—apparently, that was the year America began to recognize Madison’s enormous impact on this nation.) The site also corroborates John Tyler and Zachary Taylor as regular contenders during the span of Madison’s baby name dynasty.

Pouring over the graph, one is forced to consider that public opinion on the various presidencies (as expressed through the birth certificate) does not coincide with the lessons we learned in grade school: Abraham Lincoln’s term apparently made considerably less impact upon the populace than did his successor, Ulysses Grant; Ronald Reagan’s recent passing resulted in numerous learned people describing him as the most effective modern president, though by this method of calculation, Jimmy Carter was twice as influential.

To Reagan’s defense, “Reagan” was also the name of Linda Blair’s character in The Exorcist (spelled differently, pronounced the same), a fact that almost surely impacted parental naming decisions: No parent wants their child to have to regularly reassert, “It’s my parent’s tribute to the Great Communicator, not to the pea-soup-spurting victim of a demonic possession.”

That conflict—that a birth name might be boycotted to avoid a misinterpretation of the homage—might seem to have impacted several presidential legacies: If you name your son Harrison, is that a vote for William Henry Harrison or his grandson, Benjamin Harrison? Is the fact that “Adams” has never been a popular first name due to the inefficacy of their respective administrations, or simply that fans of John don’t want to seem to be supporters of his less-competent son John Quincy? Is it possible that the infrequency of the first-name “Johnson” is because no self-respecting fan of Andrew Johnson wants to imagine their child living life in the unintentional shadow of Lyndon Johnson, or is it simply that moms, as a rule, don’t name their children slang words for genitalia? (The parents of Dick Nixon notably excepted.) However, while the Q=Pbn method deems these presidents exceptionally average, other methods of measuring presidential success rank these politicians the same way—it’s just a different path to arrive at the same mediocrity.

As the historians gather to write their post-administration eulogies for our 43rd president, George W. Bush seems to many to be a lame duck eager to show the world that he can soar. Unfortunately, his resume reads like the pre-flight journals of Orville and Wilbur Wright, rich with ambitions but cluttered with crash evidence. Traditional methods of rating his presidency will likely feature sardonic reference to “Mission Accomplished”, pie charts detailing his chronic overspending, and images of a sunken New Orleans and his horse-judge-turned-FEMA-director appointee. Bush’s legacy might stand a better chance if he promotes the calculation method that has served Madison so well—though being one of two President Bushes will likely work against him; and considering the slang meaning of his last name, that’s not going to help, either. In fact, no matter what method we use, G.W.‘s legacy is likely to seem the same. Bush is no MacGyver, and it seems he’s no James Madison, either. Too bad for him. But at least he proves that my theory is sound.

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