"By the year 2060, Americans will probably remember as much about the 39th and 40th presidents - Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan - as they now remember about our 13th president Millard Fillmore," predicted Henry L. Roediger III, human memory expert at Washington University in St. Louis.Hillary Clinton, if elected in 2016, has the potential to be much better remembered than her husband because her presidency would represent a unique first in American history.
Barack Obama may be well remembered for the same reason, the study authors said. Roediger has been testing the ability of undergraduate college students to remember the names of presidents since 1973, when he first administered the test to undergraduates while a psychology graduate student at Yale University.
Among the six presidents who were serving or had served most recently when the test was first given in 1973, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson and Gerald R. Ford are now fading fast from historical memory whereas John F. Kennedy has been better retained.
"The findings estimate that Truman will be forgotten by three-fourths of college students by 2040, 87 years after his leaving office, just like Zachary Taylor and William McKinley," Roediger said.
Kennedy was president less than three years, but is remembered today much better than Lyndon Johnson."One idea is that his assassination made him memorable, but that does not apply to James Garfield or William McKinley who were also assassinated and are remembered relatively poorly," Roediger found.
"Kennedy may be well recalled because his brothers and other family members were (and are) active in politics and help to keep his memory alive," Roediger speculated.
The current study compares results from the presidential-recall tests Roediger has given to three generations of undergraduate college students (1974, 1991 and 2009) and a similar test offered online to 577 adults ages 18-69 in 2014.