America has had eight Presidents die while they were in office. Four were from natural causes; they were William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Warren Harding, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Four were from assassination; they were Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy.
Of course all Presidential rankings are biased, but when being objective as possible I rank the success of these Presidents as the following: Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt were outstanding, (both are at least in the top 5). John F. Kennedy was far above average. William McKinley is above average (perhaps also one of our most underrated Presidents). Zachary Taylor is below average. Finally, Warren G. Harding was awful (likely in the bottom 5). I think it’s fair to omit James Garfield and William Harrison from this list, since they died or were incapacitated so soon after taking office (119 days and 30 days respectively).
Our sample size is small, but when you put all six of these Presidents that died in office together, two of them are outstanding, one is far above average, one is above average, one is below average, and one is very below average. To provide a statistically significant correlation between death in office and Presidential success we would obviously need a much larger sample size. With that in mind, though, there does appear to be a relationship here. The better Presidents tend to have died in office. Why?
One possible answer is that when someone dies, people tend to remember the good things better than they do the bad. This is something we do in order to ease the emotional pain that comes from someone’s death. We are already upset that someone died, so we, in a sense, cheer ourselves up by only remembering the good things about them.
When an ex-President dies he has likely been out of office for a while and is less central to the culture of a country. A current President, though, is literally the center of the country. Practically everyone knows the name of his or her current President. So when the President dies people are in shock, and, as a result, cheer themselves up with positive memories about him. So, it may be possible that the reason why Presidents who die in office tend to be viewed more positively is because our view of them is blurred through an emotional lens.
Ask anyone who was an adult in 1963 and they can likely tell you where they were when they heard Kennedy had died. Ask anyone who was an adult in 1972 where they were when Harry Truman died and they might not be able to tell you.
This is not to say that Roosevelt and Lincoln are bad Presidents. All I am saying is that we almost certainly view them in a higher light then we would if they had not died in office. Conversely, maybe, it speaks volumes on how awful of a President Warren G. Harding was that even though he died in office, he is still viewed in an extremely negative light.
If one were to look at it in another way, it could be speculated that dying in office does not make you a good President, but being a good President makes it more likely that you will die in office. If we were to evaluate this, we would then have to exclude the four presidents that died of natural causes and only examine the four presidents that were assassinated. This small sample size can be made larger, though, by adding onto it the Presidents who had legitimate assassination attempts made against them.
In 1835, Richard Lawrence attempted to assassinate Andrew Jackson. Both his pistols misfired, though, and Jackson nearly beat him to death with his cane. In 1912 Theodore Roosevelt was shot while giving a campaign speech. Luckily for Roosevelt, the impact of the bullet was softened by a 50-page manuscript he kept in his front pocket. Holding up the now ruined manuscript Roosevelt assured the crowd saying: “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose.” In 1933, before being sworn in, Franklin Roosevelt was shot at by Giuseppe Zangara. In 1974, Samuel Byck tried to hijack a plane and crash it into the White House in an attempt to kill Richard Nixon. In 1975, Lynette Fromme, a member of the Charles Manson cult, fired a gun at Gerald Ford, but missed. In 1981, John Hinckley Jr. shot Ronald Reagan outside a hotel. Reagan survived the incident.
When we add these 6 attempted assassinations to the 4 successful assassinations a fairly clear pattern arises. Presidents who were almost or successfully assassinated tend to be a lot better than average. In this new list (excluding James Garfield), 3 of the Presidents are outstanding, they are Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt. Two of the Presidents are far above average, they are Reagan and Kennedy. Two of the Presidents are above average, they are Jackson and McKinley. Finally, the remaining two are below average, they are Nixon and Ford.
Seven out of nine of these Presidents are at least above average. Three out of nine of them were some of the best Presidents we have ever had. Oscar Wilde tells us “You can always judge a man by the quality of his enemies.” And, Winston Churchill says, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” The fact that some people were willing to go such great lengths to kill these men may speak volumes about these Presidents’ potential influence and skill.