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Presidential March Madness: Who Is America’s Best President?

Do you fill out a March Madness bracket every year?  And do you have at least a passing interest in U.S. presidential history?

If so, read on.

Starting on Selection Sunday (March 11), POLIS Director Fritz Mayer and POLIS Associate Director B.J. Rudell will co-teach a special five-day course titled “Presidential March Madness.”  Sponsored by Duke University’s Office of Undergraduate Education as part of its annual “Spring Breakthrough” curriculum, the class will empower students to closely examine each U.S. president and determine which ones were “better” than others.  They’ll also define what it even means to be “better” when factoring all of the opportunities and crises that have benefited and befallen each presidency.

By the end of the class, each student will possess the skills to more thoroughly scrutinize elected officials—a vital step in one’s development as an engaged citizen.  And along the way, they will have reached consensus on each of the presidential tournament’s 43 matchups, from the first round to the title game.

Who will be crowned as “the best president?”  Washington?  Honest Abe?  FDR?  Or will a dark horse emerge?

As with the NCAA tournament, there are plenty of interesting storylines, including:

The Southeast Region is brutal, with four formidable Founding Fathers on a Sweet 16 collision course.

Meanwhile, beyond #1 seed Abraham Lincoln, the Great Lakes Region is wide open, meaning anyone from James Garfield to William McKinley could make an Elite Eight run.  Exciting!

The bracket also has its fair share of grudge matches:

  • William Henry Harrison vs. his grandson, Benjamin
  • John Quincy Adams vs. George W. Bush, in a battle between two sons of presidents
  • Franklin Pierce vs. James Buchanan . . . and the question of who was more responsible for the Civil War
  • And John F. Kennedy vs. Lyndon Johnson: Did JFK lay the groundwork for LBJ’s success, contribute to LBJ’s eventual failings, or none of the above?

Here’s where you come in: If you enjoy friendly (and free) competition, fill out a Presidential March Madness bracket and e-mail it to B.J. Rudell before March 11.  The submitted bracket that comes closest to matching the students’ picks (based on standard March Madness bracket point scoring) will be declared the winner, and will receive a POLIS t-shirt and a big-time social media shout-out.

No need to wait, and no need to overthink this. Download the bracket and send it in.  Your country will thank you.

Listen to Fritz Mayer and B.J. Rudell discuss Presidential March Madness with the Dean of the Sanford School, Kelly Brownell:


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