You’ll never guess which president The New York Times has written about the most

The creative geeks at the New York Times research and development lab put together a tool that, at first glance, seems like a simple toy. Head to chronicle.nytlabs.com, put in a word, and see how often it appeared in the paper over the years.

But then we got an idea: We could see how much the Times wrote about each president, stretching all the way back to Lincoln. Which was an exciting idea for us, because we, too, are geeks.

So we did. And the all-time number one most popular president -- in terms of mentions -- in the pages of the New York Times was ... James Earl Carter. Yes, Jimmy Carter -- which we will admit came as something of a surprise.


Carter gives his "malaise" speech in 1975. (AP Photo/Dale G. Young, File)

Below, we show the graphs for both number of articles per year for each president and the percentage of all of the Times' articles that that comprises. If you want to check our homework, you can see an interactive version of the graph for yourself.

Number of articles mentioning the president


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Here, as below, the top graph is a screenshot of the Times' tool. The bottom graph shows just the peaks.

Well, congratulations, Jimmy Carter. You may have lost your 1980 reelection badly, but you at least campaigned hard enough to warrant nearly 10,000 articles including your name. As you can see, the amount that the paper has written about presidents steadily increased over time, peaking with Carter.

All of the top five most-mentioned presidents have been in the past 50 years:

  1. Carter, 1980. 9,720 articles.
  2. Obama, 2012. 8,587 articles.
  3. Nixon, 1973. 7,261 articles.
  4. Kennedy, 1962. 6,935 articles.
  5. Ford, 1975. 6,220 articles.

And all of the presidents with the fewest number of articles written about them are from the 19th century. Sorry, President Arthur. The New York Times never caught Chester A. Arthritis.

Percent of all articles mentioning the president


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Notice that even though Obama has the second-highest number of articles, that 2012 total doesn't comprise a huge percentage of the Times' article pool. That's almost certainly because the Times publishes many more articles these days, thanks to a little thing called the Internet.

Which leaves Presidents Carter and Nixon on top of the heap for dominance in the pages of the paper. In 1980, 7.54 percent of articles that ran in the Times mentioned Carter, according to the Times itself. That's a mind-boggling figure, meaning that for every 13 articles you read, one would mention Carter in some capacity.

The top five:

  1. Carter, 1980. 7.54%
  2. Nixon, 1973. 7.43%
  3. Ford, 1975. 6.46%
  4. Reagan, 1982. 5.78%
  5. Bush, 2004. 5.55%

That Bush is, of course, George W. Bush, who earned headlines by being reelected and because of the on-going war in Iraq. As you'd expect, the top years are often election years, with exceptions like presidents taking over after their predecessor resigns (Ford) or being implicated in criminal activity (Nixon).

Again, you'll notice that the amount of interest in the president in the 19th century was small compared to later years. (The low here, as above: Rutherford B. Hayes, who may have just been Ulysses Grant in a white beard.) But those low numbers make the peaks at the far left of the graph all the more significant. The death of Lincoln and the inauguration of Andrew Johnson were, as we'd say now, seismic. The kind of transition that makes lots of headlines, and makes you glad for slow news days.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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