George W. Bush is proving that absence, indeed, makes the heart grow fonder.

According to a Gallup poll released yesterday, the most recent ex-president has an approval rating of 47 percent, about double his rating during his final year in office.

In his first outing in the poll's ranking of former commanders in chief, Bush is still near the bottom, handily defeating perennial basement-dweller Richard Nixon, who was forced to quit office in disgrace. But when compared with approval polls while he was in office, he's rising fast, statistically tied with Lyndon Johnson and closing in on Jimmy Carter.

Bush, whose memoirs were published recently, still is in negative territory. About 51 percent said they disapproved of him as president, again joining Nixon as the only two former U.S. presidents to be more disliked than liked.

The poll of 1,037 adults was conducted by telephone between Nov. 19 and 21. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. Respondents were asked if they approve or disapprove of the nine former presidents during the past half-century.

As in previous surveys, John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated, continued to gather the highest rating, at 85 percent. Ranking second at 74 percent was Ronald Reagan, the Republican icon whose policies conservatives credit with ending the Cold War and setting a new economic agenda that has echoes in today's battles over tax and spending reductions.

Bill Clinton's popularity continues to grow as the former president becomes known for his good works around the world. Clinton, who was impeached but not convicted, improved 8 percentage points in the past four years to rank third at 69 percent.

But good works are no guarantee of success. Jimmy Carter, known for his charitable work, dropped from third to sixth at 52 percent.

Johnson and George H.W. Bush, like Clinton, each gained 8 percentage points, with Johnson moving up to 49 percent and Bush getting 64 percent. Bush ranked fourth. Gerald Ford, at 61 percent, ranked fifth.

Six of the nine presidents are now more highly regarded than they were at the end of their presidencies, including both Bushes, Kennedy, Reagan, Ford and Carter.