Jan. 21, 2009 at 10:00 PM ET
By Diane Mapes
With the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the left has taken over the White House yet again – just as it did with Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Confused? Don’t be. We’re talking hands, not political ideology.
“I’m a lefty. Get used to it,” Obama said as he signed his first official documents on Tuesday, making him the sixth southpaw-in-chief we’ve seen since the end of World War II.
|Molly Riley / Getty Images file|
Interestingly, his opponent, John McCain, is also left-handed, as were former presidents Harry Truman and Bill Clinton, former vice presidents Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Wallace and 1992 presidential candidate Ross Perot.
Why so many lefties in or near the White House?
“Nobody knows,” says Dr. Daniel Geschwind, professor of neurology, psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “From a statistical standpoint, it looks like something’s going on, but what it is, we don’t know.”
While the presidential southpaw connection remains a mystery (at least for now), researchers have discovered many other interesting tidbits about lefties in the last few decades. Left-handedness, for instance, occurs in approximately one in 10 individuals, with slightly more men than women preferring their left hand over their right.
Leaning left also runs in the family (again, we’re talking hands, not politics), with the odds of two left-handed parents having a left-handed child weighing in at a hefty 26 percent. That percentage drops to 19.5 for a “mixed” lefty-righty marriage and just 9.5 percent for two righties.
Lefties have an upper hand when it comes to combat, according to a study from the University of Montpellier in France, which cites fencing, tennis and baseball as other areas of advantage. It’s also a boon for pianists, some say, with the proportion of left-handed pianists on par with that of southpaw presidents.
The concert hall, baseball diamond and Oval Office aren’t the only places lefties excel, though. There are so many artists and entertainers on the lefty list – David Bowie, Enrico Caruso, Charlie Chaplin, Leonardo Da Vinci, M.C. Escher, Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Matt Groening, Jimi Hendrix, Franz Kafka, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Shirley MacLaine, Paul McCartney, Marilyn Monroe, Wolfgang Mozart, Mark Twain, H.G. Wells and Sting to name a few – that many have come to believe creativity goes hand in hand with sinistrality, i.e. left-handedness.
“Studies have been done that indicate left-handedness is increased in artists and musicians,” says Geschwind, adding that MIT professors are also more likely to lean to the left.
“Generally speaking, left-handers have more of a symmetrically distributed brain and right-handers are more asymmetric,” he says. “For right-handers, language is on the left side, for left-handers it’s more likely to be on both sides, or on the right side. The thought is that this has given rise to a different way of thinking, a different cognitive style. Maybe this difference provides lefties with a social advantage.”
Sadly, the lefty style has not always been as accepted – or understood.
During the first part of the 20th century, people commonly viewed left-handedness as some kind of disability, associated with stuttering, feeblemindedness, delinquence – even a criminal career. Teachers and parents routinely forced left-handed kids to write with their right (aka their “wrong” hand), which some psychologists believe could have compromised the brain’s language functions and disrupted both memory and concentration.
Although the practice has since gone the way of radium baths and asthmatic cigarettes – also popular during that era – the left is still commonly vilified throughout our language. Bad dancers have two left feet, oddball ideas come straight out of left field and unflattering or left-handed compliments are seldom something you’d hear from your good old reliable right-hand man.
This ages-old bad rap – even the Bible decries the left – may be one reason lefties have joined hands in recent years to declare their own holiday, International Left Handers Day (celebrated Aug. 13), and created a number of Web sites, institutes and societies such as Anythingleft-handed.co.uk, Handedness.org, and LeftiesforObama.com.
As for our new president, he joins a slew of celebrated lefty leaders, movers and shakers including Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Henry Ford, Helen Keller and Mahatma Gandhi, prompting at least one right-handed researcher to wonder whether there may just be a left-hand path to greatness.
“It is an interesting question as to why left-handedness has stayed around,” says Geschwind. “If it didn’t give us some advantage, it would have been wiped out. But it’s been around for as long as recorded time. You see it even in cave drawings. It might be interesting to develop a scale that looked at social cognition and leadership abilities and then look at handedness to see if lefties are better at social tasks.”