US President Barack Obama’s inauguration was not just a cause of rejoicing for black Americans. Another minority — lefties — had one of their own back in the White House.
Obama joined a disproportionately high number of southpaw US leaders, and the well-documented intuition and creativity of left-handed people may be exactly what a nation in crisis needs right now.
“I’m a lefty. Get used to it,” Obama quipped to photographers as he signed his first official documents a day after his historic inauguration as the US’ first black president on Tuesday. He wasn’t referring to his politics.
Left-handers comprise one in 10 of the general US population, scientific studies show, but have occupied an outsized place in the worlds of politics, sports and the arts.
Before Obama, four of the past five presidents were lefties — Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan (who was ambidextrous), George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
In fact, the line would have extended whatever the result of November’s election, as Obama’s Republican rival Senator John McCain is also a southpaw.
Examples further back are harder to find, but that may have something to do with society’s traditional aversion to lefties.
Until well into the 20th century, schoolchildren in the US and beyond risked beatings for writing with their left hands. The aversion is ancient. The English word “sinister” derives from the Latin for left.
“There are reasons to be unsurprised to see lots of southpaw presidents,” Princeton University professor of neuroscience Sam Wang said. “Lefties are over-represented among those with high verbal abilities.”
“They have been shown to be more likely to take unusual approaches to problem-solving — in scholarly papers this is sometimes called ‘divergent thinking,’” he said.
Wang said that left-handed people tend to process language with both halves of their brain, not just one, which might explain the communication skills of Obama, Clinton and Reagan.
“However, they’re not a monolithic group,” the scientist said. “Lefties are also over-represented among the mentally retarded.”
Before the 20th century, the only known left-handed president was James Garfield, who reputedly could write in Latin with one hand and simultaneously in Greek with the other.
For all his singular talents, Garfield is best known for how his life ended. He was assassinated, in 1881, after just four months in office.
Obama is part of a select club on the global stage, although he may look askance at some of his fellow members. Osama bin Laden is another leftie, according to his entry on the FBI’s “most wanted terrorists” list.