Leading With Their Left

By Melissa Roth
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 4, 2008

John McCain may veer to the right, but make no mistake: The Republican presidential contender is a born lefty, just like his Democratic counterpart, Barack Obama.

Statistically speaking, based on their representation in the general population, a left-handed leader should emerge only once every eight presidents. Yet, come January, five of our most recent seven presidents will have been lefties. (That's counting Ronald Reagan, who allegedly converted to the right hand but used his left to point, shoot, and slap Angie Dickinson in one movie.) In fact, the presidency has been in the hands of lefties for 22 of the past 34 years, during all but the Carter and George W. Bush administrations.

Why the disproportionate number of left-handed leaders? Is a port-sided president more apt to right the ship of state?

Scientifically speaking, what this country may need is an ambidextrous leader.

"Those with a strong right or left hand are more likely to cling to beliefs and discount new information that contradicts those beliefs," says Stephen Christman, a professor of behavioral psychology at the University of Toledo. "Mixed-handers are better able to see both sides of the story. If you want change, you might be better with a mixed-handed candidate."

After examining hundreds of photos of the future Republican and Democratic nominees, Christman found that McCain appears to be strongly left-handed, while Obama uses his right hand for certain tasks, including hand-to-mouth (eating a sandwich or pizza). Even today, many cultures prohibit use of the left hand for eating from a communal pot or performing certain customs. In Indonesia, where Obama spent four years as a child, travel guides warn visitors not to use their left hands (it's considered rude), particularly when touching food or drink. This might explain why the candidate uses his right hand to eat finger food but his left to eat with utensils.

Or perhaps it's a way to fake out an opponent. Obama's personal aide, Reggie Love, who plays basketball with the candidate most mornings, told the New York Times, "A lot of people still don't know he's left-handed, so he can get to the basket and get his shot off, even though he's not the most explosive or tallest player on the court."

Life as a lefty also may instill some of the necessary qualities of a leader, social scientists say.

"Most left-handers of the older generation, and some of the present, were exposed to quite a bit of direct pressure" to use the right hand, says Michael Peters, professor of psychology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, "and their persistence in doing what they wanted to do speaks of determination and some independence of mind."

Forced to "adjust to a right-handed world, [left-handers] feel more marginal," Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at Harvard, suggests in an e-mail. "Marginality has its costs, but it typically allows you to see the world differently from other people," he explains, "and that can be a strength. Many artists, architects and other creative types . . . are left-handed, more than one would expect from chance. In the best of circumstances, this 'extra vision,' so to speak, may help you to discern trends more easily and to be less likely to be caught up in the conventional wisdom."

Gardner says McCain's left-handedness may have contributed to the former Vietnam POW's "stubbornness, his willingness to undergo torture, and his maverick status within the Republican Party, at least until the last few years."

As for Obama, Gardner writes, "his life is so unusual that it would be very surprising if he did see the world like everyone else. I think that he has been able to see beyond the partisan divides of 1968-present, precisely because his experiences have been so different and he has made the most of them. The same for McCain, Clinton, Ford and other recent presidential southpaws."

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