Four Out of Five Recent Presidents Are Southpaws

Being a southpaw can be a political strength, say scientists and historians.

Feb. 22, 2008 — -- Sinister. Gauche. Satanic. Throughout history the word "left" has been synonymous with awkwardness, even evil.

Writing with a left hand can be a curse, but it might just get you elected to the presidency. Four of the last five presidents were left-handed.

Commanders in chief Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were southpaws, a term derived from baseball. George W. Bush is not.

Given that overwhelming modern trend, campaign front-runners Barack Obama and John McCain might have the political upper hand.

Or not.

H. Ross Perot, the Frank Perdue look-alike who ran as an independent in 1972 and 1976, was also left-handed. And Michael Bloomberg, the erstwhile presidential candidate and current mayor of New York City, also pens with his left.

Other failed candidacies were those of New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, who ran in 2000, and magazine scion Steve Forbes in 1996 and 2000.

But scientists and historians agree that being left-handed, which is often associated with outside-the-box thinking, can be a political strength.

"They have a wider scope of thinking," said Amar Klar, a biologist who has done breaking research on handedness. "I know among scientists their numbers are really high. There are more Noble Prize winners, writers and painters. We need more people like that."

History is evenhanded when it comes to the subject.

According to a BBC report, the Boston Strangler, Jack the Ripper and Billy the Kid were lefties. So is Osama Bin Laden.

But so, too, were many noble figures, such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso, Queen Victoria, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Prince William.

An estimated 9 percent to 10 percent of Americans boast left-handedness, or its close relative, ambidexterity, according to Klar.

The test of a righty is performing 10 acts solely with that hand: throwing a ball, using a spoon, sawing, sewing, shooting marbles, bowling, cutting with a knife, cutting with scissors, hammering and writing.

Fortunately, for a president, only the writing matters — as many left-handed presidents have dragged their pens over the ink signing legislation.

According to Klar, who investigates abnormal cell development at the National Cancer Institute, left-handedness is genetic — and that same gene (or in this case, a gene that is nonfunctional) is related to the way the hair whorls.

Lefties Mostly Whorl Left

Only 8.4 percent of the general population have counterclockwise whorls, but in nonrighties, it occurs 50 percent of the time.

"I can tell from the front of John McCain's hair that he is left-handed," said Klar, who rode a Maryland escalator for a day to determine how many riders with left swirling scalps were actually lefties.

"I know John Edwards is a lefty, too," he said. Klar's research has led him to some startling conclusions about the division of labor in the brain. "The brain of left-handed people is less lateralized," he said.

In all humans, the heart is on the left side and all other organs are in the same place. "All the plumbing is mostly one way," said Klar.

But the brain is divided into two hemispheres that can differ in left- and right-handed people. The left side of the brain is responsible for language and the right side for emotion.

Most lefties favor the right side of the brain, which also handles more spatial reasoning.

"The two sides look similar, but there are subtle differences," he said. The brains of nonrighties are more symmetrical and there is "less of a distinction."

An estimated 97 percent of all people have language in the left hemisphere. But, in those who are left-handed and ambidextrous, only 70 percent have language on the left side. The remaining 30 percent have it on the right side or in both hemispheres.

There is no problem with having the hemispheres reversed, but problems can occur when they are "less lateralized or co-mingled," said Klar.

The incidence of neurological disorders like schizophrenia, bipolarity or autism can be three times greater in nonrighties, he said.

But at the same time, with two sides of the brain handling language, the left-handed and ambidextrous can have more complex reasoning.

That may have been the case with some former presidential lefties, according to Richard Norton Smith, scholar in residence at George Mason University, who serves as a consultant for ABC News.

Clinton earned the "Left Hander of the Year" award from Left Handers International when he was elected in 1992.

"That is someone who can break a lot of rules," Smith said. "If lefties are in any way impaired when it comes to communications skills, that doesn't apply to Bill Clinton. He had more of the raw talent of anyone of his generation, and the historical debate will go on for a long time whether he made the most of them."

Reagan once told Left Handed Magazine that he had been born left-handed but switched to his right hand as a result of parental and school pressure. Smith, who served as director of the Reagan Library, said that made sense.

"Reagan transcended the rules and basically wrote his own," he said. "A man who can write with either hand is probably a man who cannot fit any pigeon hole or label. Now that we know more about him, we learn what a complex and subtle figure he was."

Bush Sr. also had more of the right-brain personality, according to Smith.

"He was not naturally eloquent but had extraordinary people skills," he said. "He will be remembered for his diplomacy and restraint. He had an interesting sense of Yankee understatement — his mother was famous for saying, 'People don't like a braggart.'"

Hoover, remembered as one of America's dullest presidents, was also a lefy, according to Smith, who at one time ran his presidential library.

"He was an engineer and thought in very spatial terms," said Smith. "He was very rational, and his thinking was forever reduced to numerical formulas."

Still, there are exceptions. Ford, a lefty, was lampooned for his clumsiness.

Advantage in War

Being left-handed has other advantages. Combat, for instance, according to the University of Montpelier in Britain. Southpaws reportedly have more endurance and an edge in fencing, baseball and tennis.

The study speculated that this trait might hold true in other aggressive contexts, such as war. That might not explain George Bush, who is a righty.

Still, Smith is skeptical of putting too much weight on handedness — at least in this election.

What do Obama or McCain bring to the current campaign that their right-handed opponents Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee do not?

"Absolutely nothing," said Smith. "Except they may refer to them as 'lefty' for reasons other than their handwriting."