Stupid Question ™
March 20, 2003
By John Ruch
Q: How many presidents and first ladies were left-handed?
And which dead president has the nicest grave?
A: This is surely the only circumstance in which Ronald Reagan can be called a lefty.
Reagan, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, George Bush peré and Bill Clinton were the definite lefty presidents. That’s about 12 percent lefties of the 42 presidents, slightly higher than the 8 to 10 percent of the general population.
There are also claims that James Garfield and Herbert Hoover were left-handed, but I found nothing to prove that. Photos show Hoover acting as a righty.
As for the first ladies, not enough is known about many of them to make any comprehensive statement.
Reagan and Truman wrote with their right hands because they were taught—or forced—to do so in school. But in all other uses they were lefty. It is more accurate to say that, like many lefties, they were (or are) actually ambidextrous.
Ford writes lefty, but does many other things, including playing sports, as a righty.
There’s a legend that Garfield was ambidextrous, at least in terms of a stunt in which he would write in ancient Greek with one hand and in Latin with the other. (There’s a similar legend about Thomas Jefferson.)
I found no evidence for this, but if true, it still might not prove anything. Such parlor tricks were a Victorian-era fad learned by many people.
Lefty or not, Garfield was assassinated. That was enough to get him the fanciest of the presidential tombs, putting Grant’s little hut to shame.
His mausoleum in Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery is a miniature Romanesque church with a 100-foot tower, a life-size marble statue of him, and high-quality decorations including stained-glass windows, a golden rotunda, friezes and murals.
The Lincoln Tomb in Springfield, Illinois is bigger—one of the biggest tombs in the world, in fact—but less nice. It’s a sort of sprawling statue collection surrounding a giant obelisk with terraces.
Chester Arthur’s grave in upstate New York may be the most artistic, featuring an Art Deco coffin over which a bronze angel slumps.
On the quiet side, John Kennedy’s “eternal flame” flickering among simple granite paving stones in Arlington National Cemetery may be the nicest statement of all.
Most presidential graves are plain, perhaps reflecting America’s humble citizen-leader ideal. The plainest is Calvin Coolidge’s simple headstone in Vermont, notable only for a discreet presidential seal.
Still, it can feel like things are out of whack. George Washington is in a plain brick crypt. But secessionist bumbler John Tyler got a huge obelisk featuring a bust of himself.
Only a few presidents left last words. The tombstone of Richard Nixon, who secretly bombed Southeast Asia and plotted attacks on political enemies, reads, “The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker.”
And Benjamin Harrison’s makes a nice distinction: “Statesman, yet friend to truth.”