On the Presidents’ Day observance meant to celebrate our chief executives, it’s worth considering one striking trait that nearly all these men seem to have shared —an astonishing 38 of our 43 presidents had blue eyes.
My friend Mark Weinstein (a film and advertising composer) called to my attention the odd fact that nearly all presidents since 1900 had blue, grey, or hazel eyes --- since 1900, only Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had the brown eyes characteristic of a large majority of today’s Americans (less than 20% of current U.S. residents have blue, grey or green eyes). Mark suggested that with John McCain’s bright blue eyes, and Barack Obama’s brown peepers, the Arizona Senator boasted a previously unacknowledged advantage.
I became so interested in this assertion that I began looking into eye color and the occupants of the White House, going all the way back to George Washington (with his penetrating blue-gray gaze). It turns out that in all of U.S. history, only five presidents had brown eyes – John Quincy Adams, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, LBJ and Nixon. All the rest were clearly described with blue, grey, or hazel eyes.
The only president for whom I couldn’t find definitive information on eye color was William Henry Harrison, but since he served for only 30 days in 1841 before he inconveniently died in office (the first president to do so), he hardly counts. In any event, I suspect he also had blue or green or grey eyes, since contemporaries described his hair as light brown (before it went grey). If anyone can help with authoritative information on the ocular characteristics of Old Tippecanoe, I’d certainly appreciate it.
In any event, it’s not easy to make sense of the brute fact of the dominance of blue-eyes (which are, after all, a recessive, not a dominant genetic attribute) in the White House.
First, consider the brown-eyed exceptions and their troubled history in office: two of our three presidents who faced serious impeachment proceedings (Andrew Johnson and Richard Nixon) were among our brown-eyed minority. The other three brownies (John Quincy Adams, Chester A. Arthur, and Lyndon Johnson) all hoped to win an additional term as president but failed to do, falling victim to bitter political critics and rivals.
All of our presidents who have been considered great, or near great by historians, had blue eyes. Anyone want to try an explanation?
The general incidence of blue eyes in the population is about 16% today. In 1950, it was estimated at 30%; in 1900, 50%. With increased immigration and intermarriage among ethnic groups, brown eyes (a dominant genetic trait) have become increasingly common while blue eyes have grown surprisingly rare. My family offers a case in point: my grandmother (my father’s mother) was a blue-eyed blonde, and all four of my very blonde wife’s grandparents were blue-eyed. But my own brown eyes have taken charge of the family inheritance, so all of our three kids have dark brown eyes.
Before the power of the dominant brown-eyed genes kicked in, the initial ethnic stock of the United States--- from England, Scotland, Ireland and Germany, primarily – may have possessed a blue-eyed majority.
Even so, our population almost certainly never featured the 89% blue-eyed incidence of all our presidents. And, as noted above, 108 years ago, blue-eyed people represented only 50% of the population, but since that time they’ve been 88% of the chief executives – any way you look at it, a highly disproportionate (and consistently disproportionate) number.
Does this mean anything? Do we find those with light eyes more commanding, more impressive, more attractive, more appealing? Would this reaction matter in by-gone eras when only a handful of citizens saw the presidents in person, and crude black-and-white images could hardly communicate eye color?
Nevertheless, this overwhelming pattern does suggest that when we give candidates the eye, we should look into their eyes.
And there’s no getting around one uncomfortable fact: Hillary Clinton most certainly does have blue-grey eyes.