The geography of our childhood helps shape our understanding of the world. The place where we grow up is the starting point of our identity and perception, our first context for reality.
If we look at our identity from the vantage point of geography, our world is shaped by the feel, characteristics, and weather of a landscape: a rugged coastline with crashing waves, the open horizon of flat plains, a lush tropical forest, or an urban complex. The contours and intricacies of our childhood landscapes influence our first assumptions about how the world looks and works. So how does this mindset play out for US presidents?
When John F. Kennedy sailed off the New England coastline, he needed to analyze the shifting winds, orient against a jagged coastline, and navigate the best path to a destination. To land at a point on shore straight ahead, he caught the wind by tacking right then left, surveying a wide point of view. Learning to navigate a sailboat in windy waters develops a mindset of continual reorienting, constant adaptation, and complicated contexts. JFK’s geography prepared him for a complex world with moving parts that required fluid strategy, so it’s tempting to wonder if these assumptions aided him during the Cuban missile crisis—a high-stakes game of shifting political moves and moving parts between naval ships positioning off the Cuban coastline.
When Lyndon B. Johnson drove on the flatlands of the Texas plains, he steered on the hard dirt at any speed, in any direction, without consequence. The sky opened in 180 degrees of horizon, time was told by the sun’s height, and sunsets filled the sky with no mountains or city high-rises to obstruct the view. In this landscape, sheer will and persistence drove results. Johnson’s domineering personality matched the perseverance ranchers needed to survive on the draught-prone open lands of rural Texas. Perhaps this fueled some part of his determination to continue the war in Vietnam—adding military personnel, multiplying airstrikes, and in his belief that superior force would always prevail.
Reflecting on his formative years in Honolulu, Barack Obama wrote, “The opportunity that Hawaii offered—to experience a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect—became an integral part of my world view, and a basis for the values that I hold most dear.” His experience in Hawaii assumed not only a variety of cultures, but also multiple topographies: The geography is diverse in Hawaii’s string of islands, featuring volcanoes and roaring waves, semi-deserts and lush farmland. Obama’s exposure to multiple landscapes and cultures enlarged his lens, allowing him to see differences as parts of a larger whole. This likely fed his reluctance to interfere in foreign lands, delaying involvement in conflict as much as possible.
And how should we consider Donald Trump? How did his childhood landscape in prosperous residences in Queens, New York affect his presidential outlook? Trump’s assumptions of the world began as concrete and man-made—a place designed and owned by humans, with seasonal weather the only exposure to natural forces. In the dense populations of Queens and Manhattan, golf courses are the closest connection to nature, and following in his father’s tradition, it was no surprise that he enetered the urban real estate market.
Like Trump’s urban upbringing, half the human population today now lives in cities; we are increasingly disconnected from nature, only glimpsing it in our manicured parks. The very skylines we construct captivate our eyes, but they also block us from seeing the horizon. Our man-made cities can be blinders to the lessons of larger natural landscapes—that ones that can teach us connectivity, consequences, and complexity.
Skyscrapers are not the sky. A president’s eye needs to see the whole. It is especially difficult and especially important to remember that while we may now live in man-made towers, we still live in relationship to larger natural forces.
May we—and Trump—not miss the forest for the trees, and not mistake our towers for the Earth itself.