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Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich wrote about finding out why he's short


Robert Reich is a former U.S. secretary of labor and Rhodes scholar, an acclaimed author and now chancellor's professor of public policy at University of California, Berkeley. Robert Reich is also less than 5 feet tall. Professor Reich wrote about his height recently for his Substack newsletter, a column entitled Why I'm So Short. He joins us now from Berkeley. Thanks so much for being with us.

ROBERT REICH: Well, thank you, Scott.

SIMON: I can't think of a better way to begin by asking, what was it like to grow up?

REICH: Well, I didn't grow up.

SIMON: Ha. I set that up for you.

REICH: I grew upward. I grew upward - not very much. But I was very fortunate, Scott. My parents were very, very loving and accepting, and most of my friends were accepting. Now, you know, I was harassed and bullied a little bit and ridiculed. And that, I think, goes with the territory. But basically, I had a happy childhood.

SIMON: Wasn't until much later you discovered you have a genetic disorder, a rare genetic disorder, that's colloquially called Fairbanks disease. What is it? How should we understand it?

REICH: Well, I didn't really understand it for many, many years. It's a kind of deformity in which the cartilage at the end of one's bone that eventually adds additional bone when you are supposed to be growing up doesn't really do its job. It doesn't extend the bones as far as - the long bones - as far as they're supposed to be extended. Eventually, I had to have my two hips replaced, and I still have various aches and pains.

SIMON: What was dating like?

REICH: Well, that was (laughter) a problem - well, I should say, a challenge - in my teenage years and in the - in my 20s. I chose to go to an all-male college. In those days, there were such things. And that may not have been the wisest choice because the only way you could get to date anybody - a woman, a young woman - was to go to a woman's college for Friday night or Saturday night. In those circumstances, first impressions counted a great deal. And let's put it this way, there was not very much interest in me.

SIMON: Bill Clinton used to make jokes, didn't he?

REICH: He did.

SIMON: And you two have been friends since your days at university together?

REICH: Exactly. And I think that's the point. He felt very free to make jokes about my height because I was very often making self-deprecating jokes about my height. And, in fact, there was one moment when we were touring a - I don't even know why we were doing it - but it was Legoland.

SIMON: I think I remember this. Yes.

REICH: And I honestly don't remember why we were doing it. But he - there was a little Lego house and he said, gee, that's a nice house. Even Secretary Reich could fit in there.

SIMON: (Laughter).

REICH: And I laughed. I thought it was very funny. And he thought it was funny. We both laughed.

SIMON: Yeah.

REICH: But it caused - some people were offended.

SIMON: You've looked at some of the research, and it's mixed. What is it, the taller candidate tends to be elected president?

REICH: Yes. It's fascinating, actually. You know, people are more likely to make disparaging cracks about short people because nobody gets pulled up short for doing it. But respected people have stature and are looked up to. This is even in our language.

SIMON: Yeah.

REICH: And well, the researchers, their theory is that there is some sort of genetic trigger in our brain that told early humans they needed the protection of big men. Other things being equal, large males are more to be feared and longer living, and so probably makes some evolutionary sense.

SIMON: I gather families write you?

REICH: Yes. Over the years I get a fair number of letters. And I've got - you know, since email was available - a lot of emails from parents of unusually short children who seek my advice. They - I think they really want my reassurance more than my advice. They want to know what to do or is this going to be a problem? Is it going to hold their children back in any way? Well, I don't want to impose my views on them, but I gently urge them not to resort to limb-lengthening surgeries or growth hormone treatments or - I mean, there are all sorts of things out there. I urge them not to do any of these things. I just tell them to love their short kids, inundate them with affection, and they'll be OK. I don't know who I would be if, in growing up, my parents had decided to take some risk and make me taller and they had succeeded. I would be a different person.

SIMON: Robert Reich, former U.S. secretary of labor, currently teaching at UC Berkeley and a figure of true stature. Thank you so much for being with us.

REICH: Well, thank you, Scott.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.