Last week New Orleans was awash in robustly resilient bullshit and Presidents, current and former. My buttons were pushed by the manner in which the Oval Ones were referred to. Bullshit is, of course, bullshit whether it’s robust, resilient, or just plain ridiculous. Those are the three Rs of contemporary New Orleans.
Where the hell was I? Oh yeah, the two common misuses of the language regarding Oval Ones that drive me crazy. First, civilians referring to the sitting President as the Commander-in-Chief. They’re only in command of the military, not us. There was, in fact, considerable confusion over an ad taken out by malakatude hall of famer Harry Shearer in the dead tree edition of the New Orleans Advocate:
It was published on the day the sitting President visited and, as you can see, asked the “Commander-in-Chief” to admit to Federal responsibility for the flood, which President Obama did. There was a lively debate on my social media feeds as to whether it was aimed at President Obama or the Texas Napoleon who returned the next day to his Waterloo. I was pretty sure he was referring to Obama but, once again, neither the current Oval One nor his incompetent predecessor is the “Commander-in-Chief” of anything but the armed forces. In short, we don’t gotta salute. Now that I think of it, W deserves a one-finger salute…
My second Presidential pet peeve: referring to ex-Presidents by the title. There’s only one President at a time. Harry Truman preferred to be called Judge or Mr. Truman. When asked why by a college kid, he said, “There’s only one President at a time, son.” Harry was right and didn’t even engage in the robust bullshit for which he was known. Try fact checking Merle Miller’s Plain Speaking some time. Let’s just say that Harry was an old-fashioned storyteller in the vein of Sam Clemens…
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the media started calling ex-Oval Ones by the title and addressing them as Mr. President. For example, TR was *always* called Colonel Roosevelt as a former President. My hunch is that this imperfect practice was perfected between 1993 and 1994 when we had a bumper crop of former Presidents: five count ’em five. And two of those ex-Oval Ones, Nixon and Reagan, were notorious for an almost fetishistic love of the ceremonial side of the office. I suspect Nancy would have objected to people calling Ronnie Governor or Mr. Death Valley Days Host. He would have been okay with the Gipper…
I know, I know, people have been misusing the title for many years. That doesn’t make it right or any less annoying. One thing I love about the interwebs is that you can find stuff such as the Protocol School of Washington’s, Honor & Respect: The Official Guide to Names, Titles, and Forms of Address. It’s a mouthful, I know. I must admit that consulting it makes me feel oddly like Miss Manners. Here’s how the author, a chap named Robert Hickey, answered the question of how to address a former President:
I have been directing people to refer to former presidents as President (last name). Is that correct?
— Anna McDonald, Stafford, Virginia
Dear Ms. McDonald:
This issue is complicated since we hear former Presidents referred to as President Clinton and President Bush on the media all the time; Here’s what is the correct formula as it appears in my book (assuming they didn’t have an honorific other than Mr./Ms. to go back to … as General Dwight D. Eisenhower did.):
Former President of the United States
Letter salutation: Dear Mr./Ms. (surname):
Conversation: Mr./Ms. (surname)
Here’s the WHY behind the correct form. This is the traditional approach for any office of which there is only one office-holder at a time. So, with officials such as mayors, governors or presidents … only the current office holder is addressed as Mr. Mayor, Governor, or Mr. President … formers are not addressed that way.
That’s not to say some reporter might not call a former mayor Mayor Smith or a former president President (Surname). But doing so is incorrect and confusing to the public. The former office holder is no longer due the precedence and courtesies we extend to the current office holder. He or she speaks with the authority of a private citizen. We honor former office holder’s service, but the ‘form of address’ — which acknowledges the responsibilities and duties of office — belongs only to current office holder.
Uh oh, looks like Harry was wrong about that whole Judge Truman thing. Since I’m going all Miss Manners and Perry Protocol on your asses, I might as well post Mr. Hickey’s answer as to how to address a former Oval One in person:
Greeting from Canada. I will meet President Clinton in a few weeks in person. What should I call him when I meet him or when I introduce others to him: Mr. Clinton, or President Clinton? Thanks for your help.
— Politico, Toronto
Former Presidents of the United States are most formally directly addressed as Mr. (Name) and are identified as “President of the United States from Year-Year”.
You will hear the media say President Clinton in a news story to be clear who is being discussed. The media using “President (Name)” in the third person makes many think it is a correct form of address.
The correct form for formal introduction — e.g. from a podium before his speech to the audience would be something like … It is my pleasure to introduce The Honorable William Jefferson Clinton.
In conversation address him as Mr. Clinton.
If you make an introduction say Mr. Clinton may I present…
— Robert Hickey
This Robert Hickey chap seems to be the Dear Abie of the protocol set. He is absolutely correct. There is only one President at a time unless, that is, Hillary is elected, then Bill may try to do some finagling. It won’t work: she’s banished him to the couch before and would have no problem doing so again.
I’m an unlikely person to be a stickler for protocol. I am, however, a stickler for the proper use of the English language. Additionally, I believe in honoring the modesty inherent in small r republicanism. (That makes me what Gore Vidal called a citizen of the Old Republic, not the Empire.) The President is not a hereditary monarch who holds the title even after abdication. The people are sovereign, the sitting President is the temporary occupant of the White House.
The moral of the story is: don’t believe everything you see on teevee or read in the newspapers or online. Mister is good enough for former Presidents until, that is, we have our first woman former Oval One, then Ms. will be good enough for her.