If you disagree with both Mark Steyn and Kevin Williamson about something, you don’t have a terribly realistic chance of being in the right, but I’ll take my chances on this one. As Katrina reports, President Obama has taken to using “Mr. Romney” instead of the more appropriate “Governor Romney.” Mark and Kevin think that’s just fine. I think it’s sadly undignified on the president’s part.
The reason for referring to “Governor Romney” instead of “Mr. Romney” in formal settings is a good one, and it is not analogous to the titles of aristocracy in Europe. Titles of aristocracy invested the person with a status superior to that of his fellow men; that was the whole point of one’s “addition.” But in the United States such honorifics are meant to elevate the status of your office above that of your person. The implication is personal humility, the opposite of an aristocratic title.
Kevin cringes when he hears expressions like “the dignity of the office of the presidency” but he shouldn’t. Part of what makes American democracy great is the systematic elevation of institutions above the individuals who run them. Kevin is right that public servants are nothing more than the people’s servants, and that public service should be humble. But public service is also an honor, and carries with it a solemn duty, namely to hold yourself to the highest standards of service. That approach to public office makes the institutions of our democracy stronger and confirms the people in their trust. We honor representatives of the people and officers of the United States partly so we can hold those public servants to the highest standards of conduct, and so that they will feel obliged to hold themselves to such standards.
Here’s one lesson we can draw from Europe’s old aristocratic mores: An aristocrat should never feel insulted by the offensive behavior of a commoner, who can only be expected to behave rudely. Hence, when an aristocrat behaves rudely, or responds to rude behavior by responding in kind, he only diminishes himself. This is why vulgar behavior is always self-defeating. It’s one thing to have the common touch; it’s another to treat the office of the presidency as just another job that you don’t need to dignify with dignified behavior.
By seeking to diminish Governor Romney in this way, President Obama succeeds only in diminishing himself — and his office.