EDITOR’S NOTE: This was WFB’s Oct 28, 1975 “On the Right” column.
Very soon I will be fifty, a datum I do not expect will rouse the statisticians, or revive the fireworks industry. I reflect on it only because of a personal problem of general concern I had not solved twenty years ago, the nature of which keeps . . changing, as you grow older . It is, of course, the first-name problem.
My inclinations on the matter have always been formal . In part this was a matter of inheritance. I heard my father, days before his death at seventy-eight , refer to his best friend and associate of forty years as “Montgomery” ; who, in deference to the ten-year difference in their ages, referred to him only as “Mr. Buckley.” I grew up mistering people, and discovered, after I was fully grown (if indeed that has really happened), that in continuing to do so, I was bucking a trend of sorts: the obsessive egalitarian familiarity which approaches a raid on one’s privacy.
So on reaching thirty, I made a determined effort to resist. Even now, on the television program Firing Line, I refer even to those guests I know intimately as “Mr. Burnham,” or “Governor Reagan,” or “Senator Goldwater.” (This rule I simply had to break on introducing Senator Buckley, but even then the departure from the habit was stylistically troublesome.) The effort, I thought, was worthwhile–a small gesture against the convention that requires you to refer to Professor Mortimer Applegate as “Mort” five minutes after you have met. Jack Paar would have called Socrates “Soc.” I came on two difficulties. The first was the public situation in which mistering somebody was plainly misunderstood . Or, if understood at all, taken as an act of social condescension. For a couple of years I would refer, on his program, to “Mr. Carson.” In due course I discovered that the audience thought I was trying to put on an act : Mr. Carson does not exist in America. Only Johnny does.
The second problem, as you grow older, lies in the creeping suspicion of people a little older than yourself that your use of the surname is intended to accentuate an exiguous difference in age . If you are eighteen and the other man is twenty-eight, you can, for a while, call him Mr. Jones without giving offense . But if you are forty and he is fifty and you call him Mr. Jones, he is likely to think that you are rubbing in the fact of his relative senescence .
The complement of that problem, which I fear more than anything except rattlesnakes and detente, is trying to be One of the Boys. “just call the Bill,” to the roommate of your son at college, is in my judgment an odious effort to efface a chronological interval as palpable as the wrinkles on my face, and the maturity of my judgments. On the other hand, one has to struggle to avoid stuffiness: so I arrived, for a while, at the understanding that I was Mister to everyone under the age of 21, or thereabouts, and only then, cautiously, Bill. It is a sub-problem how to break the habit . Here I made a subrule: that I would invite younger people to call me “Bill” exactly one time. If thereafter they persisted in using the surname, well that was up to them: a second, redundant gesture on my part could be interpreted as pleading with them to accept me as a biological equal.
My bias, on the whole, continued in the direction of a tendency to formality, so in the last few years I made a deter–mined effort to overcome it, wherein I came across my most recent humiliation . Mrs. Margaret Thatcher was my guest on Firing Line. Rather to my surprise, the English being more naturally formal than we are, halfway through the program she suddenly referred to me, once, as “Bill.” I declined to break my Firing Line rule, and so persisted with “Mrs. Thatcher.” However, the next day when we met again at a semi-social function, I braced myself on leaving and said, “Good-bye, Margaret.” And a week later, writing her a note congratulating her on her performance, I addressed it: “Dear Margaret.”
Today I have from her a most pleasant reply, about this and that . But it is addressed, in her own hand (as is the British habit : only the text is typed) : “Dear Mr. Buckley.” Shocked, I looked at the transcript–only to discover that, on the program, she was talking about a “Bill” that lay before the House of Commons. The trauma has set me back by years, and I may even find myself addressing “Mr. Carson” next time around. I suppose, though, that at fifty, the problem becomes easier in respect of the twenty-five-year-olds. At seventy it will be easier still. Well before then, I hope to be able to address Margaret, I mean Mrs. Thatcher, as Madam Prime Minister.