What’s in an honorific? Not Shakespearean, I realize, but it is our topic for today. The question came up — not for the first time — when the New York Times ran its several articles on the Cornel West controversy at Harvard. (West, a star professor in the Afro-American Studies department, was tiffing with the university’s new president, Lawrence Summers. It seems that Summers wanted West to straighten up his scholarly and professorial act. West, quite naturally, got upset.) Some of us suspicious types noticed that the Times referred to West and other Afro-Am profs as “Dr.” — “Dr. West,” “Dr. Gates,” “Dr. Wilson” — while referring to Summers as plain ol’ “Mr.” (The Times did the same with the school’s former president, Neil Rudenstine. All these people have Ph.D.’s, of course.) This was passing strange — the kind of thing that “made you go, ‘Hmmm,’” in the words of the old rap song.
How’s that? First, the Times seldom refers to any Ph.D. as “Dr.” The head of Mt. Sinai Hospital, yes; the Nobel Prize winner in physics, perhaps. But an English prof or a sociologist or a drama teacher or something? Unusual. Second, all of the men referred to as “Dr.” were black, while the palefaces were “Mr.” Was this an act of racial condescension, the attempt of a great liberal newspaper to puff these aggrieved black academics — whose seriousness and academic legitimacy are repeatedly and rightly questioned — up? It seemed to many of us that this was likely. Issues of this kind were addressed by Roger Kimball in the last NR, in his piece on the West controversy, titled, pointedly enough, “Dr. West and Mr. Summers.”
The Times weren’t the only white liberals in the game. Al Hunt, in his column for the Wall Street Journal, referred to West as “Dr.,” “Professor,” and “Mr.,” covering all bases (and that was a lot of titles for a short column); Summers got “Mr.” and “President.”
These questions may seem trivial — and they are trivial, in the context of a war against terrorism and all — but they include in them enduring cultural and national questions. Cornel West and his like (not that there are many of his like, West being a pretty singular character) are very big on pride, self-esteem, and what Aretha Franklin called “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” He’s exactly the type to insist on, and elicit, “Dr.” (though he’s also been known to refer to himself — with great frequency, as a matter of fact — as “Brother West”).
It turns out that West did indeed insist on “Dr.” It is the policy of the New York Times to leave it up to the individual — to the individual Ph.D.-holder, that is — how he is to be referred to in the paper (though “Dr.” can’t be used for an honorary degree, thank goodness). (Physicians and dentists get “Dr.” as a matter of course.) A senior news editor at the Times confirmed to me that West has informed the paper that he wants “Dr.,” while Summers — the youngest man ever tenured in the Harvard economics department, by the way — wants “Mr.” (Arthur Schlesinger Jr. — by the way, again — has fought all his life against being called “Dr.” He never earned a Ph.D., having been made a Harvard professor without one. Come to think of it, this may speak well for a Ph.D.)
Another official at the Times — in the public-relations department — told me that the paper’s reporters make it a habit to ask subjects who hold Ph.D.’s how they’d like to be referred to. This, however, would be news to many people. I know several people — Ph.D.-holders — who’ve been quoted regularly in the Times for many years who tell me they’ve never been asked such a question. (They’re called “Mr.” or “Ms.” ) These include big-time, true-blue, super-serious academics. When I mentioned this to the senior news editor, he replied that these people need only give the word, and they’ll be “Dr.” (You know who you are; be it on your conscience.)
In the West controversy, the Times wasn’t quite consistent. In late December — right off the bat — West was “Dr.” But in a January 13 article, he was “Mr.” (No word yet on whether he’s planning a lawsuit.) (For that matter, “Dr. Gates” — Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. — was merely “Mr.,” too.) On December 29, Charles Ogletree — a (black) law professor at Harvard and a key ally of West — was “Mr.” Later, on January 4, he was bumped to “Dr.” It would appear that he requested “Dr.” (although the particular reporter could have bestowed it on her own). It would also appear that Ogletree is the first law prof in history, or at least recent history, to be called “Dr.” in the Times, or most anywhere else. (“Dr. Bork,” anyone?)
As for the Wall Street Journal, the stylebook says that a Ph.D. is called “Dr.” “if appropriate in context and if the individual desires it.” The editorial page, however — always independent and (gloriously) contrarian — won’t give you “Dr.” unless you wear a white coat and stethoscope. The paper at large also requires that Martin Luther King, though dead, be called “Dr. King,” always. And this, the editorial page follows. King is virtually the only non-physician in this society always to be called “Dr.” (and virtually the only dead person as well).
In fact, “Dr. King” is one of the great linguistic sacred cows in America. The Times does “Dr. King,” too, though many great and eminent persons who are dead are referred to in those pages by their last names only (e.g., Einstein). (Odd that Martin Luther King should be more a doctor than Einstein, don’t you think?) It was one of Bill Bennett’s masterstrokes, while he was secretary of education, to refer to King as “Rev. King.” One year, he was the Reagan cabinet member selected to go down to Atlanta to represent the administration on Martin Luther King Day. He made a point of referring to the great man as “Rev. King,” which was both startling and soothing to the ear. Bennett was reminding his audience of the religious nature of this figure, at a time when conservatives in general were trying to restore the place of religion in public affairs.
Why, indeed, should King be “Dr.”? It is true that ours is a country in which black men, not long ago, were routinely called “boy” (or worse); we are properly conscious of dignity and redress. But what is more significant about MLK? That he repeatedly put his life on the line so that black Americans could, at long last, become fully Americans — eventually losing his life because of it — or that, early in his life, he managed to plagiarize his way to a Ph.D.? Anyone, practically, can get a Ph.D.; very few can be a Martin Luther King Jr.
Back to the Times for a moment: It still burns many old-timers that the paper once referred to Fidel Castro as “Dr. Castro.” (The dictator took a law degree from the University of Havana.) The queer practice of “Dr. Castro” lives on among certain leftists, and in many British newspapers, not only the Guardian, which loves Communist dictators, but the Daily Telegraph, which doesn’t. Of course, absolute rulers are always lavishing titles on themselves (including “General,” although, as many have noted, it’s strange that Col. Qaddafi never moved himself up). Elena Ceausescu, the late (and bullet-riddled) First Lady of Romania, gave herself a Ph.D. in chemistry. She also had chemists write books in her name and arranged to have many prizes awarded to her in that discipline.
In 1986, the Times achieved something of a stylistic breakthrough, assenting to “Ms.” This allowed Gloria Steinem to utter what must be the best line of her career: “Now I don’t have to be ‘Miss Steinem from Ms. magazine.’” Put it in Bartlett’s, maybe. The Times is pro-choice on a woman’s honorific, as on abortion: One can select “Miss,” “Mrs.,” or “Ms.” Hillary Clinton must have chosen “Mrs.” somewhere along the line. Imagine the thought process — the machinations, the considerations, the strategic ins and outs — that went into her decision!
Besides Martin Luther King, the most famous non-stethoscope-wearing “Dr.” in America is Kissinger — though HK long ago asked the Times to call him “Mr.” (which it does). (I’ve always thought “Dr. Kissinger” rather natural for the man, given his background in Germany: Herr Doktor and all that.) Another former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, had a curious transformation. At first in the Times, she was “Mrs.”; then “Ms.”; then, finally, she was “Dr.” — at her request (“Doctor’s Orders,” as a title in the Times put it!). (Must be the funniest Times headline ever, which, admittedly, isn’t saying much.) As the paper reported in that story, Albright asked for “Dr.” because “I worked hard for it” (meaning, her Ph.D.). The Times recorded that “she wondered whether the change might make her appear insecure,” but she went ahead and asked for it anyway. Her teacher at Columbia, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter administration, is “Mr.” in the Times.
Condoleezza Rice, the current national security adviser, is “Ms. Rice” — her choice. Yet White House spokesmen routinely refer to her as “Dr. Rice.” This is somewhat strange, because the president’s chief economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsey, is very much a “Dr.” — Ph.D. in economics from Harvard — but is never, as far as I can tell, called “Dr.” He’s “Mr.” (or just “Larry”). Why should this be? Is this a sneaking bit of racial condescension or puffery? Is it a bit of gender-related condescension or puffery? Is it a harkening back to an earlier national security adviser, Dr. K? Or it is because there are a lot of Texans and southerners around the White House?
There is very much a North/South split in this country about “Dr.,” as about so many other things. It is common practice for professors in the South to be called “Dr.” At the universities I attended — northern — you would sooner have struck a professor than called him “Dr.” In fact, it was something if the sullen and self-absorbed students grunted their acknowledgement of the prof at all.
Feelings about “Dr.” are bound up in that bitch-goddess, Status. (Yes, I know: James said Success. But Status is a sister.) The best line in either Austin Powers movie belongs to Dr. Evil, who, when addressed as “Mr.,” says, “I didn’t spend six years in evil medical school to be called ‘Mr.,’ thank you very much!” Our senior editor Jeffrey Hart, professor emeritus of English at Dartmouth, remembers serving as a campaign adviser to Nixon (not that this is necessarily a segue from evil). To Jeff’s amusement, Nixon called him “Dr. Hart.” This accords with the Nixon we know: class-conscious, status-nervous, chip-on-the-shouldery, the boy from Whittier who received a tuition scholarship to Harvard but couldn’t go, because the family didn’t have the money to transport him to and from Massachusetts. Nixon, according to Jeff, would also say, “I’m no Ph.D., but . . .,” before launching into a disquisition on some arcane topic.
For some, to be called “Dr.” is a way of saying, “I am somebody,” in the words of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. (Ah, “the Rev. Mr. Jackson” and “the Rev. Al Sharpton” — that’s “a whole ’nother” article, as we say in my family.) Many years ago, another NR senior editor, Rick Brookhiser, surveying all the mail sent to Bill Buckley, adjudged that the most interesting letters were those from prison. And the least interesting? The ones from people who signed themselves “Ph.D.” I know someone who’s a lawyer in West Virginia who has found that the surest way to rattle his opposition’s expert Ph.D. witness is to refer to him as “Mr.”
But then, I have another acquaintance who earned a Ph.D. in biochem — and he pleads for his “Dr.” because, “There aren’t many perks in this line of work, and I’d like my little payoff from polite society.” Well, at least he’s not a drama teacher. The bulk of the Ph.D.’s I know balk at being called anything but “Mr.” (or maybe “Professor,” in the case of academics), believing that “Dr.” has come to mean Marcus Welby, and that’s about it. As for those who feel slighted when they are “Dr.”-less, all we can say is, “Ph.D., heal thyself.”
– A shorter version of this article appeared in the February 11, 2002, issue of National Review.