The Corner

Enough With the First Names, Mr. President

President Obama referred to Senator Elizabeth Warren by her first name. Senator Sherrod Brown found this disrespectful, suggesting that Senator Warren’s gender might have played a role: “. . . referring to her as first name, when he might not have done that for a male senator, perhaps?” White House press secretary Josh Earnest responded, as reported by USA Today:

“There are a number of instances where the President has used the first name of the Senator to reference them in public, both men and women,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday . . .

For his part, Earnest said there have been “multiple instances” in which the president has “referred to Sherrod Brown as Sherrod in a public setting.”

Earnest also joked about the situation when asked about it by Jonathan Karl of ABC News.

“Well, Jon,” he began — “you don’t mind if I call you Jon, do you?”

Well, I mind.

Here’s a lesson for the president from this minor drama: Stop referring to people by their first names. Especially people of high station, like senators.

Or statesmen. The president referred to Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, by her first name. My thoughts at the time:

Surely the reporter got it wrong. So I went to the White House transcript, and was horrified to see that the president referred to the chancellor by her first name nearly two dozen times. The opening paragraph alone is littered with informality. “Angela, of course, has been here many times.” “Well into her third term, Angela is now one of Germany’s longest-serving chancellors.” “As we all saw in Rio, Angela is one of her team’s biggest fans.” (After a barrage of unseemly familiarity, the chancellor’s first sentence was “Thank you, President, dear Barack.” I would like to think that she decided it polite to respond in kind, but couldn’t stop herself from including two terms of respect before uttering the president’s first name. The name “Barack” never returns in the transcript. Even still, she erred.)

“Angela?” My goodness. “Ms. Merkel,” “the chancellor,” “Chancellor Merkel” (if that usage is permitted in Germany), “madam chancellor” or “Dr. Merkel” would be fine. But “Angela?” . . .

Our society is suffering from a tyranny of informality. It is rude. It is false intimacy. It is a product of the utopian, egalitarian fiction that society is one big happy village. A friendship circle, where we’re all holding hands. Station and hierarchy should be leveled because they are so nineteenth-century. In the modern world, we are all equal — so we are all pals.

Read the entirety here.

Michael R. Strain — Michael R. Strain is the director of economic-policy studies and the Arthur F. Burns Scholar in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute.  

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