Magazine | August 30, 2010, Issue

‘Barack and I’

What’s in a first name?

Joe Biden was goofy, sometimes alarming, before he became vice president, and he’s goofy, sometimes alarming, now. He has said that he told Obama he would be his running mate on two conditions: “I’m not going to wear any funny hats, and I’m not changing my brand.” By “brand,” he apparently means “style” or “persona.” And, true to his word, he’s not changing.

One curious thing about Biden is his habit of referring to the president by his first name — in public, I mean. Or quasi-public. He did this at a Democratic “issues conference” in June; and he did it at a fundraiser in July. The first time, he mentioned that “Barack and I sat in on” a particular meeting. The second time, he said, “Barack and I are realists” — about the economy, he meant. Let’s hope so.

I don’t know about you, but I have never heard a vice president refer to a president by his first name in public. Dick Cheney always spoke of George W. Bush as “the president” or “President Bush.” Face to face, I believe, he called him “sir.” In fact, some reporters pointed this out, when others were saying that Cheney, not Bush, was actually in charge: the top dog. I don’t believe Bush’s father ever referred to “Ron” or “Ronnie.” And did Nixon say “Ike”? Unthinkable. Did Garner, Wallace, or Truman say “Franklin”? How about “Frank”? Beyond unthinkable.

Someone once noted something about Reagan’s White House staff. I don’t remember who it was, or I would credit him. Talking together in private, they would refer to Reagan as “the president.” They’d do this at the mess, out at a ballgame, wherever. And they would use an almost reverential tone. This was highly unusual, as political hands are a famously jaded, hard-boiled bunch. The reverence came in the first term; in the second, when Iran-contra and other unpleasantness set in, things were a little different.

More than once, I saw Dave Powers, JFK’s aide-de-camp, interviewed on television. Reminiscing about Election Night 1960, he’d say, “. . . and that was the last time I called him Jack.” He also said, “I called him Jack for 14 years and Mr. President for two years, ten months, and two days.”

The business of names, of course, can be a minefield. We have all stepped on a mine or two, as we try to navigate our way. To be safe, you might wait until someone asks you to call him by his first name. But even that can be tricky. For a while, I addressed an acquaintance of mine — about 70, the mother of a colleague — as “Mrs. Jones” (let’s say). One day, she said to me, with annoyance, “Why don’t you call me Alice?” (again, let’s say). I myself was a little annoyed, inwardly: Because you didn’t ask me to, that’s why.

Should you go ahead and ask, without waiting to be asked? Anthony Daniels has made an interesting point, as he routinely does. He notes that “May I call you by your first name?” is not a neutral question. The person being asked is sort of trapped. If he says, “Actually, I would rather you called me Mr. Smith,” he comes off as a total prig. Similarly, “Do you mind if I smoke?” is not a neutral question. If the other guy says, “In fact, I do mind” — again, total prig.

#page#Once upon a time in America, people wanted to grow up real fast — to be considered adults. And that included “Mr.” and other honorifics. Then, people wanted to grow up real slow, if at all: and be teenagers into their grayness. You called someone “Mr. Brown,” and he might retort, “‘Mr. Brown’ is my father! I’m Toby.” I admit that I myself have always had a problem with “Mr.” — some discomfort at being called “Mr.” I was a summer-camp counselor at the tender age of 18; the rules were, the kids couldn’t call you by your first name. I rebelled at “Mr. Nordlinger” — so the compromise was “Mr. Jay,” which was quite strange.

Bill Buckley spoke and wrote brilliantly about this first-name business. No surprise there, right? In a 1975 column on the subject, he lamented “the obsessive egalitarian familiarity which approaches a raid on one’s privacy.” A couple decades later, he said he hated it when he was in a doctor’s waiting room and a nurse would call out, “William?” He was either “Bill” or “Mr. Buckley” (although one college classmate called him “Willie”).

When I first met him, I called him “Mr. Buckley,” of course. He said, “Call me Bill.” I mistered him once more — I guess I just couldn’t help it. And he said again, this time with vehemence, “Bill.” And so it was, ever after. With some, however, Bill would not persist: If they could not bring themselves to call him Bill, he let them alone. Mary Tyler Moore, on her show, balked at calling her boss “Lou.” To her, he had to be “Mr. Grant.”

Bill had a show too, of course — and we might tell many stories about it. Here’s one. Two of his guests one day were Jerry Falwell and Harriet Pilpel, an abortion-rights lawyer. Falwell was appearing by video hookup; Pilpel was in the studio. Beginning a point, Falwell said, “Now, Harriet, I don’t know you . . . ,” and Bill broke in, “Then why do you call her Harriet?” In front of my television, I winced hard for Falwell.

If names are a minefield at home, how about abroad? There, the mines multiply a hundredfold. And those mines include pronouns, not just names. Vous or tu? Sie or du? The formal you is not always the safe you, you know: That, too, can give offense (to those prepared to take offense, which is many people).

For years, I stayed at the same hotel in Salzburg, and knew the staff quite well. I could not get them — even the guys — to call me Jay. For a day or two, one of them tried: I was “Jay” to him, and he was “Klaus” to me. But I could see that it caused him almost physical pain to say my first name. So I let him off the hook — we went back to “Herr Mertel” and “Herr Nordlinger.” (I will not first-name while others are “Herr”-ing.) The only one in the joint who easily called me Jay was the Indian-born head waiter.

I know a young German woman who works for a big German institution, where her boss is American-born. They work in both languages: German and English. When speaking in German, they are “Frau” to each other; when speaking in English, they call each other by their first names. They make the switch unconsciously; it is perfectly natural to them.

#page#Class, among other things, can rear its head in the name business. When I was a teenager, I went into a pharmacy in Ypsilanti, Mich. A grandmotherly employee said to her manager — a man of about 40 — “I’m going to go on break now, okay, Mr. Conner?” He said, “Okay, Mabel.” I burned. I was ready to join the Communist party on the spot. Dignity comes into play in this business. I know a man whose grandfather, a pillar of the community, went into a nursing home. He had always been “Mr.,” but now, enfeebled and helpless, he was “Mike” (or whatever) to the young women at the facility. This made the grandson nearly homicidal.

How do you know how to address people? What are the rules? I think you go by feel, as so often in life. You go by feel, judgment, sensitivity, stomach.

I don’t know what Biden says to Obama face to face: I bet it’s “Barack,” and I think that’s what Biden is signaling, in public. But I would not refer to Obama by his first name when out and about: when speaking to the public. It feels wrong to me. It puts a dissonance in my ear. Of course, we all have different ears.

Is Biden being condescending? Obama is a younger man than he, and Biden likes to consider himself a sage. In the general-election campaign of ’08, he said, “I’ve forgotten more about foreign policy than most of my colleagues know.” Yeah, sure, Joe (speaking of first names). When he says “Barack” in public, is he trying to convey intimacy (as I’ve already suggested)? See how close I am to the president! We’re a team, he and I. Incidentally, no way he’ll dump me for ’12.

Then there is the awful question of race — an inescapable question in America, a question that taints everything. Shouldn’t a vice president be especially careful not even to appear to condescend — to condescend to our first black president? During the ’08 primary season, when he himself was running for president, Biden described Obama as “the first mainstream African American, who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Al Sharpton protested, “I take a bath every day.”

Um, what if a conservative Republican leader repeatedly referred to the president as “Barack” in public? Would everyone think that was fine? The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, and the House minority leader, John Boehner, both know Obama — they served together in Congress, and they work together, sort of, now. If they said “Barack,” would that be hunky-dory? Or honky-dory? Remember that some Democratic commentators even found Scott Brown’s pickup truck, on the campaign trail in Massachusetts, racist.

I have no doubt that Biden is innocent in the “Barack” business — guilty only, perhaps, of bragging about his closeness to the president, and his own senior-statesman status. And Biden can be expected to be goofy: He maintains his “brand,” remember. But he might want to rethink “Barack,” if he thought in the first place.

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