Magazine | April 22, 2019, Issue

‘Beto’ and Other Names in Politics and Life

Beto O’Rourke answers questions from voters in Iowa, March 15, 2019. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Within reason, a person should be called what he wants to be called

Beto O’Rourke, the ex-congressman from El Paso, has decided to run for president. He is being teased for jumping on counters, to talk to voters in diners. He is also being teased about his name: “Beto.” What’s he trying to get away with? He’s no Hispanic. He’s Robert Francis O’Rourke.

He is indeed. But from infancy, he has been called “Beto.” When he enrolled at Columbia University in New York, he tried going by “Robert.” “I wanted to fit in,” he told an interviewer last year, and “Beto” did not fit. Plus, there was a “disconnect,” said O’Rourke: Why did a tall Anglo (or Irish American) have a Spanish nickname?

But “Robert” didn’t last long. The young man thought of himself as “Beto,” and “Beto” it was.

As a rule, people have a right to the name of their choice, I believe. They also have a right to the pronunciation of their choice. Again, this is a rule: We could think of exceptions, as to almost any rule.

Incidentally, O’Rourke pronounces his name “Bet-o” rather than “Bait-o.” It rhymes with “falsetto” rather than “Plato.”

I hope you don’t mind a quick George Bush story — this is Bush 41. A speechwriter placed a quotation by Demosthenes — or was it Thucydides? — in some speech. Not wanting to stumble over pronunciation, the president said, simply, “Plato.” Probably no one was the wiser.

William Safire took up the question of names, and their pronunciations, in his language column, back in 1983. “Your house may not be your castle,” he wrote, “but your moniker is your property to pronounce the way you like and to correct others about.” He brought up Tony Dorsett, the football star.

When Dorsett was in college, we all said “DOR-sit.” When he got to the pros, he announced that he wanted his name pronounced “Dor-SETT.” Personally, I found it hard to adjust — but that’s what the guy wanted. In truth, a lot of people called him “TD.” Those were his initials, and, more important, they stood for “touchdown.”

Leonard Bernstein, the musician, said “Bernstine,” not “Bernsteen.” “You don’t say ‘Gertrude Steen,’” he explained. “And you don’t say ‘Albert Einsteen.’” There are Bernsteens in the world — plenty of them — but the musician preferred “Bernstine.”

Okay — but I once worked with a man who insisted on calling him “Bernsteen.” It was a point of pride with him, somehow. He was stubborn about it. I think he thought Bernstein was trying to get away with something, or put on airs. And he wasn’t gonna let him . . .

Let’s go back to Texas. Last year, Beto O’Rourke ran for the U.S. Senate, losing to the incumbent, Ted Cruz. The senator’s full name is “Rafael Edward Cruz.” (His father came from Cuba as a refugee.) The future “Ted” grew up as “Felito.” But in junior high, he wanted out of that name. He tells the story in his autobiography, published in 2015.

The problem with “Felito,” Cruz says, “was that it seemed to rhyme with every major corn chip on the market — Fritos, Cheetos, Doritos, Tostitos — a fact that other young children were quite happy to point out.” He continues, “I was tired of being teased. One day I had a conversation with my mother about it and she said, ‘You know, you could change your name. There are a number of other possibilities.’”

This hit the young man like a thunderbolt. “It was a shocking concept,” Cruz says. “It had never occurred to me that I had any input on my name.” He decided on “Ted,” derived from his middle name, Edward.

Self-reinvention is as American as apple pie. Think of Jay Gatsby, a.k.a. the Great Gatsby, who started out in North Dakota as “Jimmy Gatz.” “Gatz,” huh? Possibly Jewish? This has been a theory, or suggestion, among literary critics.

There was a time when many American Jews felt they had to Anglicize, or de-Judaize, their names. I think of a pair of tenors, who were brothers-in-law, as it happened: Rubin Ticker became Richard Tucker; Pinky Perelmuth became Jan Peerce. Italians got in on the act as well: Dino Crocetti became Dean Martin.

Back to the Jewish front for a second: I was once at an event with Mike Wallace, the TV journalist, who was originally “Myron,” not “Mike.” He recounted a story from his boyhood: “Mr. Maddy said to me, ‘Now, Myron . . .’ — because that’s my name, ‘Myron.’” He pointed to himself as he said this. I was rather touched by the tense — the present tense.

Okay, now back to politics. In 1976, an ex-governor of Georgia ran for president as “Jimmy.” Surely he couldn’t be president as Jimmy, a lot of people thought. In November, he won. And between then and January, the question was, How will he be sworn in? As “James Earl Carter Jr.”? Or as “Jimmy”?

He stuck to “Jimmy,” simply because he wanted to, and because he could.

In 1984, Gary Hart ran for the Democratic nomination. Once upon a time, he had been “Hartpence.” Some Republicans liked to refer to him, hootingly, as “Hartpence.” What was he trying to get away with? Moreover, he had changed his signature, several times! Obviously, he was a flake trying to work out an identity.

I bet a lot of people have tried out more than one signature, before settling on one.

In 1988, William F. Buckley Jr. hosted the first debate of the Republican-primary season. One candidate, Pete du Pont, was jabbing another candidate, Vice President Bush, for a lack of specifics on arms control. “We’re waiting for details,” he said, “and we’re hearing generalities.” Bush replied — not very nicely — “Pierre, let me help you.”

Ooooh. True, du Pont is Pierre S. du Pont IV. But he has always been known as “Pete.” They alternate in their family, as the candidate explained after the debate. No. 3 was called “Pierre.” No. 4 is “Pete.” No. 5 is “Pierre.” That’s the way it goes.

In any case, Bush succeeded in framing his opponent as a fancypants aristocrat, and French, to boot. David Broder, “the dean of the Washington press corps,” as he was known, wrote that “the night belonged to Bush — the man who dared to call a Pierre a Pierre.”

Bush himself was no plebe, of course: He was George Herbert Walker Bush. While we’re talking of names, I love something that Bush said after his eldest son was sworn in as president in 2001: “I used to be ‘George Bush.’ I used to be ‘the president.’ I don’t know who the hell I am anymore.”

During the Obama years, some conservatives liked to knock the president as “Barry.” One day, I saw a headline with the name “Barry” in it. I thought it referred to the notorious D.C. politician, Marion S. Barry (with the “S” standing for “Shepilov,” an interesting story in itself). Nope, the headline referred to Obama — who, for a time in his early life, which was a complicated life, went by the first name “Barry.”

Some people have complicated lives. Including presidents. Gerald R. Ford was born Leslie Lynch King Jr. Bill Clinton grew up as Billy Blythe. Very complicated, very messy.

In 2008, Mitt Romney ran for the Republican presidential nomination, unsuccessfully, and he tried for it again in ’12, this time succeeding. A lot of people didn’t like Romney — lefties and righties alike. A few of my colleagues insisted on calling him “Willard”: “because that’s his name,” one of them said: “Willard.” Occasionally, they threw in “Mittens,” just for extra mockery, I suppose.

Yes, the guy’s name is Willard Mitt Romney. The “Willard” comes from J. Willard Marriott, the hotel entrepreneur, who was a friend of Romney’s father. The “Mitt” comes from a relative, Milton Romney, a quarterback for the Chicago Bears in the 1920s — whose nickname was “Mitt.” Before kindergarten, the future politician was known as “Billy.” In kindergarten, he decided he wanted to be called “Mitt.”

You can knock him all you want, as far as I’m concerned — it’s a free country. But what does calling him “Willard” or “Mittens” accomplish?

Abram became Abraham; Jacob became Israel; Saul became Paul. But forget the Bible — think of the NBA! Lew Alcindor became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That was a religious conversion. Later, Lloyd B. Free became World B. Free — which was a little strange. Stranger yet, Ron Artest became Metta World Peace. (“World Peace” is the last name; “Metta” is the first name, borrowed from Buddhism.)

Names are a very personal, very sensitive thing. In Detroit, we had a pitcher on the Tigers, Willie Hernandez, who came from Puerto Rico. At some point, he rebelled against the Anglo-American moniker that had been put on him: “Willie.” He let everyone know that he wanted to be called “Guillermo,” his name. It was hard for a lot of us to adjust, but . . .

I went to school with a girl named Yolanda, who, having had enough of what many considered an outlandish name, switched to “Renée.” I might have preferred her to tough it out, but I understood. I have a friend who wanted to ditch his first name. At Starbucks, he left a variety of names, trying them out. How would they sound to him, when they were called? Did one of them feel right? Eventually, one of them did.

To say it once more: I’ll call you whatever you want, in the way you want, within reason. The American in me would balk at “Your Royal Highness” — even if you were the Queen of Sheba. But we might negotiate . . .

This article appears as “A Name of One’s Own” in the April 22, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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