‘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.

August 30, 2010    |     Volume LXII, NO. 16

Books, Arts & Manners
  • Ronald Radosh reviews Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky, by Nicholas von Hoffman.
  • Jason Lee Steorts revisits Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand.
  • Iain Murray reviews Oil: Money, Politics, and Power in the 21st Century, by Tom Bower.
  • Mario Loyola reviews Skating on Stilts: Why We Aren’t Stopping Tomorrow’s Terrorism, by Stewart A. Baker.
  • Richard Brookhiser probes our relationship with cancer.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
The Bent Pin  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .