Lingering honorifics

I object to the convention of calling former public officeholders by their erstwhile titles. Governor Romney? Senator Santorum? Speaker Gingrich? Governor Palin? No, no, no, and no. That these characters once served in those positions does not mean that their former honorifics attach to them for life. What is wrong with Mr. Romney or Ms. Palin?

My view is entirely bipartisan. I object no less to President Clinton, Governor Dukakis, and Senator Bayh. Clinton is no longer president (to his everlasting regret); Dukakis hasn’t been governor in more than 20 years; neither Birch nor Evan Bayh is a sitting senator. It is not in the slightest disrespectful to call each of them Mr.

These lingering honorifics can get out of hand. Last week on the PBS Newshour, Judy Woodruff was interviewing David Boren, who spent four years as Governor of Oklahoma and 16 years as a Senator, and who now serves as president of the University of Oklahoma. Woodruff got all tangled up trying to figure out whether to call him Governor, Senator, or President, when a nice simple Mr. would have done just fine. She was also interviewing Christie Whitman, who followed her service as Governor of New Jersey with a term as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Woodruff felt the need to call her Governor, but why not Administrator?

At our nation’s founding, we rejected the British tradition of bestowing titles on the rich and powerful. We have no dukes or earls; we do not call anyone “your excellency” or “your lordship.” We dilute that salutary principle when we treat former public officeholders as if they have ascended permanently to a peerage.

Perhaps I’m overreacting in this season of politics, with so many former public officials parading around the political platform and performing in the media circus. But if I had my way, I would criminalize all this oozing obsequiousness toward those who once held but who no longer occupy high public office.

For a more extensive (and more nuanced) treatment of this burning issue, take a look at Emily Yoffe’s Slate article entitled You Are Not the Speaker — Politicians like Newt Gingrich who cling to their old titles are pretentious, incorrect, and un-American.


1 Comment

Filed under Grammar and Usage Errors, Hackneyed Phrases, Miscellaneous

One response to “Lingering honorifics

  1. Lynn

    One always refers to another person by the highest rank to which they have obtained. This is not British, it is merely polite.

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