What's In A Name? (...And Other Trivia)

[ Posted Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008 – 17:12 UTC ]

Barack Obama is a unique individual in many ways, both great and trivial. He has set a lot of "firsts" (or, in some cases "first in a long time"). This list usually starts with his race. Whether you prefer the "first black president" or the "first biracial president," the list of "firsts" certainly doesn't stop with the color of his skin. He is the first president to come from the state of Hawai'i, for instance. The first post-baby-boom president (by some definitions, at least). He is only the third president elected directly from the Senate (the first since Kennedy). He is the first president (to my knowledge, at least) educated outside America at an such early age (maybe in post-revolutionary times this was common, but not so much in modern times). And, charmingly, it will be the first time since Amy Carter that there will be young "First Children" in the White House.

But instead of mining this trove of trivia, what Chris Matthews focused on last weekend (on his weekly show "The Chris Matthews Show") was whether Obama would say his middle name when he is sworn in next month. Sigh. Maybe we should all encourage Matthews' rumored run for the Senate, at least it would get him off the air for awhile.


Matthews raises the middle name issue, and provides some historic film clips from every president since F.D.R. to back it up:

MATTHEWS: OK, before we break, Barack Obama has a lot on his plate, obviously. Among the decisions he's got to make, does he want to use his middle name when he takes the oath of office? It may not be a monumental decision, but it is historical. Nearly every president since 1933 has elected to use either his middle name or his middle initial in his oath of office. Watch.

(Begin clips from file footage)

President FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: I, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, do solemnly swear...

President HARRY TRUMAN: I, Harry S. Truman...

President DWIGHT EISENHOWER: I, Dwight D. Eisenhower...

President: JOHN F. KENNEDY: I, John Fitzgerald Kennedy...

President LYNDON JOHNSON: I, Lyndon Baines Johnson...

President RICHARD NIXON: I, Richard Milhous Nixon...

President GERALD FORD: I, Gerald R. Ford...

President GEORGE H.W. BUSH: I, George Herbert Walker Bush...

President BILL CLINTON: I, William Jefferson Clinton...

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I, George Walker Bush...

(End of clips)

MATTHEWS: You may have noticed two presidents were missing. Here they are taking their oaths of office.

(Begin clips from file footage)

President JIMMY CARTER: I, Jimmy Carter...

President RONALD REAGAN: I, Ronald Reagan.

(End of clips)

MATTHEWS: That's right, James Earl Carter and Ronald Wilson Reagan didn't want to hear their middle names on their big day. Will Barack Hussein Obama follow suit? Well, don't forget what he had to say at the Al Smith dinner last month.

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: (October 16) I got my middle name from somebody who obviously didn't think I'd ever run for president.

MATTHEWS: The real critics on the right did throw that name out. Is he going to use it or not?

Matthews, it should be pointed out, misses a great chance to quote Shakespeare here. He could have quoted Juliet saying "Deny thy father and refuse thy name," from the "Romeo and Juliet" balcony scene, for instance. Actually, this whole scene has lots of quotes which could easily be used. Juliet goes on to say:

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.

Even though Chris Matthews missed a great Bard-quoting opportunity, it is a worthy point -- Barack Hussein Obama got elected president only a few years after we went to war against Saddam Hussein. Can you imagine, for instance, someone named "Lyndon Mao Johnson" or "Dwight Marx Stalin Eisenhower" getting elected in the depths of the Cold War? Do you think "Harry Hitler Truman" could have gotten elected a few years after World War II?

OK, sure, 'tis but thy name that is my enemy, but that doesn't mean they would have won a national election. I'm just saying....

Truman is actually the most interesting "middle name trivia" president in history. Not unlike a certain "M*A*S*H" episode (where it is revealed that the initials in "BJ Hunnicut" stand for nothing more than "my mother, Bea Hunnicut and my father, Jay Hunnicut"), Harry Truman's middle name consists entirely of the letter "S" -- henceforth every time you see it written (as in the transcript above) as "Harry S. Truman," it is incorrect. When he was born, there was a disagreement about whether to name him "Shippe" (paternal grandfather) or "Solomon" (maternal grandfather) so it wound up as "S" on his birth certificate.

Even in the 2008 election, odd middle names abounded. Both John McCain and Joe Biden have rather effeminate middle names ("Sydney" and "Robinette," respectively). But the media hasn't seemed to notice either one of them.

So maybe Obama, when he's considering what he is going to say, should read Romeo's words:

By a name
I know not how to tell thee who I am.
My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself,
Because it is an enemy to thee.

Personally, I could care less whether he says "I, Barack Hussein Obama..." or "I, Barack Obama..." or "I, Barry Obama..." or whatever else he chooses to say. The man behind the name is who people voted for, not the name itself. The man will be president, and I don't care whether he calls himself by a nickname ("Jimmy Carter") by initials ("F.D.R" or "L.B.J.") or by his full name. Whatever he's comfortable with, as far as I'm concerned.

I have a much bigger problem with the Supreme Court Justices who prompt a line that is not in the constitutional oath of office (talk about "legislating from the bench"!) at the end. While every president has finished his oath with " help me God," -- which I don't have a problem with in the least -- the Justice's job is to read the text as written, and not to editorialize... at least until the oath is officially changed. Say you were a president-elect who didn't want to say the line -- what would you do if the Justice prompted it anyway?

But that is the nature of trivia -- to focus on the pine needles, much less the trees or the forest at large.


[Note: If today's column wasn't enough of a pursuit of all that is trivial, check out the story of the White House Christmas tree ornament which calls for impeaching Bush. First, the White House said it was going to hang it, then they reversed themselves. It's a funny, and truly trivial, story.]


-- Chris Weigant


7 Comments on “What's In A Name? (...And Other Trivia)”

  1. [1] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    My favorite presidential middle name trivia is Ulysses S. Grant. His birth name was Ulysses Hiram Grant, but the 'S' was recorded by a poor copyist at West Point.

    I'm all in favor of Hussein throwing his middle name back in the faces of all those idiots who've been pronouncing it so carefully for the last two years. HUSSEIN HUSSEIN HUSSEIN! Indeed, I have adopted it in forum names -- "Matt HUSSEIN Osborne" -- as a way of doing just that. The best response isn't to shy away from the name, but to stick it right at 'em.

  2. [2] 
    ChicagoMolly wrote:

    If Barack Hussein Obama doesn't use his middle name, then the right wing terrorists will have won. It truly amazes me that in the 21st Century people will fall for this word-voodoo over having the same name as someone else. FWIW, wasn't King Hussein of Jordan one of our best friends in the Middle East for many years? You might as well say that after James Earl Ray was arrested for Dr King's murder that James Earl Carter and James Earl Jones should both have changed their names to avoid being tainted by the association. Sheesh!

    The business about pushing "so help me god" into the oath of office has bugged me for a long time, too. I should say "Oath or Affirmation" because that's how the framers refer to it. They understood that members of some religions (I'm thinking Quakers and Jehovah's Witnesses) hold that swearing any kind of oath amounts to blasphemy, and they made room for that. And there's no requirement that you do the job while holding an Old or New Testament, Koran, Humanist Manifesto or any other tribal badge. Wasn't it Dennis Prager who blew steam out his ears a few years back when the first Muslim elected to Congress held a Koran? You really wonder what goes on in their patriotic little brains.

  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Osborne Ink -

    I had forgotten that about Grant.

    ChicagoMolly -

    Excellent point about King Hussein, too.


  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:


    Not unlike a certain "M*A*S*H" episode (where it is revealed that the initials in "BJ Hunnicut" stand for nothing more than "my mother, Bea Hunnicut and my father, Jay Hunnicut"),

    Really?? I know that episode and I know Hunnicut would always say, "BJ??? It stands for whatever you want it to."

    I didn't know the whole story about it being from his parents initials.. I learned something new today! :D Danke...


    If Barack Hussein Obama doesn't use his middle name, then the right wing terrorists will have won.


    Puulleeeesssee.. Calling the Right "terrorists" is akin to calling the Left "Nazis"..

    There oughta be a corollary to Godwin's Law that prohibits throwing around the terrorist moniker on a whim...


  5. [5] 
    ChicagoMolly wrote:

    Oh dear.

    See, I had thought that the "... if x then the terrorists will have won" meme had achieved the status of Cliches We Can Toss Off For A Wee Chuckle.

    I guess not.

    Note to Tim Berners-Lee: Could you cook up a little HTML we can use to flag jokes?

  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:


    My bust..

    As many on here can tell you, one of my biggest "buttons" is terrorism.

    I apologize for jumping on you when it apparently wasn't warranted..


  7. [7] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Michale has a wonderful sense of humor, I can assure you! Just don't push his buttons!

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