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The laziest presidential article ever

2008.05.27 — Government | Politics | by Derek Jensen

Barack Obama

Barry O.

A new Slate article on presidential names is about the laziest piece of writing I've ever seen on presidential history. The author claims that "Barack Hussein Obama" is such an unusual name that it is entirely out of keeping with American history—largely true, but also obvious —and that past presidents and even presidential candidates have all had very ordinary names, which is patently ridiculous.

Among our early presidents, Martin Van Buren had a very ethnic (Dutch) name for the time. "James Knox Polk" and "Zachary Taylor" are odd names, at least by modern standards. "Millard Fillmore" is an odd name in any era.

Ulysses S Grant's name was the result of a mistake in his nomination to military school; so the S doesn't stand for anything (his real name was "Hiram Ulysses Grant"). The later Victorian age gives us "Rutherford Birchard Hayes" and "Grover Cleveland," which are odd enough that even having presidents with those names doesn't lend them much familiarity. The last name "Roosevelt" was certainly unusual when it first came to prominence, altho we think nothing of it today because of two popular presidencies.

Among modern presidents, Ike used a nickname because his last name was unusual and his first name wasn't much better. Truman had only a middle initial. Kennedy had an even more ethnic (Irish) middle name than his distinctly ethnic last name. Johnson had an odd middle name; Nixon had a strange and strangely spelled middle name (Milhous—no final E).

George Herbert Walker Bush avoided the very Eastern elitist sounding dual middle names, but can't escape them now that he has to be distinguished from his son, whose middle name is still odd enough that it distinguishes him. In fact, he's known not merely by the middle name, but by the initial alone, which has to be a historical singularity.

And among vice-presidents are even more unusual names: Elbridge Gerry, Daniel Decius Tompkins, Schuyler Colfax, Adlai Stevenson (grandfather of the failed presidential candidate), Garret Augustus Hobart, James Schoolcraft Sherman, Richard Mentor Johnson, George Mifflin Dallas, William Rufus deVane King, William Almon Wheeler, Levi Parsons Morton, Henry Agard Wallace, Alben Barkley, Hubert Horatio Humphrey, Spiro T Agnew, Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, and James Danforth Quayle.

Is "Barack Hussein Obama" an unusual and somewhat unfortunate name? Sure. But there's a long history of unusual names in the executive branch. And besides, it's not all that much weirder than "Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton" or "John Sidney McCain III" (that's right: his middle name is "Sidney"... like his father before him... and his father before him).

If you want unusual names, wait until the current crop of film star children grow up and go into politics: Suri Cruise, Apple Martin, Thijs Lauer, Ireland Baldwin, Indiana August Affleck, Kal-El Coppola, Rumer and Scout Willis, Pilot Inspektor Lee, and Zolten Penn Jillette and Moxie Crimefighter Jillette.

The question here (asked directly by Penn Jillette in defending his daughter's name) is why would we want a president with a plain name? Do we really need another "James" or another "Johnson"? America is ready for a "Barack Obama."


f e e d b a c k

Peggy H writes:

Thanks so much to Derek Jensen for pounding a downright silly piece of writing into the pavement as it deserves. Thought you would want to know, though, that B Willis's eldest daughter is named Rumer, not Rumor (!). Don't know what it means, but there was a well-known author by that name (Rumer Godden) fl. a few decades ago. Might mention Willis's youngest, Tallulah, as well.

Corrected. Thanks! —Dj

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