It is with extreme delicacy that colleagues and supplicants in the District and Virginia are approaching two old political tigers who recently added new stripes.
Former D.C. mayor Marion Barry is now a council member, and former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder is now the mayor of Richmond.
The question is this: What do you call them? This is tender territory, because their current jobs are lower in the political pecking order.
Wilder is "pretty flexible'' about how he is addressed, a spokeswoman said.
Barry (D-Ward 8) said he wants to be called "Mayor-Councilman Barry." For convenience sake, people could shorten it to "mayor." At his swearing-in last Sunday, the former four-term mayor pointed out that it is customary to maintain the title of your highest office.
Hey, no problem, said the city's current mayor, Anthony A. Williams (D). If Barry wants to be called "mayor," the mayor will call him "mayor."
But D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) said she will refer to the freshman council member from Ward 8 as council member Barry.
"That is the position in which he is currently acting," Cropp said. "He is a councilman."
After three terms as mayor, Barry won a four-year term on the council in 1992. Back then, some people still addressed him as mayor.
"It gets confusing, doesn't it?" said Mary Mel French, former chief of protocol in the Clinton White House.
The confusion is nothing new. Three U.S. presidents left the White House and went on to "lower" offices. John Quincy Adams later served as a congressman from Massachusetts for 17 years. Andrew Johnson was elected to the U.S. Senate from Tennessee and William Howard Taft became chief justice of the United States.
But in Adams's day, titles were less important. According to House of Representatives records and Adams family papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Adams, both as president and congressman, was often called simply "Mr.'' or "the honorable," according to researchers.
Adams made it clear that no elected office is without honor. "Nor, in my opinion, would a former President of the United States be degraded by serving as a selectman of his town, if elected by the people," he wrote.
In this area, few have ranged farther across the political landscape than the irascible Honorable William Donald Schaefer.
In Maryland, Schaefer (D) is far more famous for having been mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland than for the office he now holds -- comptroller of the treasury. Around Annapolis, Schaefer is known simply as "the Governor," an honorific accorded him even by the current occupant of that office, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).
"The protocol is you get to be called by the highest title you've ever held," said Schaefer's spokesman, Michael Golden.
But even that is debatable. French, the Clinton protocol chief, said elected leaders should be addressed formally by the title of their current office.
"There is no hard-and-fast rule. But if they were lining up in a reception line, the protocol would be based on their current position,'' she said. "They are not president or governor anymore.''
But politeness is another matter. French doesn't rule out shouting, "Hey Guv!" if you see Wilder walking down Cary Street. But if you are protesting parking tickets or inviting him to a charity ball, it would be more formal to address him as "Mr. Mayor."
Staff writer Lori Montgomery and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.