Need to Reach Mark Plotkin? Make Sure the Right One's on Speed Dial

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 6, 2006

Three men walk into a bar: a lawyer, a political commentator and an ethnobotanist.

All three are named Mark Plotkin.

No, really.

It's the joke the three men have lived with for decades. The serendipitous nexus of geography, heritage and ambition has resulted in years of mistaken identity for three Washington area men with wildly different occupations, yet names identical but for their middle initials.

In their own circles, they are high-profile figures in demand for vastly disparate reasons. Now, if only people could keep them straight.

Mark E. Plotkin the lawyer gets blamed for audacious things the political commentator says. Mark J. Plotkin the ethnobotanist -- famous for plant exploration in the Neotropics and Amazon conservation efforts -- gets calls at midnight seeking comment on political scandals. And Mark L. Plotkin the commentator gets calls at even stranger hours from rain forest shamans looking for the ethnobotanist.

"It's not easy being named Mark Plotkin in this town," sighed Mark E. Plotkin, a partner at one of Washington's premier white-shoe law firms, Covington & Burling.

The three have traced their roots to regions in Russia, Belarus and Lithuania. These areas, as well as the Ukraine and Poland, are filled with Plotkins, many of whom fanned across the globe during the anti-Jewish pogroms of the 1800s.

A search of public records turned up at least 28 Mark Plotkins living in the United States, most in California or the Northeast.

Given how relatively few there are in the country, it's remarkable not only that three live in Washington, but that there were once four. Mark A. Plotkin eventually decamped for Miami, feeling vaguely embarrassed that he was "just" a librarian.

"I felt like such a failure in Washington with such a name," the former U.S. Supreme Court librarian said from his post at the University of Miami's law library. "I knew my place in the world, so I left for Miami."

If there is one Mark Plotkin most responsible for turning them into household names, it would be the political commentator.

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