Miss Manners by Judith Martin

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

When the Founding Fathers came up with the title "Mr. President," they thought they had devised the ultimate in casual forms of official address. In contrast to the sycophantic titles used toward European monarchs, which they considered unbefitting a republic of equals, this would give the person holding the highest office no grander an honorific than any ordinary citizen.

George Washington had a different approach. "His High and Mightiness" had rather a nice ring to it, he ventured to suggest.

However, ridicule carried the day, as Miss Manners notices that it so often does. And when the first president left office, he made a concession to the American taste for simplicity by decreeing that he would henceforth no longer carry the title of president, not even as a mere courtesy.

There could only be one president of the United States at a time, he reasoned, as our newest president also observed during the transition period. But there could be more than one American general, so he let it be known that he would revert to his previous title of General Washington.

One might have thought that the world had grown somewhat more casual since the 18th century. And a lot less interested in honorifics. But apparently we have also been growing more pompous. We now have four living former presidents addressing one another as Mr. President, and a citizenry worried that it would be disrespectful to follow George Washington's rule.

Folks, these are not newly minted PhDs who showcase their achievements by insisting on being called Doctor. When you have been president of the United States, everyone knows it. You can afford to be modest.

It is true that the first president's wife was known, in her day, as Lady Washington. Over the years, this evolved into the moniker first lady, which one of them, Jacqueline Kennedy, remarked made her sound like a horse.

But there is no such official title. By our law, the president's wife is a private citizen, although she is given precedence by courtesy.

Here, then, is a brief Protocol Primer.

The sitting president should be addressed as Mr. President. His wife is addressed, both in writing and in speaking, as Mrs. Obama. No first name, neither his nor hers, is used.

The former president is correctly addressed as Gov. Bush. His wife, who was the Mrs. Bush when he was president, reverts to being Mrs. George W. Bush, as her mother-in-law became again Mrs. George H.W. Bush after her husband's administration. (Miss Manners has nothing against their using Ms. and their first names if they wish, but is assuming the more conventional style.)

Similarly, the sitting vice president is the only Mr. Vice President, and his wife is simply Mrs. (or Dr.) Biden.

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