Title This!

Big-picture guys and the molls of the media have scanned Mr. Bush’s second inaugural speech, some faulting it for na�vet� and hubris, others finding in it Lincolnesque vision and cadences. Very well for them all. Now it’s time for the man in the street to take a little note, that we may long remember a certain contradiction between what was said and what was done on that day.

The President’s first phrases (admirable in their delicate alliteration) were:

On this day, prescribed by law and marked by ceremony, we celebrate the durable wisdom of our Constitution, and recall the deep commitments that unite our country. I am grateful for the honor of this hour, mindful of the consequential times in which we live, and determined to fulfill the oath that I have sworn and you have witnessed.

Yes, we witnessed an oath administered by the gentleman introduced as “The Honorable William Rhenquist.” Stop right there. Why call him “honorable?” Were his fellow citizens grumbling “He’s a cad?” No, “Honorable” is a title—one that the Chief Justice and thousands of other Americans enjoy. Indeed, fully half the population of the presidential grandstand on that day was “Honorable.” What does the invoked “wisdom of our Constitution” say about that?

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States …(Article Nine)

Maybe the administrator of the oath loathes the title thrust upon him by the public address announcer. Maybe, in his mind, he retires to a farm, a contemporary Cincinnatus, noble on the inside, pooh-poohing the pomp of the capital. But there remain those stripes he had sewn on his sleeves to distinguish “The Chief” from the Justices.

Some would say “Honorable” just indicates his high office. Not quite, but let’s cut some slack for him and his sleeves, especially since he is suffering from ill health. We wish him a full and speedy recovery. But what about those who are out of office, such as “The Honorable” William Jefferson Clinton? The person in question doesn’t matter. Advertising him or her as “honorable” is like a real estate agent asking you to visit the nice new homes in “Shady Grove at Gentle Hills.” Pack your sunscreen and rappelling gear.

And block your ears in shame when “Senator” Dole pitches his wares on TV or when “Congressman” Fill-In-The-Blank lobbies on behalf of chemicals or China. It’s not a question of what they do, for Lord knows we’re all trying to hustle a buck. It’s what the thousands of ex-judges, ex-representatives, and ex-assistant secretaries expect to be called. Ah! Don’t forget that each federal department’s (former!) “Under Secretary” and “Assistant Secretary” enjoy title creep. Like the recaptured slaves defending Spartacus, all will stand up and shout “I am!” when asked “Which one of you is Mr. Secretary?”

According to Webster, a title is a word … added to… somebody’s name to indicate his or her rank, social status, or profession …But are they the title[s] of Nobility forbidden by our Constitution? Once again, Websterian wisdom: “noble” refers to a person, thing, or group believed to be superior to all others of the same kind. Our title holders themselves are the true believers in their ascendancy. Decades ago did campaign contributor John Doe preside over three months of dinners in our Barbados embassy? Just try calling him “Mister Doe.” The icy stare, the horrified assistant, the embossed business card—they all scream, “Ambassador Doe!” Recognize him! Our man on the beachfront of freedom! Sympathize with him! He’s no District of Columbia school administrator, shelling out a mere $600 to be called “Doctor.” John Doe’s ticket into the American aristocracy cost him tens of thousands.

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States …

Officials of the United States heap “Your Honors” upon one another, a bad enough affront to the Constitution. It’s worse when we the people of the United States put up with it. When it serves them, our worthies describe themselves as “public servants,” a good term, but one that now sounds quaint. Let’s change that. Let’s take them at their word and address them like servants—like the good, hard-working, honorable servants that they undoubtedly have been. Most Americans aren’t used to dealing with servants. Should we call them “Bill?” Very familiar. “William?” Maybe paternalistic. How about an egalitarian “Mr.” or “Ms.”, as the case may be? How about a verbal vote for government “by the people, for the people, and of the people?”

Master Daniel Q. Kelley
(It cost me two years and a lot of money)

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