Why Does the Times Call the Secretary of State "General"?

Why Does the Times Call the Secretary of State "General"?

Why Does the Times Call the Secretary of State "General"?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 13 2001 3:45 PM

Why Does the Times Call the Secretary of State "General"?

Now that he's the secretary of state and retired from the military, why is the New York Times still referring to Colin Powell as "General Powell"?

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Because that's how he wants to be referred to, sir, yes, sir! On first reference to Powell, the Times uses the honorific "Secretary of State." Although most newspapers on second reference only call a subject by last name, the Times continues to use a title, thus references to "President Bush" and "Mr. Bush" in the same story. Powell told the Times for his second reference he'd prefer general to Mr. (Although the Times occasionally throws in a "Mr. Powell" for variety's sake.) The general is well within his rights--once a four-star general, always a general as this Explainer explained.

[Update, Feb. 15: Explainer was wrong and has to clean latrines for six months.  The Times varies its second reference to Powell by sometimes using secretary.  It varies references to other Cabinet officers by alternating Mr. or Ms. with secretary.]  

Since Powell is the third general to become secretary of state since World War II, this has come up before. Retired Gen. Alexander Haig, briefly secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, modestly went with "Mr." (Although less modestly, he declared he was "in control" of the government when Reagan was shot and Vice President George H.W. Bush was not in Washington, adding mistakenly that he came after Bush in presidential succession.) Gen. George C. Marshall, World War II Army chief of staff, served as Harry Truman's secretary of state. He preferred to be called "General." Although he had resigned from active duty when he became secretary of state and later secretary of defense, he was never officially retired from the military. That's because he was a five-star general (there are none today), and a five-star never officially retires. (Explainer does not know if they just fade away.)

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Explainer thanks Kathy Park of the New York Times, Larry Bland of the George C. Marshall Foundation, and reader Anil Kalhan for suggesting the question. For why Powell's predecessor got called "Dr. Albright" by the Times, see this Explainer.