Barack Hussein Obama and the history of bad middle names in politics.

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Dec. 27 2006 1:00 PM

Malice in the Middle

Barack Hussein Obama and the history of bad middle names in politics.

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Just days after Barack Obama mused about running for president, Republican strategist Ed Rogers winged the senator on Hardball. "Count me down as somebody who underestimates Barack Hussein Obama," sneered Rogers, carefully enunciating Obama's middle name—a family moniker passed down from his Kenyan father and grandfather.

Obama's camp, which had not hidden their man's middle name or bragged about it, cried foul. "It wasn't a slip of the tongue, I know that," Obama's communications director, Robert Gibbs, told Maureen Dowd. "You can't solve Iraq with a campaign about people's middle names."

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But you can't solve Iraq if your unfortunate middle name blocks your path to the White House, either. Obama's name tests the limits of American nomenclatural tolerance. Just say his full name to yourself. "Barack" is unfamiliar but innocuous. "Hussein" is the name of a loathed dictator and enemy. And Obama sounds eerily like the world's most wanted terrorist. (Right-wing Web site Freerepublic.com has featured a photoshopped image of "Senator Osama Obama," and Rush Limbaugh has called him "Obama Osama.")

The research of Grant W. Smith, a professor of English at Eastern Washington University, who has studied how voters react to the sounds of candidates' names, suggests that Obama's name could hurt him with undecided voters, who, since they sometimes cast ballots on the basis of vague sentiments, may be influenced by a candidate's unusual moniker. Surnames have a far greater impact than middle names, said Smith, who thinks voters will actually groove to the rhythm of Obama—though, he notes, it "would be better to have the accent on the first syllable"—O-bama (Apparently, names that echo the soothing cadence of nursery rhymes appeal to voters). Smith acknowledges, however, that Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden stir "very powerful associations" in the minds of Americans.

Obama's "Hussein" highlights the surprising, if very occasional, utility of middle names in politics, particularly in attack politics. Middle names can be particularly helpful in undermining a candidate's manufactured image. Consider Jim Webb's effective middle-assault on incumbent George Allen in the Virginia Senate race. To fend off charges that Webb applauded flag burning, a Webb aide repeatedly derided "George Felix Allen Jr." for choosing to "cut and run" rather than serve in the military during Vietnam, as Webb did. (Allen shares a first name and last name with his father but technically is not a junior.)

This was a brilliant swipe, since "Felix" conjures up not the image of a football-tossing, Confederate-flag-waving good ol' boy, as Allen portrayed himself, but of Felix Unger, the kvetching, overfastidious bachelor of TV's The Odd Couple.

Undoubtedly, Allen's macaca gaffe turned off many more voters than his prissy middle name. But the Webb campaign's constant references to "Felix" might have contributed to a public perception that Allen's macho pose was no more than skin-deep.

Bill Clinton's political team did something similar to President George H.W. Bush in the 1992 presidential campaign. Some Democrats routinely referred to the incumbent as "George Herbert Walker Bush," which recalled an ascot-wearing British aristocrat, the type of fellow who seems surprised by the invention of the supermarket checkout scanner and who asks his waitress for a "splash" of coffee. It might have been one middle name too many for recession-battered American voters. "That administration was not connecting to the American people and its economic woes, maybe it had some added impact," said Clinton '92 campaign chairman Mickey Kantor.

The middle name has a distinguished history in presidential politics. Middle names—often the maternal maiden name—came into fashion in the United States in the middle of 19th century. Only three of our first 17 presidents carried middle names: John Quincy Adams , William Henry Harrison, and James Knox Polk. Most modern presidents sported middle names or initials. Today, "a name without a middle name or middle initial sounds unfinished or unsubstantial, unpresidential," said Anne Bernays, co-author with Justin Kaplan of The Language of Names: What We Call Ourselves and Why It Matters.

Many presidents have exploited middle names—and even more so, middle initials—to good effect. John F. Kennedy was fond of his Fitzgerald, which came with a distinguished political heritage. (John Forbes Kerry also held Kennedy's middle name in high regard. The future presidential candidate marketed himself as John F. Kerry during his 1972 congressional race, but after losing "the striving hero worshiper dropped his middle initial and his pretensions to the J.F.K. narrative," wrote the Washington Post.)

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