That titles are important is illustrated by the month-long congressional debate that took place in April 1789. At issue was what to call the first president of the new nation. Historian David Currie described how the Senate, always the more la-di-da half of Congress, proposed, “His Highness, the President of the United States of America, and Protector of their Liberties.” The House refused, and it was pointed out that this form of address was likely unconstitutional, as Article 2, Section 1 designates, “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.”
George Washington had an exquisite understanding of the power of symbols, so when (not-His Highness) President Washington retired from public life, he chose to cease being called “president” and revert to his previous military title of “general.” And when Harry Truman left office to return to Independence, Mo., his neighbors appreciated, David McCullough writes in Truman, “the way ‘Mr. Truman’ conducted himself, as a fellow citizen.”
Just think, a president returning to the life of a private citizen sans imperial retinue—how quaint. Robert Hickey, deputy director of the Protocol School of Washington and author of Honor & Respect: The Official Guide to Names, Titles, and Forms of Address writes that the rules of the road vary for former officials. Hickey says that for those who held offices filled by only one person at a time—such as president, vice president, secretary of state, and even governor or mayor—it is confusing to the public, and disrespectful to the current office holder, to hang onto the title. People with titles held concurrently by many, such as senators or judges, are not violating tradition by keeping their honorifics.
There’s an exception for members of the House: Despite hearing Ron Paul endlessly called “congressman,” there is no such official title. Members of the House of Representatives are supposed to be referred to by their social title (that is Mr. or Ms., or Dr., Mrs., or Miss as preferred). But when everyone around you has a fancy title, lacking one grates. So the State Department's Office of Protocol notes, with some resignation: “The titles ‘congressman’ and ‘congresswoman’ are becoming more common in social usage, but are not, strictly speaking, correct forms of address.”
Retaining an aura of power has obvious benefits—including being able to trade on that power. Hickey says the military is particularly sensitive to title abuse in the business world. He explains that after 20 years of service a retired officer is entitled to use his or her former rank socially, but they are not supposed to use that title in business if it can be misconstrued. A former colonel can call himself that on his daughter’s wedding invitation, for instance, but if he’s employed by Boeing, he’s supposed to be Mr. when he’s on the job. Although, Hickey adds, “Around Washington it’s very typical for defense contractors to encourage employees to use their rank.”
Hickey says the best rule for any ex-official is, “Who are you at this moment?” If you’re a former senator who’s now a lobbyist on K Street, you should work your contacts as a private citizen, not as “senator.” (As for the use of “the Honorable,” Letitia Baldrige says it is properly affixed for life to those who have served high office at the federal, state, or local level. But the important nuance is that “the Honorable” is a way for others to describe the former official—in an introduction or on a place card, say. It’s not how exes should style themselves.)
In her book on American manners and their origin, Star Spangled Manners, Judith Martin writes that despite Americans’ reputation as being brash and uncouth, “we have had an enormous and beneficial influence on the way people everywhere behave.” Among our good work is modernizing the way people are addressed, “so as to minimize the differences between the weak and the powerful.” We diminish that accomplishment if we treat the once-powerful as if they have ascended to a peerage.
As an exemplar of American unpretentiousness, look to John Quincy Adams. During his remarkable and distinguished career he was our ambassador to the Netherlands, Prussia, Russia, and the United Kingdom. He was a senator, secretary of state, and president. After he finished his presidency, he was elected to the House of Representatives, where he vigorously opposed slavery. Joseph Wheelan, author of Mr. Adams's Last Crusade, about Adams’ last 17 years in the House—he died in the Capitol— says that during that entire time this man of many titles was known simply as “Mr. Adams.”*
Correction, March 20, 2012: This article originally misspelled Joseph Wheelan's last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)