Newt Gingrich can be called many things: garrulous, grandiose, philandering. But one thing he should not be called is “Mr. Speaker.” Gingrich ceased to be entitled to that title when he left the House on Jan. 3, 1999. But you would never know it from the obsequious way journalists have addressed him during the campaign, where “Mr. Speaker” and “Speaker Gingrich” have become standard. It’s as if he is Downton Abbey’s Earl of Grantham, his honorific adhering to him for life.
Gingrich is not the only figure in American politics who’s attached to a job title he no longer has. Every ex-Cabinet official seems to think he or she is a permanent secretary. John Nance Garner, who served as a vice president of Franklin Roosevelt, famously declared that the office “wasn’t worth a pitcher of warm piss.” But oh, how former vice presidents hold onto that piss pitcher now. When Al Gore or Dick Cheney shows up to be interviewed, it’s all “Mr. Vice President.” And, of course, we have a gaggle of former presidents running around who are loath to abandon being called “Mr. President.” As the indispensible Judith Martin slyly notes of the recent president-for-life trend, “Miss Manners would have thought that having reached that position would surely have cured anyone of status anxiety.”
Such title inflation is not only pretentious and incorrect, it’s un-American. Our forefathers so disliked the notion of an aristocracy that they forbade it in the Constitution. Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8 begins: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.” It’s a little noticed proscription these days, but at the time it represented a profound break with the ways of the old world. As Alexander Hamilton wrote, “Nothing need be said to illustrate the importance of the prohibition of titles of nobility. This may truly be denominated the corner stone of republican government; for so long as they are excluded, there can never be serious danger that the government will be any other than that of the people.”
Jay Wexler, professor at Boston University School of Law and author of The Odd Clauses, about the lesser-known provisions of the Constitution, says the increasing practice of title-keeping—while not strictly unconstitutional—is unseemly: “It does by analogy speak to the issue of creating a small but nonetheless permanent class of citizen who get titles forever and can be distinguished from everyone else. So it’s inconsistent with the spirit of the clause.”
But is there really any harm in humoring the pompous ex-official who enjoys that toasty feeling that being called “speaker” or “secretary” or “president” brings? I think so. Those who hold the highest offices in the land deserve a bit of deference. The problem arises when the people who hold those offices start to take the deference personally. To ease the shock of losing power, the former official, like a kindergartener taking a teddy bear to school, may prefer to cling to an old honorific. But our country was founded on the notion that certain people don’t get to lord it over the rest of us just because of the title they carry.
It is rare to see politicians correct someone for over-inflating their title. Admonishing people who don’t give them their due is another matter. A good example of the latter came when Sen. Barbara Boxer verbally boxed the ears of a brigadier general testifying before her who, in proper military fashion when speaking to a high-ranking woman, called her “ma’am.” Boxer’s response: “You know, do me a favor. Could you say ‘senator’ instead of ‘ma’am’? It’s just a thing. I worked so hard to get that title, so I’d appreciate it,” In her last re-election campaign that moment was used against her as an illustration of her arrogance.
But former officials who don’t set straight those who incorrectly call them by their old titles should come in for criticism as well. Even if Gingrich doesn’t twist journalists’ arms until they call him “Mr. Speaker,” he clearly basks in the undeserved esteem the title brings. (If you believe that, in declining to point out that he should be called “Mr. Gingrich,” the candidate’s real goal is to save others awkwardness and embarrassment, then you don’t know Newt Gingrich.) The websites of the presidential libraries are also lousy with references to President Carter and President Clinton. And if they didn’t want to be called “secretary” in their joint appearance at the World Affairs Council of Dallas/Ft. Worth, surely James Baker or Condoleezza Rice would have made that clear before they were introduced.
And what of the reporters who slather on the titles? Journalists could argue they use appellations as sign of respect, but I think it’s a feint—a touch of obsequiousness before sticking in the shiv. So, as CNN’s John King’s did, you preface your question to Gingrich about whether he suggested to his second wife that they have an open marriage by calling him Mr. Speaker. But the press should get things right, and not implicitly misinstruct the public.