For a country formed as a rejection of monarchy and supposedly with an aversion to titles, Americans are far more title-obsessed than Australians. We know our former prime ministers as Mr Hawke, Mr Howard, Mr Rudd, Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott. In the US they ponce around as President Jimmy Carter, President George HW Bush, President Bill Clinton, President George W Bush and President Obama. That’s so inappropriate – there is only one President of the United States and that happens to be Donald Trump.
That disgraced Senate candidate and sore loser Roy Moore calls himself Judge Roy Moore even though his term on the Alabama Supreme Court ended in April 2017.
And we have various former Secretaries of departments and ambassadors continuing to style themselves as ‘Secretary X’ or ‘Ambassador Y’. So tacky – if you need to parade your former status you have none and certainly no class.
This seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon, at least since Harry Truman retired and was referred as Mr Truman. He, by the way, showed great integrity out of office never once using his former office for personal gain. Historian David McCullough recorded
he [Truman] had no income or support of any kind from the federal government other than his Army pension of $112.56 a month. He was provided with no government funds for secretarial help or office space, not a penny of expense money.
Truman himself wrote
I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency.
Not so many of his successors, especially Bill Clinton.
When John Adams and Thomas Jefferson wrote to each other in retirement, it was simply as “Mr Jefferson” and “Mr Adams”.
One of the founding fathers, Thomas Paine, wrote
Dignities and high sounding names have different effects on different beholders. The lustre of the Star and the title of My Lord, over-awe the superstitious vulgar, and forbid them to inquire into the character of the possessor: Nay more, they are, as it were, bewitched to admire in the great, the vices they would honestly condemn in themselves. This sacrifice of common sense is the certain badge which distinguishes slavery from freedom; for when men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon
Benjamin Franklin wrote on titles that they were
groundless and absurd, but often hurtful to that Posterity, since it is apt to make them proud, disdaining to be employ’d in useful Arts, and thence falling into Poverty, and all the Meannesses, Servility, and Wretchedness attending it; which is the present case with much of what is called the Noblesse in Europe.
During its first session, the US Senate discussed the manner in which first President George Washington should be addressed. One suggestion was His Highness, the President of the United States, and Protector of their Liberties. Others favoured His Elective Majesty or His Excellency.
James Maddison strongly argued against such titles, with Washington himself insisting on the simple Mr President while in office and Mr Washington when retired.
A love of titles is a sign of decline. If Trump genuinely wants America to be great again, he needs to push for a return to earlier values of dignity, stoicism and modesty.
PS: there are some Australians, such as that disgraced former DFAT official, Richard Butler, who have a love of titles Ambassador Butler is his preferred form of address even though Butler hasn’t been an ambassador since the 1980s. Butler embarrassed the Tasmanian Government so much with his drunken antics and shenanigans as Governor of Tasmania that he was sacked. On one occasion he insisted on being upgraded on a Singapore Air flight where he had purchased an economy class ticket for himself and his wife with that pathetic statement
don’t you know who I am?
Don’t get me onto people who like styling themselves as ‘former diplomat’ or ‘career diplomat’. No, no, a thousand times no. They are former public servants or current public servants. One is only a diplomat when actually on a posting, and all Australians – Joe Hockey and other former politicians included – employed at our missions overseas are employed under the Public Service Act 1999. They are thus public servants.
The use of titles is a form of logical fallacy – argumentum ad verecundiam.