There was something particularly annoying – even harmful to society – during the health-care summit held last week between President Obama and leading members of the House and Senate.
It was the president’s calling all the congressmen and senators by their first names.
It is easy to appreciate just how demeaning this was of each House member and senator: Just imagine if any of them had called President Obama “Barack.”
However negative any conservatives deem this presidency, we would consider it scandalous if anyone publicly referred to this or any president by his first name. For America’s sake, I do not want the office of president or the president himself demeaned.
Likewise, for America’s sake, I do not want the office of representative or senator demeaned.
Yet that is exactly what Obama did. At perhaps one of the most widely watched dialogue between members of the United States Congress and a president in American history, Obama lowered the dignity of the men and women who serve in those capacities.
That this has largely gone unnoted – and, I presume, will be widely dismissed as trivial – is more a statement about the culture of our times than it is of the unwillingness of mainstream media to criticize this president.
Other presidents and members of Congress have on occasion publicly referred to members of Congress by their first names (though this, too, is relatively new and wrong), but rarely if ever in as formal, let alone prolonged and public, a setting as the health-care summit.
Why did the president do this? Why did he choose to call the most prominent members of House of Representatives and Senate – and a member of his Cabinet – by their first names while he was only referred to as “Mr. President”?
One reason was to place himself on a higher and qualitatively different plane than everyone else at the summit. It was effectively the president of the United States and the boys (and girls) showing him deference. Anyone who disputes this needs to explain why the president did not ask to be called “Barack” and why no one called by his or her first name did the same to the president.
A second reason, that only theoretically conflicts with the first, is that this president is a man of the left to the depth of his soul, and therefore has egalitarian instincts. Consequently, he likely thinks that there is something not quite right in sustaining class-based titles by referring to people by their honorific; and conversely, there is something charming in publicly calling senators, representatives and members of his Cabinet by their first names.
A third – related – reason, is the egalitarian spirit that has pervaded American society since the 1960s and ’70s. Obvious examples include students calling teachers by their first name, young people calling adults by their first name, congregants calling their clergymen by their first name and the like. In almost every case, there has been a loss of prestige to the person and to the profession (yes, adulthood is a profession) and a corresponding loss to society.
In 28 years of radio, I have never called an interviewee who had a title by his or her first name. A psychiatrist who teaches at the UCLA School of Medicine has been on my show a number of times. Though he has been one of my closest friends for over 20 years, I have always addressed him as “Dr. Marmer” on the radio, never “Steve.” Likewise all the rabbis, priests and ministers with whom I am friends are all “Rabbi,” “Father” and “Pastor” when I address them in public.
Some will argue that this was precisely what Sen. Barbara Boxer was saying when she said to Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh, who was testifying before a Senate committee, “Could you say ‘senator’ instead of ‘ma’am’?” And therefore, anyone who ridiculed her for that comment cannot now complain that President Obama did not call senators and congressmen by their titles.
But the argument has no merit. Walsh never called Boxer “Barbara.” If he had, it would have been scandalous. He called her “ma’am,” which, along with addressing a man as “sir,” is how the military (and many others) show people respect.
The issue, in any event, is publicly addressing people with titles by their first name – especially when the one doing it must be addressed by his title. Even if President Obama had used “Mr.,” “Ms.” or “Mrs.,” it would have been acceptable.
Perhaps the president thought that Americans would appreciate that he is so friendly with all these congressmen and senators – even Republicans – that he calls them all by their first names. If so, he seriously miscalculated. If he did not object to “Mr. President,” he had no right to drop “senator” and “congressman.”
But, as noted, Mr. Obama is a man of the left. And the cultural left does not particularly like “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” “Pastor” or “Rabbi” – or “Senator” or “Congressman.” And if you don’t think this is a right-left distinction, read right and left reactions to this column.