As the Republic sails merrily along in this presidential campaign, I’ve been thinking about presidents past, and the contributions and liabilities they’ve left us with.
It’s a good thing that Richard Nixon wasn’t our first president. Lord knows how we’d be addressing him. In 1970, Nixon, who was preparing for a visit from British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, was concerned that the White House guards looked “slovenly,” in his words. He’d seen the trappings worn by palace guards in Europe and been impressed. He decided to try his own hand at uniform design.
He signed off on double-breasted white tunics with starred epaulets, gold piping, draped braid, and high black plastic hats decorated with a large White House crest. The result was roundly ridiculed. “They look like old-time movie ushers,” said the Buffalo News. “The Student Prince” said the Chicago Daily News. They disappeared by the mid 70’s.
Gaudy honorifics have been around as long as people have selected other people to lead and guide them, and they are fair game for satire. Author Hesh Kestin, describes the business card appellations of a fictional African potentate:
Mr. Ex-Minister The Honorable Antoine St. Nicholas Msanjende Brocade, Deputy Chief, Nzdwa Sub-Tribe (North), former Cabinet Member [Minister of Mining, Civil Engineering and Potable Water], Bachelor of Science, St. Olaf’s College, Northfield, Minnesota, USA,…
It goes on and on, mentioning Mercedes Benz ownership, National Geographic Society membership, Hotmail accessibility – you get the idea. Putting pomposity in its place is honored in American letters in spoofs such as Kestin’s – and Mark Twain’s before him.
Jim Thorpe – the great Native American athlete, tore up the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm by winning both the decathalon and pentathalon. As King Gustav V of Sweden placed the gold medals around his neck, he told him, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.”
To which Jim modestly replied, “Thanks, King!”
Given Richard Nixon’s mindset, had he been sworn in as our first president, he could have had his say in a lot of things we might be stuck with today. The story goes that in 1789, George Washington was in the middle of a discussion on how the new president should be addressed. Our early leaders were familiar with the monarchies of Europe and titles like “Your Excellency” or “Your Majesty” would have been considered. Washington supposedly quashed all that talk and told those assembled, “How about ‘Mr. President?’” It stuck, thank heavens.