Boxer to General: It’s “Senator” Not “Ma’am”

Senator Barbara Boxer upbraids a polite general for addressing her as “Ma’am.”

“Do me a favor,” she said. “Could say senator instead of Ma’am It’s just a thing, I worked so hard to get that title, so I’d appreciate it, thank you.”

It may be a pet peeve of hers but a rather unclassy exchange.  Subordinates tend to address generals as “general” but none that I’ve ever encountered would be offended, let alone correct someone so rudely, for calling them “sir” or “ma’am.”   Indeed, a longstanding joke in military circles is for an instructor to tell his class, “You can call me Captain Smith, or you can call me by my nickname, ‘Sir.'”

I’m guessing BG Walsh had a different nickname in mind for Boxer after this exchange.

UPDATE: Craig Henry makes the obvious-in-hindsight comparison:  “Barbara Boxer is Eric Cartman.”

FILED UNDER: Congress, Military Affairs,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Richard says:

    The general should have promptly snapped back with, “Yes Senator, and I’d appreciate it if you called me General, since I also worked so hard to get that title.”

    And yes, Boxer’s response was indeed classless and tacky.

  2. William d'Inger says:

    There is insufficient information here to draw a conclusion. It seems to me a general would (or at least should) know the proper form of address. If, for instance, he addressed others as “senator” and her as “ma’am”, then it would be an obvious form of disrespect. I’m not saying that was his intent. All I’m saying is there isn’t enough data to draw a conclusion, so I’ll side with Sen. Boxer for enforcing proper language protocol.

  3. Idiot says:

    Did you honestly expect more from Senator Boxer?

  4. James Joyner says:

    If, for instance, he addressed others as “senator” and her as “ma’am”, then it would be an obvious form of disrespect.

    I’m reliably informed that he addressed male senators as “sir” and was not chastised by any of them.

  5. JKB says:

    Very tacky and foolish since persistent use of rank and not saying “sir” or “ma’am” is often used to show disdain for the person while satisfying protocol for the position. It has often seemed that way when I’ve seen Congressional testimony as well, where “Yes, Senator, No, Senator” often seemed to carry an under the breath insult.

    I guess all that previous testimony playing on the Senate’s innate narcissism has them trained?

  6. Eric Florack says:

    Look, the military has never been popular with the left anyway, so it it wasn’t a lack of the exact stroking her ego thinks her ‘position’ requires, to get her to be tacky AND clueless, it would have been some other nit she’d pick.

  7. “There is insufficient information here to draw a conclusion. It seems to me a general would (or at least should) know the proper form of address.”

    I completely disagree. In military circles, Sir or Ma’am is a proper form of address – even for the President. Calling a senior officer, or politician, by rank is also proper. One might be “more” proper than the other, but I’ve never in my life seen a military officer quibble about this, and I’ve spent a lot of time working with military people.

    Also, a Senator is technically outside the military chain of command, and a civilian. Protocol is one thing, but there is no requirement in this country to address civilians by title. It’s custom, not a requirement.

    While Senator Boxer may be right that it’s a custom, and I have no doubt she worked hard for it (for a given definition of “worked hard”), I happen to agree with the “different nickname” that James is insinuating here. This was plain rude, and it was an attempt to “put the general in his place.” A clumsy one, at that.

  8. William d'Inger says:

    Well we can be thankful it was only a general, and we can get on with our daily lives. Had it been, say, Rush Limbaugh, it would be the top of the news for three weeks or more.

  9. William d'Inger says:

    Maybe it’s a matter of milieu or changing times. My experience is in the Navy of the 1960s. Back then, if I used “sir” or “ma’am” to a commanding officer or flag officer instead of “captain” or “admiral”, my butt would have been in a crack so deep I wouldn’t have seen daylight for two weeks. It is my overall experience that society has grown less and less formal with time, so I guess I should expect such a negative reaction from the younger generation.

  10. James Joyner says:

    My experience is in the Navy of the 1960s. Back then, if I used “sir” or “ma’am” to a commanding officer or flag officer instead of “captain” or “admiral”, my butt would have been in a crack so deep I wouldn’t have seen daylight for two weeks.

    That was back in the day when subordinates, especially enlisted men, referred to senior officers in a weird third person. “Would the admiral like some more tea?”

  11. Boyd says:

    In military circles, Sir or Ma’am is a proper form of address…

    Well, not exactly. At least, not completely.

    I was lectured very early in my Navy career that Commanders (O-5) and above are addressed by their rank, not “Sir.” Not that it was 100% forbidden or anything, but rely on it too much and you’ll get much the same response as Senator Boxer gave.

    That being said, had I been in the General’s place cited here, I probably would have been much less tactful than he was.

    But then again, I’m a Chief, and he’s a General.

  12. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Boxer certainly has worked hard to gain the title Senator, however another title comes to mind. A name she richly deserves in my estimation. She earned the title easily and long ago. Starts with a B. and ends with a H. I’ll bet money the General thinks so.

  13. Ed says:

    My experience from the Army of the 80’s was that we used Sir for those officer’s we respected, while we used the rank (at least with lower ranking with officers) for those with whom we didn’t have a high opinion. Military protocol says you have to respect the rank if not the man.

  14. markm says:

    In military circles, Sir or Ma’am is a proper form of address…

    Well, not exactly. At least, not completely.

    I work for a military contractor so I talk to military personnel frequently. I don’t know what the rules are….but I don’t think i’ve come across a military type yet that doesn’t at least call civilians “sir” or “ma’am” regardless of rank.

  15. Benedict says:

    Boxer isn’t worthy to clean the stains from a serviceman’s shorts. It is an indictment of our political system that she is accorded any respect whatsoever.

  16. William d'Inger says:

    That was back in the day when subordinates, especially enlisted men, referred to senior officers in a weird third person. “Would the admiral like some more tea?”

    Yeah, I’m showing my age. I enlisted during the Eisenhower administration when most people thought Nixon would be the next president. Different times for sure. Why, if I remember correctly, JFK actually wore a top hat to his inauguration. Boxer doesn’t seem a bit out of line to an old fogey like myself, so you can imagine how out of date I am when I post on 4Chan.

  17. Drew says:

    At the Starbucks I go to there is a twenty something hottie who always calls me “hon.”

    And I don’t mind it. Wait……..maybe this is some different dynamic than James is discussing……

    nyuk, nyuk, nyuk

  18. James Joyner says:

    Why, if I remember correctly, JFK actually wore a top hat to his inauguration.

    Before my time but my understanding is that he was the first in ages NOT to wear a hat, thus instantly killing hats.

  19. anjin-san says:

    I’ve known Boxer since before she entered politics and I am not a fan. However, she is not out of line here.

  20. William d'Inger says:

    Before my time but my understanding is that he was the first in ages NOT to wear a hat, thus instantly killing hats.

    I’m pretty sure he wore a top hat to his inauguration but was not wearing it during the ceremony. But we’re getting way off topic here, and I apologize for the diversion.

  21. wayne says:

    what did Ms Boxer do to “earn” her title? She spent a lot of other peoples’ money and won a popularity contest.

    The general on the other hand was promoted based upon performance. (for the most part)

  22. floyd says:

    It is obvious that Boxer has done nothing to earn the title “Ma’am”.

    So… just how should one address one’s servants?

  23. An Interested Party says:

    Look, the military has never been popular with the left anyway, so it it wasn’t a lack of the exact stroking her ego thinks her ‘position’ requires, to get her to be tacky AND clueless, it would have been some other nit she’d pick.

    This is so pathetically typical…since Boxer did this, it just has to be an indictment of the whole “left”…

  24. anjin-san says:

    This is so pathetically typical…since Boxer did this, it just has to be an indictment of the whole “left”…

    Without stereotypes, bits view of the world would simply cease to exist…

  25. another matt says:

    I guess I would have to hear the inflection in her voice when she said it. Just reading it, her words seem fairly polite, and I could interpret it as basically admitting that you have a silly pet peeve and asking someone to go along with it.

  26. James Joyner says:

    I guess I would have to hear the inflection in her voice when she said it.

    The video is linked directly above the text. It struck me as pretty snippy.

  27. G.A.Phillips says:

    What country does she think she lives in?
    Ill call her a public servant without the public….. ******* **** ****!!!!!!!!

  28. The Strategic MC says:

    This week, I have briefed a 2-star Admiral and at least 6 Navy Captains. I used both “Sir and “Captain”/”Admiral” interchangeably without any hint of having been disrespectful.

    Sorry, but while Colonel Jessop, er, Senator Boxer is, in fact, entitled to be addressed as Senator, no disrespect was given or intended by the General. She was being deliberately petty and hers was an act of forced subordination.

    No way that any of those down-pressin’ military types are going to patronize Senator Barbara Boxer and get away with it. She earned it, dammit!

  29. “Do me a favor,” she said. “Could say senator instead of Ma’am It’s just a thing, I worked so hard to get that title, so I’d appreciate it, thank you.”

    I’m certain the General would have addressed Senator Boxer in whatever manner she requested now or in the future, had she asked him respectfully in private. He will undoubtedly do so now as well. Making her request so publicly in this manner was political theater, nothing more and nothing less. You can decide who the intended audience was.

    Oh, and as for working hard, so what? I remember one of my early performance reviews where I mentioned working hard and my supervisor said rather blankly that was nice, but that wasn’t what I would be graded or paid for. I would be judged and paid based upon the results I achieved, nothing more and nothing less. Or to draw another analogy, if they would have allowed me to do so, I would have worked as hard as any major league baseball player for a spot on a roster. Heck, I’d have even given the proverbial left testicle for the privilege. But the fact of the matter is, no matter how hard I worked for it, it wouldn’t have mattered. I was never going to be a professional baseball player.

    I respect Senator Boxer’s office. Barbara Boxer, not so much.

  30. floyd says:

    Aip;
    It’s not stereotyping, it’s simply the recognition of the obvious political automatism on the part of the left.
    There is,after all,a difference between being an automaton and being autonomous, just as there is a difference between being a liberal and supporting liberty.
    You are right, though, Boxer’s behavior was “pathetically typical”.

  31. DavidL says:

    As the general was using the term ma’am, it was totally a term of respect, and given Senator Boxer’s attitude, it not a term to which she is entitled.

  32. anjin-san says:

    Was the General referring to the men on the committee as Senator, or sir?

  33. The Strategic MC says:

    “Was the General referring to the men on the committee as Senator, or sir?”

    Partial transcript has the General addressing a male Senator as “sir.”

  34. anjin-san says:

    Look, the military has never been popular with the left anyway

    Yea bit, and no one has noticed your attacks on serving members of the military and vets when you don’t approve of their politics or sexual orientation…

  35. Franklin says:

    Boxer certainly has worked hard to gain the title Senator, however another title comes to mind. A name she richly deserves in my estimation. She earned the title easily and long ago. Starts with a B. and ends with a H. I’ll bet money the General thinks so.

    Yes, all high-achieving women are bitches. We get it, Zelsdorf – she should be back in the kitchen.

    Look, she was being a bit obnoxious whether she was a man or woman. There’s no need to call people names.

  36. Maggie Mama says:

    Interesting that how she was addressed was more important to Boxer than the information she was receiving.

    If I were the General, I would, in the future, refrain from calling anyone Senator, or sir, or ma’am. The worthless should all remain “title-less.”

  37. Eric Florack says:

    Without stereotypes, bits view of the world would simply cease to exist…

    heh. So, you’re not trying to stereotype ME?

    Look, guys, the bottom line here such stereotypes exist because they are so often and so blatantly true… as in this case. I dind’t create the stereotype. I merely observe it. If you can’t handle that, maybe a word or two with Boxer to get her to stop being such a stereotypical bitch would be in order?

  38. […] saw the bit with  Babs “da Bitch” Boxer… And I use her title since she worked so hard to get it.  I figure the military has never been popular with the left anyway, so it it wasn’t a lack of […]

  39. Shubham says:

    The sad part is, she will still win election next time. Who actually votes for her or Pelosi?

    What an arrogant personality.

  40. An Interested Party says:

    re: floyd June 18, 2009 20:27

    So you’ve joined Eric’s stereotyping party, eh? That will give you less integrity to whine about the practice when it is aimed at groups you are more favorable towards…also, nice try at twisting why I typed, but Eric’s (and now your) stereotyping is what is pathetically typical…

    Look, guys, the bottom line here such stereotypes exist because they are so often and so blatantly true… as in this case. I dind’t create the stereotype. I merely observe it.

    Let us all remember this statement the next time anyone decides to unfairly paint all conservatives as narrow-minded neanderthals who are scared of every dark-skinned person who crosses their path and says, “Boo!”…