Titles for Former Officials
Josh Marshall has noted something peculiar in the recent media tour of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich:
He seems to insist with members of the press that he still be referred to as “Speaker Gingrich.” And actually his website is speakergingrich.com. Not former Speaker Gingrich, Speaker Gingrich. And it goes beyond him. On Meet the Press this weekend, he repeatedly refers to former intel committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra as “Chairman Hoekstra.”
It’s worth noting that on his “Meet the Press” appearance Sunday, Gingrich qualified his reference thusly: “Chairman Hoekstra, as he was at the time.” Marshall may have seen Gingrich on a different show where he dropped the appositive.
Regardless, I’m not a big fan of these honorifics. They may make sense within the halls of Congress but Congressman or Senator should suffice elsewhere. Speaker of the House, at least, is a Constitutionally proscribed position but committee and subcommittee chairmanships are a creature of the institution. And, indeed, Senators seem more satisfied with their plain title; Harry Reid doesn’t seem to insist on being called Leader Reid.
Tip O’Neill is the only other former Speaker in my recollection that had much of a public life after leaving office. I honestly can’t recall whether he was addressed as Speaker O’Neill afterwards. At any rate, though, perhaps Gingrich is trying to get the same courtesy as we routinely offer executive branch officials, whom we routinely refer to by former titles.
I still refer to Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, neither of whom were among my favorite occupants of the Oval Office, as President Carter and President Clinton and this custom is generally followed in the press as well. While I’m less likely to do that when writing about other lesser former (or, indeed, current) officials, I’ll address retired flag officers, diplomats, and cabinet officers as General or Admiral or Ambassador or Mr. Secretary and, again, this seems to be the custom on TV news shows.