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.

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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.


  1. G.A.Phillips says:

    How about, semi Golden parachute recipients for life?

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Here in Illinois the honorific we’ve started using for former high-ranking officials is “Prisoner”.

  3. Boyd says:

    I recently heard a reference to “former President Reagan” on the radio, and I recall thinking, “shouldn’t that be ‘the late President Reagan?'”

    Which really isn’t your point, but I’m upholding the time-honored Intarwebs standard of comments barely related to the original post.

  4. JKB says:

    I was always struck by the odd fact that the high officials who by custom should be referred to as “The Honorable…” were generally those we least associate with that trait.

  5. PD Shaw says:

    There was a former office holder in Congress and a high executive position, who was recently asked what title he goes by. I can’t remember his name, but his response was that being elected to the legislature from his home was the highest honor he had ever received.

    Gingrich was honored by the politicians in his party to be Speaker, he was honored by the people to be a Representative.

  6. Bill H says:

    “President-For-Life” Clinton and “Vice-President-For-Life” Cheney, are they? Notwithstanding Barack Obama’s claim that, “This nation only has one President at a time” prior to his inauguration? How very odd. Either Obama was wrong, or you are.

    Hint. It’s you. The title applies to the office and not to the man, and it is not properly applied once the man leaves office. It should be “Former President Clinton” or “Ex-President Clinton.”

  7. James Joyner says:

    The title applies to the office and not to the man, and it is not properly applied once the man leaves office.

    That’s true as a matter of formal entitlement but not of custom and courtesy. Former officials are routinely addressed by their highest previous title both by the media and by just about everyone in day-to-day interaction.

  8. serfer62 says:

    Its like doctors who call you by your first name and yet expect to be called “Doctor”. F%$kem, I use their first name.

    As to that fat pompus ass I think The Lizard should do nicely…just stay out of GOP politics.

  9. Boyd says:

    By that standard, Bill, only military retirees would retain their titles.

    Yes, there are probably others as well, but this illustrates my point.

  10. pylon says:

    Gingrich was honored by the politicians in his party to be Speaker

    Was he honoured to be unceremoniously ejected from that position?