What are we to make of an American president who refers to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, as “Pootie-Poot”? How are we to understand President Bush’s christening of advisor Karl Rove as both “Boy Genius” and “Turd Blossom”?
The President’s penchant for nicknaming both friends and foes recently grabbed headlines in his now infamous remark made to then FEMA Director, Michael Brown, during Hurricane Katrina: “Brownie, you’re doin’ a heck of a job!” But what lies behind the president’s habit of bestowing such monikers as “Stretch” (Dick Keil, Bloomberg News), “Frazier” (Sen. Diane Feinstein), and “Hogan” (Sen. John McCain)?
I believe that the explanation goes deeper than the “frat boy” attitude sometimes attributed to George W. Bush. (An article in Wikipedia opines that Bush may have picked up this habit during his days in “Skull & Bones”, the secret society at Yale that gives every member a nickname). I believe, rather, that to understand the President’s nicknames, we need to dig a bit into the nature of naming and re-naming, as an enduring pattern in human history.
Such naming rituals go back at least as far as the Hebrew Bible or Tanach, usually called The Old Testament. A change in name, in this ancient biblical context, usually signifies a change in spiritual status or moral character. In the Book of Genesis, we find that after Jacob wrestles with an “angel” or divine messenger, his name is changed to Israel—variously translated as “one who struggles with God” or “turns the head of God.” Notably, it is God who changes Jacob’s name, as is the case with Abram (re-named Abraham) and Sarai (re-named Sarah). There is a message in this: changing someone’s name is a sign of dominion over that individual. Our children do not name us (though they may use unkind nicknames behind our backs)—we name them. The knight does not “dub” the King, Sir So-and-So—it is the king’s dominion that allows him to christen the knight.
The rabbis of the Talmudic era were aware that, when mortals misuse such powers, the results can often be destructive. These sages were especially disturbed by the use of derogatory nicknames. The Talmud tells us, “All who descend to Gehenna [Hell] will come [back] up, except three…one who sleeps with a married woman; one who shames his friend in public; and one who calls his friend by a cruel nickname.” [Bava Mezia 58b]. Any child who has come home from school in tears, having been taunted with a nickname like “Fatso” or “Butthead”, understands the destructive power of such nicknames.
But, we may protest: aren’t many of the President’s nicknames merely affectionate short-hand labels, bestowed in the spirit of good-natured joshing?
And haven’t nicknames always been a part of American political culture and campaign rhetoric, at least since the time of “Honest Abe” Lincoln? To be sure, such nicknames have always been a part of American politics. Recently, some have surfaced in the form of so-called portmanteau titles: “Billary”, for Bill and Hillary Clinton; or “Scalito” as a fusion of Scalia and Alito. And yes, such names may start out as humorous or even affectionate monikers—but there is almost always a hint of derision concealed within them. Writing in the New York Times, Damien Cave notes that, “…most political portmanteaus…are intended to insult…” the named person or persons. Cave points out that whereas initially, Bill and Hillary Clinton rather liked the name “Billary”—the implication being, we were getting two fine politicians rolled into one—they eventually came to resent it as derogatory. So, too, with seemingly affectionate nicknames like “Stretch”, “Superstretch”, “Corndog”, and other monikers the President has bestowed on members of the press or Congress. (A comprehensive list prepared by writer Daniel Kurtzman may be found at About.com Political Humor). And we may rightly ask: did the President first seek the permission of these named individuals to be so christened? Or was it, well—an act of dominion? Imagine the stir at a presidential press conference if a reporter objected, “Mr. President, I really wish you wouldn’t refer to me as ‘Stretch’”. Not all recipients of Mr. Bush’s nominal largesse have suffered in silence, of course: witness Maureen Dowd—christened “The Cobra” by President Bush—and her acerbic columns for the New York Times.
How then, should we understand Mr. Bush’s proclivity for nicknaming? I believe the key lies in a scene from the 1962 movie, “Hatari”, directed by Howard Hawks. Basically, the film revolves around John Wayne (Sean Mercer) and his entourage, who trap wild animals in Africa and sell them to zoos. After one of the characters introduces himself with a preposterously long and pompous French name, Wayne looks at him with a mixture of irony and contempt, and says, “ ‘Chips’ will do.” Substitute “W” for the Duke in the role of Sean Mercer, and you will get the picture.
Nicknames serve an important function of “dominion” for all of us, of course: they define and delimit another’s powers and status. Nicknames put people in their place. In the case of Mr. Bush’s Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, this is apparently an exalted place—she has earned the nickname, “Guru.” Others, such as Maureen Dowd, are not so fortunate. Naming of any sort serves an important ritualized function in human culture: it is the first step in gaining control over a potentially dangerous or malevolent entity. A frightening category 4 hurricane is nicknamed, “Katrina”. Osama bin Laden is christened, “The Evil One” by the President of the United States. In a world filled with complex and terrifying forces, it should not surprise us that an anxious American president would look for ways to reduce potential adversaries to manageable sound bites. The danger lies in imagining that this actually reduces the danger—and in supposing that nicknames do no harm.
The writer is a psychiatrist in the Boston area, and the author of “The Ethics of the Sages”, an interfaith commentary on part of the Talmud.