The names people play, in politics and in life

Barack was Barry, Fred was Freddie, John was Johnny, and Hillary is now just Hillary. In both life and politics, the monikers we choose can be revealing.
Crosscut archive image.
Barack was Barry, Fred was Freddie, John was Johnny, and Hillary is now just Hillary. In both life and politics, the monikers we choose can be revealing.

One of the latest themes of the presidential race is how Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are borrowing something from the other: Clinton is seeking to emphasize her warmth and accessibility, while Obama is trying to add wonky cred with more policy pronouncements. This follows the dynamic of all campaigns -- candidates pushing a personal narrative. And though some regard politicians as a different species, it's really a public display of the effort we all make in our lives. One window into this effort is simply the names we want to be called. Robert goes by Bob or Rob, Bobby, Robbie or Robert. Jennifer goes by Jen or the formal version. I was born as Owen Casey Corr but since birth everyone called me Casey. If I get a call for "Owen," it's a telemarketer. I dread those moments when I confront forms that only call for my first and last names, with no place for preferred name. When I sit in the doctor's waiting area, the nurse calls for Owen and it stays that way till I make a clarification. In politics, the choices can be closely scrutinized, as Hillary Clinton knows well. On a recent Fox News telecast, one conservative commentator made much of the fact that during the years of her marriage to Bill Clinton, she has kept, dropped and added back her maiden name Rodham. Amazingly, there's polling on whether voters prefer Hillary Clinton or Hillary Rodham Clinton. In press releases, her campaign just calls her Hillary. Having myself lived with a few clumsy moments over my name, I pay close attention to which names politicians prefer, especially if there's a change. Hillary's done that, of course. But so did Bill, who was born William Jefferson Blythe III but changed his name at age 14 to take the name of his stepfather. In Washington State politics, Dino Rossi stuck with his birth name; he jokes that it sounds like a brand of wine. Our governor in person has long gone with Chris, but for a time in public office she was called Christine; now it's just Chris in press releases but Christine in executive orders. Our mayor never once called himself Gregory J. Nickels; he's just Greg. But if you call his office after hours, the voice mail gives you the full monty. That's not unusual. On paperwork, Dan Evans was Daniel J. Evans on paper and Norm Rice was Norman B. Rice. Others never escaped their nicknames. Two of our state's greatest politicians, Henry Jackson and Warren Magnuson, in person answered to Scoop and Maggie, respectively. Among our presidential candidates, the name most infused with meaning involves Barack Hussein Obama. Supporters think that utterances of his formal name are a sly way to link him to terrorism. Yes, it's sleazy, but someone thinks it's effective. More interesting is the fact that Obama spent his formative years as Barry Obama, called that by friends and family. For him, the shift to Barack coincided with a personal journey of self discovery, though some old friends persist in the old usage. Was there ever a moment when he tried to tell them, please, I'm not Barry anymore? For some, birth names are best forgotten or altered, as newborns dubbed Johnny Edwards, Freddie Thompson or Willard Mitt Romney might later say. I'm sympathetic. In 3rd grade, a friend discovered my first name and threatened to tell the schoolyard. I couldn't bear the thought of all that laughter. The cool guys were named Mike, Jim or John. Casey was bad enough. But Owen was just weird. I gave him my bag of potato chips and he kept his mouth shut.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.