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cschack's avatar

Once a president, always a president?

Asked by cschack (227points) June 6th, 2008

Just a random thought: I’ve noticed that former presidents all seem to be referred to as “mr president” or “president so-and-so” in interviews, even if they’ve been out of office for a long time. Is this the correct way to address them, or is it just an affectation? (And I realize they’re referred to as “former presidents” when being written about.)

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6 Answers

Sueanne_Tremendous's avatar

Protocol: Once a Pres always referred to as a President.

Sueanne_Tremendous's avatar

the same holds true for anyone who held the title “Honorable”. Tidbit here: protocol

Michael's avatar

In general, the highest rank or title a person has achieved in their life sticks with them for the rest of it. Former Senators are still addressed as “Senator So-and-So,” (unless they become President or Vice-President), retired Generals are still addressed with their rank, former Supreme Court Justices like Sandra Day O’Connor are stilled called Justice.

It does get tricky when the same person has held multiple high level positions. For example, Colin Powell was both a five-star general (and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff) and Secretary of State. So, do you refer to him as Mr. Secretary or General Powell. It turns out that, usually, the military rank is used. Another example is Joe Sestak, Congressman from Pennsylvania. Most members of the House are referred to with the title Congressman/woman or Representative. Sestak is a former admiral, so even though he is a sitting Congressman, he is often referred to as Admiral Sestak.

cschack's avatar

Great! Thanks, guys.

ezraglenn's avatar

According to William Faulkner, the same is true of bitches.

[Once a bitch, always a bitch, The Sound and the Fury ]

According to James Joyce, the same is true of priests.

[Once a priest, always a priest, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ]

And of course, according to Jilliam Faulkoyce…

Once a priest, always a bitch, The Sound and the Artist as a Young Man.

JRKaplan's avatar

Strictly speaking, the proper form of personal address to former elective officeholders of any rank is “Mr.” or “Ms.” It is a matter of choice, not courtesy, to call former presidents “Mr. President” or former senators “Senator.” When writing to them, it is absolutely incorrect to address a former president as “Mr. President;” the proper form is “The Honorable,” as it is for almost all elected officials.

The reason you would address General Powell, personally or in writing, as “General Powell” and not as “Mr. Secretary” personally or “The Honorable” in writing, is that military titles are regarded as achieved for life. The abbreviation “Ret.” for “retired” is appended when addressing retired military personnel in writing, but they retain their rank. Elective office is regarded as temporary, as is appointive office (except for the Supreme Court), and the people are regarded as sovereign, and we have no sovereign titles in the United States, nor titles by birth. The theory is that once a military officer is off the active list, and then chooses to seek elective office and wins, his elective office title supersedes his military title for the period of his term. It would have been wrong to call President Eisenhower “General Eisenhower” while he was the president – just as it is wrong to call Congressman Sestak “Vice Admiral Sestak” during his term. Once Eisenhower was no longer president, it was both polite and proper to call him “General Eisenhower” rather than “Mr. Eisenhower.” It also avoids, in theory, possible confusion, as certain military ranks are addressed as “Mr.” rather than by their officer title; e.g., Chief Warrant Officers are called “Mr,.” not “Chief” or the unwieldy “Chief Warrant Officer.” It seems unlikely that anyone who heard Dwight Eisenhower addressed as “Mr. Eisenhower” would mistake him for a Chief Warrant Officer, but it is still another reason to address him as “General Eisenhower” rather than “Mr.” The idea that you should have called him “Mr. President” after his term ended because the title outranks General is mistaken; by protocol, the title of “Mr. President” belongs only to the man or woman holding the office. Once Congressman Sestak leaves office, it would be proper to refer to him as “Vice Admiral Sestak,” personally and in writing. Would it be wrong to address him as “Mr. Sestak” in person, and as “The Honorable Joseph Sestak” in writing? Not really, but one question that is worth asking is, which grates on military ears more? Being called by your military rank when you are in active service in a civilian elective office, or being called by your former civilian office rather than your military rank once you have left office? There is no doubt that it is the former. There is a long and cherished tradition, not to mention laws and military legal precedents that restrict the political activity of active duty officers; the idea that an elected official would be addressed by a military title is somewhere between incongruous and shocking to the military mindset. It would be disrespectful, because it could imply that the officeholder is ignorant of the obligations of a military officer. If someone addressed him as “Mr. Sestak” or in writing as “The Honorable” there seems little doubt that no disrespect is intended. But I can imagine a person who has both military rank and a former elective office preferring the civilian form of address, and there is no reason not to follow that preference.

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