What's in a Middle Name?

The hidden threats of sinister nomenclature

Just when it seems safe to be a Republican again, the Tennessee GOP is proving the Grand Old Party still has some substance-abuse issues. They're insisting that Barack Obama must be, now and forever, Barack Hussein Obama.

Just for the record, I voted for somebody else in the primary, but it seems a little presumptuous. Most people who aren't movie stars don't get to pick their own names. Even Republican John McCain has objected to the routine insertion of "Hussein." McCain may have his own motives to avoid making a big deal out of middle names; maybe he doesn't want anybody to call him "Sidney."

As young as he seems, Obama was born in a different America. In 1961, blacks could not attend several American universities; even here in Knoxville, which had recently liberalized in a few respects, people of Obama's hue were still not allowed to attend white public schools or sit in whites-only movie theaters. Chances are, in 1961, Obama's parents weren't calculating on his ever being a contender for the presidency. Insofar as it might affect his political career, they might as well have named him Genghis Khan.

But when Obama was born, the middle name they chose might have seemed an asset. The most famous Hussein in the world was King Hussein of Jordan, the sophisticated western-style leader who was, to many conservative Americans, proof that Arabs could be good guys.

In several African and Arabic countries, Hussein is a common name. Millions of people in the world have Hussein in their names. I know some people here in Knoxville who have that name, and they're not very scary.

Some are named for the Hussein who was a 7th-century religious leader. He rose up against a tyrannical regime, and was beheaded rather than pledging allegiance to an unworthy potentate.

But in baby books, the name Hussein just means "handsome one."

Newspapermen get all the crazy e-mails everybody else does, and a few more. I first heard about the Obama middle-name controversy via a mass e-mail from a very fretful typist who seemed sincerely concerned that the country might elect a terrorist president. In that e-mail, Obama's middle name was alleged to be "Muhammad."

Of course, Barack Obama is not the first national political figure with a potentially problematic middle name.

William Tecumseh Sherman was a popular guy, at least among Republicans; long after the war was over, he was, for about 15 years, the highest ranking military man in the nation, as general-in-chief of the U.S. Army. In 1884, some Republicans attempted to draft him for president, a movement he discouraged. Politicos liked him even though his middle name was, unambiguously, that of a violent enemy of the United States. Tecumseh was an uncompromising Shawnee, opposed to the tribes who tried to accommodate white settlers with peace treaties. He died at U.S. hands fighting in alliance with the British in the War of 1812.

General Sherman's friends called him "Cump" for short.

Even in the South, some Confederate leaders had surprising middle names. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, who was in charge of Knoxville early in the Civil War, bore both names of a Latino revolutionary hero who might have alarmed the gentry if he'd ever shown up here in person.

Picking on a Democrat's idiosyncratic nomenclature is only fair, I suppose. I remember when Ronald Reagan was first elected, seeing his middle name was enough to convince some that he was the antichrist: count the numbers in his three names, and you get 666. People that I would never have suspected were mystical numerologists were reciting that all the time. "That can't be coincidence," they implored. "What other president bears the Sign of the Beast?" They had me there. But I don't think it was state Democratic Party policy to remind Tennessee voters of that oddity.

Often, people offer middle names to placate an under-appreciated relative. Maybe when we name our kids, we should take more care, considering the possibility they might run for president.

Maybe our own Fred Dalton Thompson's mysteriously abortive campaign was the victim of his middle name. Everybody knows the Daltons were a murderous outlaw gang.

Perhaps Republicans decided they didn't like Mike Dale Huckabee because they suspected that deep down he was a little too much like Dale Evans. With Mitt Romney, the middle name was problematic enough, but the first name, Willard, is that of a psychopathic rat breeder in a horror movie.

Ill-fated Republican President James Garfield's middle name was Abram, the pre-Covenant name of an important middle-eastern chieftain who, as it happens, was a direct ancestor of Hussein.

William Howard Taft shared a middle name with two of the future Three Stooges.

Harry S Truman—there's a 60-year-old style-book debate among journalists as to whether the middle initial, which is not connected to an actual name, rates a period. Of course, S's can be awfully sinister. Truman's S might stand for Saladin, the fierce Muslim vizier—or Stalin, or Sitting Bull, or Satan himself.

James Earl Carter may have thought it wise to go by "Jimmy," lest anyone suspect his kinship to an infamous assassin. A lot of my liberal pals don't know this, but I campaigned for Gerald Ford in 1976. If you've never tried to hang Republican posters on a college campus in the ‘70s, by the way, you haven't lived. But if it had occurred to me that we could have had a better chance at winning by calling Jimmy Carter "James Earl Carter" in hopes that America's dumber voters would get him mixed up with "James Earl Ray," I would hope someone would slap me and take away my thumbtacks. We would have deserved to lose as badly as we did.

You start to understand why many of our greatest presidents' parents chose not to burden them with middle names at all.