Too Many Honorables?

By Mary K. Mewborn

  • A socialite in Wesley Heights thinks it adds personal distinction to her many listings on fundraising invitations.

  • A former ambassador living at the Watergate uses it to remind others of his long-ago diplomatic posting to a small Caribbean nation.

  • Appointees to even the most minor Presidential commissions are apt to believe it bestows instant social cachet- with invitations to A-list parties sure to follow.

Whether it is the roster of the Board of Governors of the Smithsonian Institution or the benefit committee of a typical Washington charity gala, there are always a number of names preceded by "Honorable,'' instead of the usual Mr., Mrs., Miss or Ms. How this came about in a country whose Constitution expressly forbids the granting of titles amuses some and irritates others. At the very least its widespread usage raises some eyebrows.

Traditionally the British use the "Hon.'' (originally abbreviated from "The Right Honorable Magnificence of Nobles''), to identify certain family members of hereditary barons and earls, i.e., their daughters, younger sons and the younger sons' wives. In America, however, such inherited titles were rare among the early colonists, and after independence there was no king to grant new ones.

That did not mean this country developed along totally egalitarian lines. Even in a democracy it was only natural that ways had to be found to distinguish the elite from the hoi polloi, the rulers from the ruled. The conferment of titles, although prevented by the Constitution, was effectively achieved by political success.

Political primacy is now well-established in matters of protocol and etiquette and is, according to the U.S. Government, a matter of procedure and form. Consequently, it would be very improper indeed to refer to the "Hon. Bill Gates,'' even though he may have billions in the bank and pay his taxes, or to the "Hon. Cindy Crawford,'' although what man wouldn't hope to flatter her? Nobel Prizes and great humanitarian deeds won't make you Honorable either, though getting elected Mayor of Bladensburg, Md. definitely will.

By the rules of etiquette, you can become Honorable by getting elected to the White House or Congress, or by having the President nominate and the Senate confirm you to an ambassadorship or other political post (judge, commissioner, etc.). Once you are made an Honorable, you stay that way for life, regardless of what an independent counsel or district attorney may subsequently uncover about any untoward activities. "In Washington, as Betty Beale, longtime social columnist and observer of the Washington social scene, bluntly puts it, "The title `Honorable' has nothing to do either with honor or character.''

Governors of states also become Honorables for life, ditto state legislators and mayors. Whereas the current edition of the Emily Post's etiquette book indicates such personages should avail themselves of this title only during their terms of office, local protocol experts Mary Jane McCaffree and Pauline Innis beg to differ. "Once an Honorable, always an Honorable,'' they say, further including all elected state officials among their ranks.

Americans for the most part regard the use of courtesy titles as either proper form or harmless puffery, but a few do resent it. Politicians are elected to represent us, they say, not to become our social superiors. Such protests probably reached their peak during the French Revolution when Americans of pro-Jacobin sentiments objected even to the use of the title Mister. They thought everyone should be addressed as "Citizen,'' from the President on down. Maybe because "Citizen Adams'' did not quite have the right ring to it, this phase of American history passed rather quickly.

Even the rough-hewn frontiersman Andrew Jackson sprinkled his Presidential correspondence with "Honorable'' and "Excellency,'' as custom demanded. By the time Abraham Lincoln was in office, the title Honorable was back in full vogue. Lincoln's letters to his Cabinet officers were invariably addressed to "The Honorable Secretary'' of each department, and he bestowed the title freely in writing to others of political prominence.

Proliferation

By some counts, there are now almost a hundred thousand Honorables nationwide, and several thousand in the capital area alone.

Already the term applies to all of the politically-appointed ambassadors, past and present (many of whom are considered to have bought their titles through large contributions), former actors, an ex-wrestler, a spokesman for Viagra, some doctors, lots of lawyers, and an Indian chief. There are more than a few ex-convicts bearing the title as well.

While most Americans do not object to having Honorable politicians, provided they behave that way, others suggest we might end the proliferation of titles by asking those who have left or retired from their government positions to stop using them. This, however, who saddled some beloved elder statesman with the appellation, "the once Honorable''? Could anyone be expected to take kindly to the title of "Ex-Honorable So-and-So''?

At the very least, the threat of having one's Honorable title revoked might become a way to censure or sanction those found guilty of breaking the law or violating ethics. That there might one day be Federal laws mandating how and when courtesy titles are to be used, and when they are to be rescinded, is not far-fetched. Maybe Congress will pass a law, or Bill Clinton will issue a Presidential edict, or the Supreme Court will render judgement on the matter.

In the end, it may be up to the simple folk to dictate what usage we'd like to see applied. E-mail the White House, or phone your representatives in Congress and tell them exactly what you would like to call them. Better still, write to the Chief of Protocol at the U.S. Department of State, considered to be the final authority on official titles and their social usage. Just be sure to address your envelope to the "Honorable Mary Mel French" as you certainly wouldn't want to appear gauche.


A Few Rules

Those who care about such things should know that the title Honorable is always used with the person's first and last names, presumably to help avoid confusion with less than honorable persons who may share the same surname.

Moreover, the title is never used in speaking to one who possesses it.

Further limitations on usage mandate that the Honorable personage not use the title when referring to himself or herself, even in writing. Therefore, the Honorable Joe Blow or the Honorable Jane Doe may not politely request the pleasure of your company on an invitation-although this may be news to those who frequently order them up in local stationery stores. Only Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So or Senator John Doe, or Judge Joe Blow should send out an invitation.