On W. Mitt Romney, and the Mystery of Names

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Several people have written in to recommend yesterday's Fox News interview of Mitt Romney, by Bret Baier. The main theme of the messages is that these few minutes offer a glimpse of why, even though on paper Romney seems the only* plausible general-election challenger to Barack Obama, he has struggled to close the sale against the likes of Bachmann, Perry, Cain, and now Gingrich. [*Except for Jon Huntsman, who has faced an even more difficult struggle in the Republican primary field.]
 
  



There is a kind of tetchy haughtiness, behind surface humor, that you can imagine coming across in the wrong ways in a long campaign. Watch, for instance, a passage beginning around time 3:05, with a sequence of tough follow-up questions by Baier about changes in his positions. Maybe all of this is already playing a role in the primary campaign. Of course soon it will all be up to the electorate of Iowa and New Hampshire to decide.

Back to the recent discussion of whether it means something, or absolutely nothing, that Romney went out of his way to tell Wolf Blitzer that Mitt was his "first name," when it's not. Many people wrote to urge empathy not so much with Romney in particular as with the general plight of those with "non-standard" names.

First, from a reader in Australia, whose name I know but will keep to myself. Emphasis added in this and the following note:

I was also given three names and went by the second from birth. I can testify that it's extremely irritating. Not only do people use the wrong name, whenever it's done in a vaguely public setting you have to explain the situation repeatedly. Bureaucracies also can't cope. I was forced to have all three names on my High School Certificate (HSC) (US equivalent = high school diploma?) by the Department of Education and Training (DET) even though I didn't want the first one there at all. As one of your readers said, it's easy to add a 'goes by' field, but most organizations don't bother...

Names are also psychologically important. For many reasons - identity/heritage, relationships (you'll become friends with the person that remembers your name over the person that doesn't) and so on. For me, I hated my first name. There's a condition - Body Identity Integrity Disorder where people want to remove a limb because they feels it's not part of them. I compare it to that - my first name was not a part of me or my identity, and I wanted it cut out.

I legally dropped my first name pretty fast after turning 18 (keeping the same second [now first] name and surname). To those that know I've changed my name, I insist on keeping up a facade that it never changed and my name is always what it is now. I paid to have my HSC, birth certificate and a few other certificates reissued in the changed name. On government forms that ask you to list all previous names (tax/background checks mostly) I don't add it because, so far as I'm concerned, it was never my name (oddly enough, that's caused no issues so far). I was also quite infuriated when the DET insisted I elaborate to them why I should want to reissue the HSC in the new name (even though I'd provided them with the new birth certificate). Thankfully, "It's none of your bloody business." was a satisfactory answer.

This is potentially even more interesting in my case because my surname is easy to make fun of, and I got teased about it all through primary school and insisted I was going to change it when I turned 18. When I actually got to 18 though, I kept the surname that I'd savagely despised until perhaps 13 and cut the first name that, whilst being inconvenient, no-one had ever teased me about. I would guess that this is mostly because my surname became an affectionate name for me during high school. But, also because, for better or worse, my surname was part of my identity where my first name never was.

Not sure if I have a wider point - just that it was angering and miserable, and the issues may be much deeper than normal named people first think.

And, from my friend and previous guest blogger Parker Donham, this info:

My birth name was William Parker Donham, although I always went by "Parker." When I married Taiya Barss, I dropped the "William" and became Parker Barss Donham. When Taiya and I split after 25 years, I reverted to Parker Donham.

Throughout those changes, I received many computer generated letters from the Harvard Class of '67 addressed: "Dear William." That was jarring, but the alert '67 class agent always drew a slash through the "William," and hand-wrote "Bill" in its place. How touching that he remembered me well enough to use this affectionate--and utterly wrong--diminutive!

I am struck by the reader whose father suffered confusion on his deathbed when health care workers addressed him by his otherwise dormant first name. What troubles me about this is not the name mistake, but the patronizing assumption it's OK to use an elderly patient's first name to begin with. The presumption that health care workers, airline clerks, and call centre agents should use the first names of strangers doesn't sit well with this 66-year-old curmudgeon. I'm not one to stand on formality, but I prefer young people to ask how I'd like to be addressed before presuming. Once they ask, "Parker" is just fine.

Another reader writes from Africa:

Several years ago I was a volunteer English teacher for mostly Latino immigrants in St Paul. One of my jobs was trying to straighten out our records of students. It was somewhat impossible to reconcile the fluidity of Spanish naming conventions with the rigid demands of an Anglo American database.

Just to pick a string of common names, a student might be Juan Francisco Ramirez Diaz and each of those names would have religious and family significance. But he would introduce himself and sign his name Juan Ramirez, Juan Francisco Ramirez, Francisco Ramirez Diaz, etc. on different documents because he didn't grow up believing in the sanctity of an orderly paper trail. Not terribly relevant to Mitt Romney, perhaps, just an illustration of the fallacy of assuming everyone has one "real name."

From Indonesia, about an "alternation of generations" strategy:

My father was born   as Alfred William R...
               I was born  as Alfred William R...  Jr
  my son was born    as Alfred William R...  III

I am called Bill for  William and use A. William R...  for my signature

My father and son used/use first name as "Alfie" or Alfred

My son claims that his first born male child will be AWR IV and be called Bill or Willie etc

I have met lots of multi-generation families who use same system and do not get involved in naming trauma.  Jr usually solves the problem for second generation and it is nice since letters that come to me addressed as Alfred are suspect.

This is a bit WASP-like but my father was born in England, I in America and son in Indonesia so we do change countries of birth and citizenship if not names..

Finally, back to politics:

I think it's a mistake to think anything Romney does isn't calculated.  It seems to me this lie shares a function with the lie that's the centerpiece of Romney's first TV spot, which is to harness anti-lamestream-media passion as Palin and Cain have done so spectacularly, to make a play at capturing some of that thunder.  Both lies managed to provoke the commentariat and gain viral dissemination, enabling Romney to pretend to the Palin/Cain role as the "authentic" antagonist/victim of the "establishment's" snooty tendentious nit-picking.  It allows Romney to cast off his history of calculated duplicity and play the common man defending the virtue of plain truths ('this is my name!' 'these are Obama words!') against the commentators' complicating arguments.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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