A Hussein by any other name
By Michael M. Bates
Michelle Obama describes the use of her husband's middle name, Hussein, as "the fear bomb." Political adversaries tossed this device in his 2004 Senate race. "They threw in the obvious, ultimate fear bomb. . . When all else fails, be afraid of his name, and what that could stand for, because it's different." Now "they're" doing it again. An intriguing storyline, but is it supported by the facts?
A NewsBank check for 2004 shows no stories in either the Chicago Tribune or the Chicago Sun-Times reporting this particular fear bomb being dropped by his feisty opponent, Alan Keyes, or any of his supporters.
A December, 2006 commentary in the New York Times noted "there hadn't been much focus on the unfortunate coincidence" of Obama sharing a name with the Butcher of Baghdad until that week.
Perhaps Mrs. Obama is confused. That's understandable, with all that was going on in her life at the time. Within weeks after her husband's arrival in the Senate, the University of Chicago Medical Center more than doubled her salary. And then there was an appointment to the board of TreeHouse Foods that brought in another $100,000 or so to the Obama household.
Naturally, Mrs. Obama considers questions about her increased earning power sexist. As she told the Chicago Tribune last year, "Barack hasn't relied deeply on me for his career path, and I haven't relied on him at all for mine." Sure, we believe that.
Barack – rhymes with Iraq – has responded to the rumors he's a Muslim as some may conclude because of his name. He's a devout Christian and prays to Jesus every night, he told supporters. This confession was possibly necessitated by those erudite, very knowledgeable, well-informed Democratic voters who just might assume the Illinois senator is a Muslim.
In true Clintonesque fashion, Hillary also dismissed the speculation, sort of. "There is nothing to base that on . . . as far as I know," she said. Quite clearly, there's a gal who would be ready to craft a loophole on day one.
When a guy who introduced a guy who introduced John McCain at a recent rally used Senator Obama's middle name three times, the probable Republican nominee voiced his displeasure. He declared that he absolutely repudiated such statements and it wouldn't happen again: "Any comment that is disparaging of either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama is totally inappropriate."
When did calling someone by his given name qualify as disparaging? McCain's own words suggest that there's something insulting about having a name often given to Muslims. That in itself is "totally inappropriate" it seems to me. Then again, perhaps John Sidney McCain is worried that his middle name may start being routinely used.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight David Eisenhower, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Richard Milhous Nixon and Lyndon Baines Johnson frequently were identified by their full names. One near president, Hubert Horatio Humphrey, was mistakenly hailed as Hubert Horatio Hornblower by President Carter at the 1980 Democratic convention. At least he got the middle name right.
In the 1988 campaign, Democrat Mike Dukakis consistently referred to the Republican VP candidate as J. Danforth Quayle rather than Dan Quayle. He called the GOP presidential aspirant George Herbert Walker Bush. For his part, George Herbert Walker Bush in a Republican debate employed opponent Pete du Pont's given name in a response: "Pierre, let me help you on some of this."
The writer H.L. Mencken used President Harding's middle name to coin a term for Warren's sometimes confusing sentence structure. He dubbed it Gamalielese.
So middle names – and aristocratic-sounding first ones – have been part and parcel of our political dialogue for years.
Mrs. Obama is right. Her husband's name is different, and not just the middle one. It hasn't seemed to hurt him in his pursuit of the White House so far. If voters don't balk at the very unusual name of Barack Obama, throwing in his given middle name isn't likely to be a deal breaker.
I don't agree with her and sensitive souls like John McCain that using Senator Obama's full name is a form of hate speech.
This Michael Bates column appeared in the March 6, 2008 Reporter Newspapers.