What’s in a name? Maybe a president

In 1979, a man named Luther Devine Knox decided to run for governor of Louisiana. But before he did, he had his name legally changed to “None of the Above.” Unfortunately for him, the courts ruled that he couldn’t have that name on the ballot. “It’s deceptive,” the courts said.

  • Wednesday, March 26, 2008 12:00am
  • Life

In 1979, a man named Luther Devine Knox decided to run for governor of Louisiana. But before he did, he had his name legally changed to “None of the Above.” Unfortunately for him, the courts ruled that he couldn’t have that name on the ballot. “It’s deceptive,” the courts said.

I think the dispute could have been settled by simply listing his name first on the ballot.

But it’s no secret that names influence opinion. People with perfectly fine actual last names like Hooker, Fink, Rump, Freake, Blankenhorn and Bastardi would find it tough going if they ever decided to run for office.

One of my childhood friends, Brady Fartz (his genuine last name), ran unsuccessfully for class president several times but never came close. The last I heard of him, he had just been fired from his position at a local bank. As bad as it must have been for him to lose his job, I pray the local business newspaper didn’t make things worse with a headline like “Fartz let go.”

This year, as we get ready to elect a new president, the names of the candidates may make a difference – especially if the name sounds good. An English professor at Eastern Washington University (in Cheney – how’s that for a name?) firmly believes that the sound of candidates’ names makes all the difference. He calls it the “music of names” and says that persons with the most pleasing last names – rhythmically and sound-wise – win presidential elections 84 percent of the time. By my figuring, that’s better than half.

Professor Grant Smith thinks that Barack Obama has got the edge name-wise this year. “Obama is very like O’Donnell,” he says. Maybe so, but I wouldn’t like Obama’s chances if his first name was Rosie.

The professor says his research shows that a person’s first name doesn’t matter as much. So apparently that means that Mount Rushmore could just as easily feature the presidents Slappy Washington, Big Daddy Jefferson, Four Eyes Roosevelt and Crazy Legs Lincoln.

It’s just the last name that counts. So our 12th president, Zachary Taylor, would have been just as electable if his first name was Elizabeth. For that matter, the 21st president, Chester Arthur, would still have been the top choice as Bea Arthur.

It is said that Dwight David Eisenhower rearranged his name from David Dwight Eisenhower. Nobody seemed to have a problem with that. They just called him Ike.

On the other hand, 1984 presidential candidate Gary Hart changed his name from Gary Hartpence. He said he changed it to Hart because it was easier to spell. Maybe so, but some of his rivals suspected a more sinister motive.

A Washington Post columnist said that Hartpence sounded like “a crook from a Charles Dickens novel.” That same columnist also said that Fritz Mondale sounded like a broken appliance. It’s a good thing that columnist wasn’t around when Herbert Hoover was running for president. (“Sounds like an old model vacuum cleaner.”)

Some people have noticed that some candidates – like James Carter, Joseph Biden, Albert Gore, Robert Dole and William Clinton – shorten their first names once they start eyeballing the Oval Office and become Jimmy, Joe, Al, Bob and Bill. I guess it may sound friendlier, but so far this year, there’s no indication that we’ll see “Bar” Obama, “Hill” Clinton or “Jay Jay” McCain on any campaign posters.

The S in Harry S Truman stood for nothing at all – which is certainly not what he stood for. Even so, his initials – HST – did him no harm, even if that’s the sound his enemies might have made behind his back. But no actual word was formed by the letters HST, so that gave his critics nothing to pounce on.

John McCain’s middle name is Sidney. He must be grateful it’s not Allen or Aaron, which would form the word JAM – potentially embarrassing if he got the country into one.

The habit of calling presidents by the letters of their name probably began with Teddy Roosevelt (TR). FDR, JFK and LBJ were also popularly known by their initials. I checked the list of all U.S. presidents and did not find any particularly embarrassing or ironic words formed from their names. The closest call came when Ulysses S. Grant took office. Years earlier, he had changed his name from Hiram Ulysses Grant but figured out early that HUG were not initials he wanted to see in the newspaper.

Maybe Robert A. Taft was lucky he never got elected president.


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