Jewish World Review June 4, 2003 / 15 Sivvan, 5764

Janet Tassel

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Consumer Reports

Nicknames: An Al-ergy | The other morning, I watched National Review's admirable Richard Lowry on C-Span. I cringed as the poor guy was vilified by anti-Bush callers from across the country. For me, however, there were two more interesting phenomena. One was the cool dignity with which he patiently rebutted one wretch after another. I stand in awe at this sort of handsome forbearance. The other was his answer to Brian Lamb's question as to whether he was henceforth to be known as "Rich" or "Richard." To my surprise, after all the abuse he had deflected, this innocuous question was the only one that seemed ever so slightly to put him off balance. He said something about Mr. Buckley's preferring "Richard," and then it was back to the predominantly loony phone calls. But the subject of Rich vs. Richard got me to thinking. And if Richard is reading this, I must say I'm with Mr. Buckley.

I began to think of other names, particularly names in politics, as opposed to sports and pop culture. Take the name Al. During the last presidential election, I thought often of my late father, who used to say that he might have voted for Al Smith in 1928, but he didn't trust anybody named Al. He said Albert was one thing, or Alfred, or Aloysius, and being an opera buff, Alfredo certainly, but Al? No, it sounded like a crook.

Maybe it's my father's genes, but I still feel the same way. Someone named Al doesn't even need to be Big Al or Babyface Al: Al says it all. Like Vinny. Somebody who packs heat.

Now I have known and loved many Als. The man who runs my favorite deli is an Al. In fact, I suspect all delis are run by guys named Al. I once had a crush on a college wrestler named Al, and our family lawyer is known as Al. But officially never: He is always Alfred.

Think of all the Als you know. Would you vote for any one of them for selectman, let alone president, if he used his nom de pinochle on the ballot? Of course not. It's unseemly. Wouldn't you rest more comfortably by far with, for example, Albert Brooks as president than with Al Gore or Al Sharpton? Personally I think Alfonse D'Amato sealed his fate when he let himself be called Al.called Al.

The rebarbative Al Franken is named just right, as was Al Jolson and Al Martino. On the other hand, I think Al Pacino will be sorry he didn't bestow on himself a little more gravitas—he is already becoming a parody of himself. Would Al Einstein have cut it for you? Only if he were your deli man. Al Schweitzer? Sgt. Al York?

And then I began to consider the matter earnestly. When did all this faux-chummy name stuff begin in recent politics? Al Gore's father was never known officially as Al, was he? I think we must pin the tail on Jimmy Carter, for this, as for so much else that is unseemly in today's world. Jimmy is not a presidential name; it is okay for Jimmy Swaggart, Jimmy Durante, Jimmy Hoffa, Jimmy the Greek. Had clearer heads prevailed, we would have been rightly scared off by the name Jimmy, just as we are by those Deliverance-type binomials: Billy Bob or Jim Guy. Remember the sinister Bobby Ray Inman?

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Well, you may say, blame regional mores. Perhaps that would work for Georgia governor Sonny Perdue. But what about, say, Tommy Thompson or Kenny Guinn or Mike Rounds or Bob Taft (lo, namewise, how the mighty have fallen!) or the many other backslappin' governors'names north of the Mason-Dixon line? And look at all the cases of arrested development in the Senate and House: Robs and Bobs, Nicks and Dicks and Ricks, Norms and Larrys and Mikes, Bucks and Chucks and Chips, Dons and Rons, Macs and Jacks. Did these juveniles in toupees ever have adult supervision? And, though it pains me to have to include him, we must not avert our eyes from the otherwise seignorial Dick Cheney. Yes, Dick, when you become men, you put away boys' names.

Don't you think a certified war hero named Robert Dole might have made it as Commander-in-chief instead of Viagra salesman? And here in Massachusetts, we are still smarting at the ghastly memory of our feckless little governor, Michael Dukakis, being transformed in 1988 before our mortified eyes into tank commander Mike Dukakis. While I am at it, here is another of my private theories: The country wouldn't have to be dealing at all now with the incoherent John Kerry if, in 1984, Massachusetts' then-governor, the patrician and witty William Weld, who had the Senate seat in his pocket (or at least that of Ronald Reagan), had not incomprehensibly begun allowing himself to be called Bill.

And speaking of Bills: Now there is a name to ponder for all time. It may do for aging hoopsters like Bill Bradley or aging comics like Bill Cosby. But though, as has been written, old men are twice boys; and though we acknowledge that all serious players fulfil Huizinga's theory of the homo ludens, nonetheless the name that Bills use when they are bowling or swilling or playing poker is their sweatpants name, their playground name, not their grown-up name. And Bill Clinton proved it beyond a shadow of doubt. (Don't get me started on "high" culture: a poet laureate named Billy?)

Even the Talmud is affronted by nicknames. According to Daniel Feldman's book The Right and the Good: Halakhah and Human Relations, the sages are pretty much agreed that among those who descend to Gehinnom never to emerge again are: the adulterer, the one who publicly shames his fellow, and he who uses a nickname. Since Bill Clinton is famously guilty of all three, we are entitled to dream blissfully of what the afterlife holds for him.

So Richard, this is a serious matter. Rich is a nice nickname, without the devious ring, the hint of the back alley and the double cross, of Al; without the lubricious stain now and forever darkening the name of poor Bill. But—and most especially if you ever plan to enter politics—please, please listen to Mr. Buckley. That's William Buckley. Now there is a man of breeding. He will steer you right.

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Janet Tassel is a contributing editor for Harvard Magazine. Comment by clicking here.


© 2004, Janet Tassel