By Peter Beinart
I’ve spent the last few months on a longish essay about what kind of president Hillary Clinton would be. Writing about her record in government proved challenging. So did writing her name.
With most politicians, it’s easy. First reference: You write their first and last name. Second reference: last name, plus title if you’re feeling formal. With the former senator and secretary of state, however, it’s trickier. Calling her “Clinton” poses an obvious problem, especially if—like me—you’re simultaneously writing about the other Clinton who served as president. “Former Secretary of State Clinton” is cumbersome. So I did what many journalists do: I went with “Hillary.”
Is that sexist? According to some people, yes. As Chicago Tribune editor Jane Fritsch argued in 2007, “The simple fact is that Hillary Rodham Clinton is running in a field of men who are never referred to by their first names ….The argument that we call her Hillary to avoid confusion is a weak one. There are easy alternatives …. Certainly the problem created by the existence of two presidents named George Bush has been a difficult one, but we found ways to solve it without diminishing George W. Bush.”
There’s no doubt that sexism has warped the coverage of women candidates in general, and Hillary Clinton in particular. The academic research proves it. Women politicians are forever navigating between the Scylla of being considered too tough and therefore unlikeable and the Charybdis of being considered too feminine and therefore not tough enough.
But despite this, I don’t think its sexist to call Hillary Clinton “Hillary,” because I don’t think she’s being called “Hillary” because she’s a woman. After all, journalists don’t generally call women politicians by their first names when they don’t have famous politician husbands. When was the last time you heard Nancy Pelosi, Sarah Palin, or Dianne Feinstein referred to primarily by her first name? When a man shares a last name with another famous pol, by contrast, he often gets the first name treatment. A certain ex-Florida governor is constantly referred to merely as “Jeb.” With his brother George W. Bush—who shared first and last names with his president-father—the press often accentuated his middle initial, as in “George W.,” “W” or even “Dubya.”
It’s also significant that one of the people who popularized “Hillary” was, well, Hillary. Her campaign signs, when running for U.S. Senate in New York, read simply “Hillary!” In her book For Love of Politics, Sally Bedell Smith notes that during her Senate run, Bill “obediently referred to her as ‘Hillary,’ never ‘Hillary Clinton,’ while he called Gore and other candidates by their full names.” To this day, her supporters declare themselves “Ready for Hillary.”
But for journalists who remain allergic to first names, there is one other option, which Jonathan Allen and Aimee Parnes tried popularizing in their book HRC. It makes sense, when you think about it. The first president referred to by his initials was FDR, who shared a last name with his former president cousin. The abbreviation also came in handy for distinguishing RFK from his former president brother. For reasons I don’t understand, the tradition died out after LBJ, but “Hillary”-phobes may want to revive it.
Doing so would have the ironic effect of reviving “Rodham,” which has been dormant for many years now. It was Hillary’s last name of choice until Bill was defeated for reelection as governor of Arkansas in 1980, after which she “decided it was more important for Bill to be governor again than for me to keep my maiden name.” (“You’re in the South,” Vernon Jordan lectured her, according to Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr.’s book, Her Way. “And in the South, you’re not Hillary Rodham, you’re Mrs. Clinton.”)
When Bill began running for president in 1992, she tried to square the circle with “Hillary Rodham Clinton.” But by the time she began her own presidential run in 2007, “Rodham” had disappeared again. “HRC” would bring it back, albeit in abbreviated form.
Would Americans vote for an acronym? Against “Jeb,” I suspect so.