Why so formal with the president?

American exceptionalism—which is fun to say (all those syllables!)—is grabbing some headlines this summer, thanks to the intersection of a heat-filled presidential campaign and a much-hyped, much-watched Olympics.

We're devouring these Summer Games in record numbers, according to Nielsen, which means we're spending a good chunk of August with synchronized diving on the brain.

It also means gold medalist Gabby Douglas' hair is the stuff of Twitter debates and her podium attire is the stuff of Fox News punditry. "What we're seeing is this kind of soft anti-American feeling, that Americans can't show our exceptionalism," satellite radio host David Webb told Fox host Alisyn Camerota. This is on the heels of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney defending said exceptionalism in his recent foreign affairs speech at a VFW.

Which all, believe it or not, brings us to an email from reader John Radzinski.

"My question has to do with the way newspapers refer to the president. He is always called President Barack Obama," Radzinski writes. "Since there is only one President Obama, why is his full name always used? There was a time when I read about President Eisenhower, President Kennedy, President Johnson and so on. It seems to be a waste of ink to constantly print the full name of the president."

The Associated Press stylebook—arbiter of style and usage for the vast majority of American newspapers—decrees the following:

"Use the first and family name on first reference to a current or former U.S. president or the president-elect: former President Jimmy Carter, President Barack Obama, President-elect Barack Obama. On subsequent references, use only the last name. For presidents of other nations and of organizations and institutions, capitalize president as a formal title before a full name: President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, President John Smith of Acme Corp."

(We're getting to the exceptionalism stuff. I swear.)

The above has only been AP's rule since 2008. Prior to that, the news organization only required first and last names for non-American heads of state. Shortly before the 2008 presidential election though, a new edict was handed down:

"The Associated Press is adopting a universal style for referring to all heads of state, including the United States. Effective (Nov. 14, 2008), the AP will use the title and first and family names on first reference: PresidentGeorge W. Bush, not just President Bush; President-elect Barack Obama, not just President-elect Obama; President Nicolas Sarkozy, not just President Sarkozy."

Shortly after the style change was announced, political blogger Ken McIntyre offered up the following:

"What the change actually represents is the media's further discarding of American exceptionalism in favor of an international standard. …Sure, it took less space to print 'President Roosevelt' than to print 'President Franklin Delano Roosevelt' back in the day — when every inch of spare newsprint meant more room for news. More importantly, though, the quaint old style assumed Americans' familiarity — by natural and national kinship, if you will — with their president.

"Now, though," McIntyre continued, "AP stories will introduce the American president — a citizen of the world, after all — with the same formality with which the wire service treats other leaders of nations: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev — even North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il."

Rockford Register Star language blogger Barry Wood had another take.

"The official reason was consistency with its style for other world leaders," Wood wrote at the time. "This change makes sense for other reasons, too. After eight years of having to distinguish between W. and his dad, it's somewhat second nature. And it's not just the Bushes: We've also had two presidents named Adams, two named Harrison, two Johnsons and two Roosevelts, as well as two separate terms of a Cleveland with one of the Harrisons in between."

Wood also posited another theory: "With Americans' knowledge of history rapidly deteriorating, maybe the AP hopes to fill in some gaps. It can't hurt to try."

American Copy Editors Society blogger Pam Nelson, who alerted us to both Wood's and McIntyre's comments, says the updated style simply makes sense.

"I always thought the AP rule of dropping the president's first name was confusing," she said. "It seemed to me that we should use full names for anyone, even the U.S. president."


Copyright © 2018, CT Now