It's Friday, August 4th, 2017.
And that makes it Barack Obama's 56th birthday.
Not President Barack Obama's 56th birthday.
Unsurprisingly, as when Michelle Obama recently spoke at the ESPYs, Obama's birthday has led the media to lose its collective mind. The internet is clogged with why stories clarifying "why we all miss President Obama" and why etc. GQ magazine sees today as an opportunity to explain why Obama is "one of the best presidents we've ever seen."
Still, my gripe is not about Obama's record, but rather about the reporting on his birthday. Because it reflects our unhealthy fealty towards former public officials.
After all, former presidents are private citizens, not knights of the realm or heroes of the republic. As protocol expert, Robert Hickey notes, a former president "speaks with the authority of a private citizen. We honor a former office holder's service, but the 'form of address' -- which acknowledges the responsibilities and duties of office - belongs only to the current office holder." Hickey outlines why former presidents should, therefore, be addressed only as "the honorable".
We need to pay heed to Hickey's guidance.
It matters because America is designed to be the antithesis of a monarchy or a caste system. By adorning titles on private individuals we give them a standing that is not due. We are supposed to recognize public figures by their standing in the moment, rather than by their birth inheritance or history.
Guarding against tyranny, our constitution is sure to grant, not give, power to public office holders. Beyond the judiciary, with its obvious need for independence from political and popular pressure, the constitution does not bestow power in perpetuity. As such, when former officials are recognized as "Judge X", or "Ambassador Y", or "President Z", they are being granted undue deference.
Fortunately, retired military officers are pretty good at recognizing the principle here. When we see military officers introduced, their status is defined by a "(Ret.)" for "retired." The implication is clear: this individual is speaking as a private citizen. Yet even that is not entirely correct. The Defense Department notes that announcers should "not use (Ret.) when describing a retired Service member. Use the word retired before his or her service, rank and name."
Again, the founders meant it to be this way. The best example is offered by George Washington's public resignation as commander in chief of the continental army. Washington knew that coercive state power had to rest with elected representatives. He knew he could not be both a president and a uniformed military officer.
As I say, there's nothing wrong with wishing former presidents a happy birthday. But please ensure you address them correctly.
Happy birthday Barack Obama.