It shouldn’t be news to anyone that conservative middle-aged professors are rare birds. Until recently, right-wing academics have been almost as rare as black ones, and for pretty much the same reason: bright conservatives could generally do better elsewhere. So it didn’t go to my head a few years ago when I learned that the Reagan White House was thinking of nominating me for the council of the National Endowment for the Humanities. I mean, how many Scholars for Reagan-Bush were there, after all?
Still, I was secretly a little proud— that is, until someone showed me a list of Jimmy Carter’s appointees. And when the Reagan folks withdrew the nomination of a worthy fellow nominee who had, over the years, guarded his tongue less assiduously than I, I recognized that the Democrats were not uniquely political. Call me naive, but I was disappointed to learn how much politics affects political appointments.
In my case, the White House sure was cautious. If the Reagan administration had been half as careful with its Cabinet officers and Supreme Court nominees, it would have been spared some embarrassment. I had to fill out forms listing every organization I’d ever belonged to, every place I’d ever lived, and every time I’d left the country. (The dates of a trip to the Bahamas with my fishing buddies gave me trouble, until my wife reminded me that it was the weekend of Mother’s Day, 1976. What a memory she has!) I calculated my net worth for the first time in my life—a depressing exercise—and started hearing from old friends I hadn’t seen in years, who wanted to know why the FBI was asking about me.
Nobody asked me whether I’d ever smoked marijuana, but this was before that question became de rigueur for folks of my generation. I wonder, could I have come up with anything as classy as Bill Bennett’s answer (“If I have any confessions to make, I’ll make them to a priest”) or as bewildering as Marion Barry’s (“Not to my knowledge”)?
Anyway, in the fullness of time, a press release came from the White House, announcing my nomination. Its three paragraphs contained three errors of fact and a couple more of implication, but conservatives aren’t surprised when government screws up. I wasn’t upset until the last line, which read, “Mr. Reed is a native of New York.”
Well. Norman Podhoretz wrote once about the dirty little secrets that we all carry around with us. His was his lust for power and fame; mine (one of them, anyway) is that I was born in New York. At the French Hospital. In Manhattan.
This was embarrassing. People I thought were friends, men and women I’ve known for years, came up and said nasty things like “I didn’t know you were from New York.” It did no good at all to explain that my dad was just working there temporarily. It didn’t even help to quote the Duke of Wellington, who said about his Irish birth, “Because a man is born in a stable, that does not make him a horse.” My supposed friends just snickered. I think they’re still snickering, behind my back.
It’s not fair. I could change my religion or my politics at will. I could, with a little trouble, change my name, or my wife. Even at my age, I could take up a new profession. But I’m stuck for life with my place of birth.
You may find it hard to imagine how awkward, how shameful, it is for a semiprofessional Southerner to have been born in the north. And not just in the north, but in the very belly of the beast, in the Big Apple, Noo Yawk itself. For years I have downplayed this fact, going so far as to omit it when filling out forms. Given the chance to write autobiographical squibs I’ve sometimes resorted to misdirection: “Mr. Reed, a Tennesseean,” for instance, or “John Reed grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee.” But I thought I’d better tell the FBI the truth. So the White House—my own President that I voted for—outed me. That’s right up there for betrayal with having the dictator of communist Russia to dinner (which came later).
It was some consolation, however, that the appointment gave me a title. When my nomination was confirmed by the Senate, on a slow day, I became “the Honorable” by presidential commission, and I have a piece of paper to prove it. When I start feeling smug about it, humility is easily restored by repeating the mantra, “The Honorable Edward Kennedy. The Honorable Edward Kennedy. . . . ” Still, I’ve always been a pushover for titles.
Southerners tend to be. Simple Jeffersonian taste might prescribe “sir” or “ma’am” as forms of address in all circumstances save those that call for obscenity, but that has been a lost cause down here ever since planter-plutocrats started appointing each other to high office. One term in the upper house of the state legislature and you’re “Senator” for life. A stretch in traffic court makes you “Judge.” And any military rank of captain or above—regular, reserve. National Guard, or Civil Air Patrol—can be used without embarrassment until they fire the shots over your grave. This affection for high-sounding forms of address is probably what has led to the widespread misuse of “Reverend”—and of course the most honored title of all is “Coach.”
Twenty-five years ago I used to tell mv students not to call me “Doctor.” I told them that form of address should be reserved for physicians, surgeons, dentists, chiropractors, and maybe pharmacists. But this wasn’t modesty. No, mv secret objection was that “Doctor” isn’t grand enough. Any fool can be a doctor and a great many are. (I’ve been party to creating a few myself.) Any distinction shared with Dr.’Robert Mugabe (LL.D., University of Massachusetts) isn’t much of a distinction. I prefer the inverse snobbery of the Ivy League’s “Mr.” and, in my heart, I really like the Teutonic magnificence of “Professor.” It takes, if nothing else, a certain amount of Sitzfleisch and low animal cunning to get an academic job these days and to hold it long enough to become “Professor.”
My buddy Eugene says he never calls anyone “Doctor” who can’t deliver a baby and never calls anyone “Professor” who doesn’t play piano in a whorehouse. Obviously, I disagree with Eugene on “Professor,” and I’ve even mellowed some on “Doctor.” If we restricted that term to what a flack I know calls “vendors in the health care delivery industry,” a lot of high school principals and Presbyterian ministers would get upset. But my opinion of Tom Clancy’s history-professor hero in Patriot Games dropped considerably when he insisted on that form of address, and I still make fun of my academic colleagues who put “Dr.” on their cheeks.
“The Honorable,” though—well, that’s different, isn’t it? My students can call me “Your Honor,” if they want. For that title, it’s worth taking an oath to support and defend the Constitution. It may even be worth having people know where I was born. I’m thinking about changing my phonebook listing.
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