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Jon Huntsman and the Politics of Titles

Jon Huntsman and the Politics of Titles

By Erin McPike - April 25, 2011

Everything about Jon Huntsman lately has labeled him as U.S. Ambassador to China, but when he becomes a private citizen on May 1, he'll shed that title in formal correspondence. His scheduled return stateside this weekend, then, begs the question: "Mr. Huntsman, are we supposed to call you Governor, or Ambassador?"

The likely GOP presidential contender will be returning from 20 months of service in China, which followed five years as governor of Utah. A general rule of thumb in politics is that the title for the highest office reached is appropriate, so for Huntsman, that would be governor. Etiquette experts, though, say it's the most recent. It could get a little confusing, because he was also the ambassador to Singapore during the first Bush administration. And of course, there's politics.

Senate Historian Donald Ritchie said that while most officials are known by the highest rank they attained, others simply stick with a label they like. How Huntsman should be addressed, he said, "probably depends on what he wants to do."

"It's usually a matter of personal preference," Ritchie said, adding that he figures Huntsman would likely prefer "Governor." He added: "Some of the doctors in the Senate prefer to be called ‘Doctor' rather than ‘Senator.' They go with the title they prefer." Dwight Eisenhower would forever be "General Eisenhower" to some of his old U.S. Army buddies, even after he served two terms in the White House, and Ronald Reagan answered to "Governor" when in the presence of some of his old California friends even while he was president.

It is worth noting that another former governor of Utah, Mike Leavitt, left that post to join an administration, too. He resigned the governorship in 2003 after a decade in the governor's chair to become the administrator of the EPA under President George W. Bush. A year later, he jumped higher in Bush's Cabinet and spent the entire second term as secretary of Health and Human Services.

Back in Utah, Leavitt is still addressed as "Governor," and links about him on his company's website, Leavitt Partners, refer to him as "Governor Leavitt."

When Mitt Romney -- by then a former governor of Massachusetts -- was campaigning for president four years ago, his aides and press corps called him "Governor," as well. Romney's current operation refers to him the same way, and Tim Pawlenty, who himself is now a former governor, gets similar treatment from his own staff in the information blasts that they transmit. As for Newt Gingrich, aides say people often refer to him with a title, including, "Speaker," "Mr. Gingrich," "Mr. Speaker," and "Congressman," but he'll usually respond, "Just call me Newt."

Several of the other GOP presidential teams said they haven't given much thought yet to how they will refer to Huntsman. An aide to one said, "Ah... Jon? No clue." A spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee said that the party would defer to Huntsman's campaign about how to refer to him. But there isn't a campaign just yet, and potential advisers haven't spoken with him, so no one can know for sure what he would prefer.

But as Ritchie noted, "They can't control what other people call them."

The key sticking point for Huntsman is that his latest ambassadorship has been during the Obama administration, and some Republicans -- especially those working for other candidates -- have already been criticizing him for that connection to a Democratic administration. President Obama himself has highlighted Huntsman's work for him, perhaps as a way of undermining his chances in the impending Republican primary.

Asked which title Democrats will employ for Huntsman in campaign materials, a Democratic operative quipped, "It might as well read 'BFF' if the Obama campaign uses Ambassador as his title."

Veteran Republican strategist Mike Murphy agrees. He says there's no question that Huntsman and his team should choose "Governor," because he was "elected by voters to an executive job." As for the alternative, Murphy adds, only half-jokingly, "Voters think Ambassadors wear tuxedos with red sashes and harrumph a lot."

On the other hand, it's a distinguishing title that no one else on the GOP debate stage will have and reminds of his foreign policy credentials. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the 2012 Republican presidential field is lousy with governors or former governors.

The way Huntsman is identified in the media could go a long way to brand him. So the marketing for and against him will have an impact on how he performs, and his advisers certainly won't let "ambassador" get dragged into derogatory territory, even if it's not the first thing they highlight. 

To date, he hasn't gotten criticism for the actual work he's done in China. On the contrary, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping lauded his efforts last week, and an award-winning documentarian has been trailing him to collect footage for a movie that alludes to how much he was able to contribute to U.S.-Chinese relations. 

So if his opponents -- both Democrats and Republicans -- refer to him as an ambassador, and his supporters address him as a governor, Huntsman's two titles could suggest to the electorate that he's among the most experienced in the GOP field where public service is concerned. And that may mean he could wind up with the last laugh.

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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