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On being dubbed by Dubya

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Just try refusing a nickname from the leader of the free world

"Of all eloquence a nickname is the most concise; of all arguments the most unanswerable."
--WILLIAM HAZLITT

George ("Georgie," "Little George," "Bushtail," "Tweeds," "Lip," "Temporary," "Bombastic Bushkin," "Dubya") Bush knows from nicknames. As in Little Italy or Compton, there must have been something about the tightly knit Wasp community of Midland, Texas, some unique social condition that encouraged the cultivation of nicknames, because everyone had one. From his father George ("Poppy") Bush, the war hero with one of those curiously effeminate preppie nicknames (like "Bunny" and "Pinkie"), to Barbara ("Bar") Bush (no one dared stray farther from the source name), to brother John Ellis ("Jeb") Bush's acronym of a name, to family friends "Spider" and "Wemus" and countless others, in Bushworld everyone had to have a nickname, and if you didn't, they'd give you one.

The one nickname that young George didn't attract, at least within his family, was "Junior," and therein lies a bullet dodged, early evidence of Bush's famous good luck. It was the absence of a "Herbert" that permitted Bush to escape the curse of juniorhood, that terrible first act of hostility that certain men commit against their own sons, that row of hoops set up in the nursery for he who would follow. (Attention, newborn: Be me, or fall short--it's up to you.) For the congenitally modest elder Bush, naming a child in honor of himself may have proved too much, so he pulled up one name shy, an early act of compassionate conservatism.

Since Bush was not technically a Junior (and the Bushes policed this distinction), he was designated Little George to distinguish him from "Big George," the taller half of "Lad and Dad," who instead of the burden of an identical name merely bequeathed his son the door-opening, legacy-honoring, line-cutting, fund-raising functionality of a prominent surname. And perhaps it was because of Dubya's early recognition of the power of names (he would later brag that "Bush" was his most valuable asset) that in the dusty backyards of Midland tract houses, he honed his skill at coining them for others.

It was a black art that carried him far. When he was packed off to Phillips Academy, where sarcasm (irony's nasty little sibling) was the only language spoken, Dubya crafted derogatory nicknames for classmates; but defying custom, he would use them to their face. Such was his cool-guy swagger that he was apparently able to pull this off, if for no other reason than nicknames imply recognition, not nothing in the adolescent struggle for selfhood. And as he attracted new descriptors for himself, like Lip and Tweeds, it was surely during this period that Bush gave nicknaming a permanent place in his social tool kit. It perfectly complemented his aptitude for remembering names and faces, and it was simply too useful a talent to outgrow.

Ever since, Bush has made the nickname his signature gesture of outreach. There is scarcely a legislator left in Texas who hasn't been renamed by Bush. His staff members, from the "High Prophet" (Karen Hughes) to "Big Country" (Joe Allbaugh) to "Boy Genius" (Karl Rove), were all tagged years ago. Members of the press covering Bush now answer like so many fighter pilots to handles as varied as "Stretch," "Pancho," "Grandpa" and "Dulce." And in Washington, Bush has already started spraying nicknames at delegations of visiting lawmakers. George Miller, the hulking Democrat from California, is now known as "Big George." Republican Congressman Fred Upton has earned the belittling moniker "Freddy Boy."

All of this is about control, of course. While nicknames can just as easily be dispensed with affection as with malice, either way the practice is as stone alpha male as social interaction gets. Giving someone a name--any name--is a highly presumptuous act, assuming as it does the right to boil down someone's persona to a sole characteristic--and then legitimize it through repeated use. Of course, Bush has been shrewd in his choices--while sometimes bawdy, his nicknames are rarely pejorative--and he understands that for most people, a pet name suggests intimacy, a special relationship that in fact may be entirely phony.

Moreover, the nicknaming transaction is unilateral, thereby maintaining hierarchical order. Despite the ubiquity of his own countrified nickname in the media, Dubya has never been commonly used in Bush's presence. Even calling the President by his first name seems an unlikely response from Freddy Boy or Big George, who have no choice but to either endure the folksy nomenclature or, putting the best face on it, play into the implied closeness, as if the President and they go way, way back to the sandlots of Midland.

No, you can't exactly refuse a nickname from the Leader of the Free World. If he had a shred of self-respect, what Freddy Boy should want to say is, "Mr. President, I am an elected representative of the people, and I prefer to be addressed with dignity, not faux familiarity, just as you would have me address you." But he cannot. He is either held hostage by good manners, or afraid of being seen as stuffy, or seduced by the signifier that tells the world he's in the club.

That's the thing about a nickname: like it or not, there's really not a damn thing you can do about it.



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Cover Date: February 12, 2001

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