Watchdog Blog

Mary C. Curtis: It’s just a name

Posted at 2:56 pm, December 18th, 2008
Mary Curtis Mug

What’s in a name?

I know what’s in mine. My grandmother on my mother’s side died when my older sister was an infant. My parents promised that if they had another daughter, they would honor my late grandmother. So that’s how this fifth and final child of Thomas and Evelyn Curtis came to be named Mary Cecelia. And that – not pretension – is why I use my middle initial. I honor a woman I never knew every time I sign my name or type a byline.

Which brings me to Barack Hussein Obama. He has announced that, honoring tradition, he will use his full name when he is sworn in. It’s true that not every president has followed that rule. But it is done often enough – think John Fitzgerald Kennedy and William Jefferson Clinton – to make the practice more than a formality.

Obama was named for his father, a pattern familiar to many Americans – including my oldest brother — nicknamed “Junior.”

Obama said he is “not trying to make a statement one way or another.” But he has also said that in his presidency, he will try to “reboot America’s image” among the world’s Muslims, and will make a speech in a Muslim capital as part of his effort.

All that would be simple enough if we had not had a campaign in which Obama’s middle name, spoken at Republican rallies, was used to cast doubts on his patriotism and his very American-ness. John McCain angered conservative radio personality Bill Cunningham when the candidate repudiated him for using Obama’s full name at rallies. (Cunningham occasionally added a fourth name, calling the candidate “Barack Mohammed Hussein Obama,” in case anyone missed his point.)

Because of the late Iraqi leader, “Hussein” is a name many will always say with a sneer. The late King Hussein of Jordan will forever be supplanted by Saddam Hussein as the Hussein of record in most Americans’ minds. Barack Obama acknowledged as much when he joked at this year’s Al Smith dinner that “I got my middle name from somebody who obviously didn’t think I’d ever run for president.”

People laughed. But it’s not so funny, I suspect, for Muslim Americans who must now explain their name as well as their faith.

It’s historic. America has an African American president. But the fact that even he must explain something as ordinary as his name – instead of simply being proud of it — proves we still have a way to go.

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