When Junior Is President, Part 1

This year’s presidential election is, among other things, a two-Junior race. “We hadn’t noticed,” said the novelist Anne Bernays when Chatterbox phoned her and her biographer husband, Justin Kaplan, for comment. Kaplan and Bernays are the co-authors of The Language of Names, a delightful and authoritative book about the meaning of names. (This is a theme Kaplan previously explored in his biographies of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. Bernays’ credentials in this field come partly through blood: She’s the grand-niece of Sigmund Freud and the daughter of Edward Bernays, the “father of public relations.”) Although Bernays and Kaplan had little to say about the deeper meaning of a two-Junior presidential contest–when prompted, they argued that Dubya wasn’t an “authentic Junior” because he is George W. Bush, while his father is George H.W. Bush, a point Chatterbox regards as a quibble–they made clear their general disapproval of Junioring. “We think it’s a very heavy burden for anybody to bear,” Bernays said. “Neither of us would ever name our child a Junior.” (This view is shared by the government of Germany, which forbids a parent to impose his own name on a child.)

The pressures of being a Junior tend to drive offspring either to great success or to mental breakdown. The Language of Names observes that 76 percent of the permanent elected officers of the Harvard Class of 1945 were Juniors, compared to only 21 percent of the class as a whole and about 3 percent of the general population. (This may also reflect the advantages of wealth since in that era Juniors were disproportionately upper class; though in those days almost everybody who went to Harvard was born into the upper class.) But Juniors were also found to be three times as prevalent in the psych ward of a Veterans Administration hospital in Cleveland, circa 1971, as in the population as a whole. This according to a study published 29 years ago by Robert Plank in Names, a journal of “onomastics” (the study of names) put out by the American Name Society. Nobody has ever reproduced Plank’s results–fully 10 percent of the inhabitants Plank found in his Cleveland nuthouse were Juniors–but Edwin D. Lawson, a psychiatrist at State University College, Fredonia, N.Y., found elevated levels of Juniorness among manic depressives when he studied mental patients in Chautauqua County, N.Y., in the late 1980s. “Being ‘junior’ is a pain in the ass,” Lawson told Chatterbox, especially if “the marriage isn’t successful. The wife looks at the kid and hates the bastard.”

The good news is that there seems to be a gut-level sense among experts (none of whom could cite hard evidence) that Junioring is far less prevalent today than it used to be. “I think men are being a little more sensitive these days,” Bernays offered by way of explanation. Edward Callary, an English professor at Northern Illinois University who currently edits Names, observed that today it’s much more common for a father to make his first name the middle name of his first-born son. It should be noted, however, that Al Gore Juniored his own first-born son. This is hard to understand, since Gore must have personally experienced the diminishment that comes from being a Junior; it’s what made him “Al” long before the advantages of a short, informal first name were recognized in politics. (It’s also what reduced Bush to “Dubya.” Dubya never got the chance to Junior a first-born son because he fathered two girls; the Bush family’s third-generation George is Jeb’s son.)

Nine previous presidents have been named after their father. Either Bush or Gore will be the 10th. Chatterbox will examine this historical record tomorrow.

[Correction, 11 p.m.: Whoops, the number of presidents who were named after their father is 14, not nine. Chatterbox neglected to include five presidents who were Juniors but weren’t first-born sons, as Gore and Bush are. Either Bush or Gore will be the 15th president who’s a Junior, not the 10th. Or, if you prefer, either Bush or Gore will be the 10th president who’s a Junior and also a first-born son. Chatterbox will discuss the implications of all this in the next item.]