Who Gets To Keep Their Government Titles?

“Secretary Cheney.” “Secretary Baker.” “Secretary Christopher.” Are these former Cabinet secretaries within their rights to use their old rankings?


Cabinet secretaries, and even presidents, can pack up their embossed matchbooks when they depart from office, but they are they supposed to leave their titles behind. That means Cheney, Baker, and Christopher should be referred to as “Mr.”

Come Jan. 20, President Clinton will turn into a pumpkin and should be called “Mr.” as well because there is only one president–whoever that may be. The founding fathers thwarted the impulse toward self-inflation when they wrote, in Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution, “No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States.” Since Americans can’t run around calling themselves viscount and marquis, it’s generated a huge hunger to hang onto that high government title. According to the State Department Office of Protocol (protocol means that’s just the way it is, so don’t blame Explainer), even ambassadors are supposed to revert to Mr. or Ms. once they return from Barbados. The exception is those few ambassadors given a lifetime designation of the title by the president and Senate in recognition of distinguished service–Ambassador Thomas Pickering, undersecretary of state, is one. If you want a title you can properly parade for a lifetime, become a governor or a U. S. senator. They get to keep theirs, but not members of the House of Representatives. Supreme Court justices not only get lifetime tenure, but lifetime titles. And once a four-star general or admiral, always a general or an admiral. And anyone who has won elective office, held a position appointed by the president, or been confirmed by the senate gets to be called “Honorable” in formal address (as this Explainer explains).

Next question?

Explainer thanks reader Mark Clark for suggesting the question.