Vote for Barry O’Bama!

The perils of running for president with an unusual name.

One-time Democratic nominee Hubert Horatio Humphrey

In January 2007, Rush Limbaugh proclaimed that “the media are in the midst of Obamagasm. Because Obama—that would be ‘Barack Hussein Obama’—has announced the perfunctory predictable exploratory committee.” More than a year later, after denying he’d used Obama’s full three names all that much in the interim, Limbaugh waxed indignant: “What are we going to call him? Barack Fitzgerald Obama? Barack Earl Obama? Should we give him some other middle name?”

If the argument seems a bit disingenuous, that’s in part because nearly 20 years earlier, many conservatives blasted CBS News anchor Dan Rather for referring to the then-vice president as “J. Danforth Quayle.” They argued, reasonably enough, that the full honorific was meant to paint Quayle as Upper-Class Twit of the Year, perhaps a distant relative of J. Alfred Prufrock. “Hussein” tars with a different brush, of course: “He’s a Muslim!” “He’s not a real American!” And there’s also this undeniable historical fact: Americans have rarely elected, or even nominated, a presidential candidate with an unusual name.

Run down the names of the 42 men who have held the office: From Washington to Madison to Grant to Wilson to Clinton to Bush, the names ring with echoes of Northern Europe, of Scotch-Irish or Dutch or German ancestry. Of all our presidents, only one bore a name that could fairly be called unusual: Eisenhower, our only four-syllable president. About that exception, two points:

Everybody called him “Ike.”

When you win a world war, you can have any damn name you want.

For that matter, run down the list of candidates who ran for president and lost, and the story is pretty much the same: Scott and Colfax, Greeley and Davis, Cox and Dewey, Mondale and Kerry. One odd name jumps out from the list: Michael Dukakis. And that hardly went unnoticed. Comedian Pat Paulsen observed that the name of the 1988 Democratic nominee looked like the bottom line on an eye chart. When country singer Crystal Gayle * campaigned for Dukakis’ opponent Vice President George H.W. Bush through central Illinois, she told a crowd, “Why, I can’t even pronounce his name!”

Even vice-presidential candidates have found their names a target. In 1964, GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater made frequent reference to “Hubert Horatio Humphrey.” In reply, the Democratic veep candidate gave a “stern” warning to Goldwater, noting that millions of Americans were afflicted by unwelcome middle names, and that a Goldwater could find himself victim of a “midlash” (as opposed to backlash, then in vogue as a term for racial resentment). Humphrey’s middle name proved a genuine liability years later when, during this 1980 acceptance speech, President Jimmy Carter paid tribute to the deceased liberal icon by mistakenly calling him “Hubert Horatio Hornblower—Humphrey!” (Call it a portent.)

As the Horatio Hornblower example illustrates, it’s too simple to say that what we’re talking about here is bigotry. Some names just lend themselves to making fun. But there are also names that evoke one of humankind’s oldest instincts: the fear of strangers. Once upon a time—a long, long time—this hard-wired instinct made sense. Who knew what dangers were posed by someone from another clan, another tribe, who spoke in a different tongue? Today, in a time when most of us have been exposed (one hopes) to a wide range of people, there are clear signs that political xenophobia has lessened. There are, for example, 13 Jews in the U.S. Senate, while Jews make up about 1.4 percent of the population. And the Jewish senators don’t come only from the likeliest states. Four of the six senators from the upper Midwest are Jews, including both from Wisconsin (Jewish population, 0.5 percent).

On the other hand, there’s unfamiliar—and then there’s really unfamiliar plus bad connotations. In his 2004 convention speech, Obama referred to himself as a “skinny kid with a funny name,” and he has joked about people calling him everything from “Osama” to “yo mama.” There’s the oddity of his name, to white American ears. And then there’s its similarity to both a murderous dictator and the most wanted terrorist in the world. That this is too tempting for his political opponents to resist is not, I think, a matter of appealing to racism nearly as much as an attempt to reinforce the slogan Jesse Helms delivered in defeating Greek candidate Nick Galifianakis for the Senate in 1972: “Vote for Helms—He’s One of Us!” If Colin Powell had decided to run for president in 1996, that message would have been much harder to communicate.

Can Obama play the name game, too? Well, he might try recruiting some of America’s best-known athletes. Maybe make a campaign ad with Hakeem Olajuwon, both Kareem Abdul-Jabbars—the ex-L.A. Laker and the Miami Dolphin—and, of course, Muhammad Ali. Either that or change his first name back to Barry, put an apostrophe between the “O” and the “b” in Obama, and go all out for the Irish vote.

Correction, May 27, 2008: The singer’s name was originally spelled wrong. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)