How to Address a Former President of the United States

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How to Address a
Former President of the United States

FYI, here is what's come in to the Blog that relates to this office/rank.
   For recent questions sent in, check out Robert Hickey's Blog.

   For specific offices/ranks, check out Robert Hickey's On-Line Guide.

Link to Q&A just on How to Address the Current President

Is a Former President
Addressed as President (name)?

I have been directing people to refer to former presidents
as President (last name). Is that correct?
    --- Anna McDonald, Stafford, Virginia

Dear Ms. McDonald:

    This issue is complicated since we hear former Presidents referred to as President Clinton and President Bush on the media all the time; Here's what is the correct formula as it appears in my book (assuming they didn't have an honorific other than Mr./Ms. to go back to ... as General Dwight D. Eisenhower did.): 
    Former President of the United States
    Envelope, official:
       The Honorable
       (Full name)
    Letter salutation: Dear Mr./Ms. (surname):
    Conversation: Mr./Ms. (surname)

    Here's the WHY behind the correct form. This
is the traditional approach for any office of which there is only one office-holder at a time. So, with officials such as mayors, governors or presidents ... only the current office holder is addressed as Mr. Mayor, Governor, or Mr. President ... formers are not addressed that way.
    That's not to say some reporter might not call a former mayor Mayor Smith
or a former president President (Surname). But doing so is incorrect and confusing to the public. The former office holder is no longer due the precedence and courtesies we extend to the current office holder. He or she speaks with the authority of a private citizen. We honor former office holder's service, but the 'form of address' -- which acknowledges the responsibilities and duties of office -- belongs only to current office holder.
    With offices of which are many
office-holders at a time ... senators, admirals, judges, etc. addressing 'formers' with their former honorific not disrespectful to a singular current office holder.    
     To explain the correct form I would say
"using the title of a former position is flattering to the former official and he or she may not correct you, but is not respectful to the current office holder.  There's only one "(name of the office)" at a time."
                          -- Robert Hickey

How to Address a Former President
of the United States in Conversation?

   Greeting from Canada. I will meet President Clinton in a few weeks in person.  What should I call him when I meet him or when I introduce others to him: Mr. Clinton, or President Clinton? Thanks for your help.
        -- Politico, Toronto
Hi Politico:
    Former Presidents of the United States are most formally directly addressed as Mr. (Name) and are identified as "President of the United States from Year-Year". 
    You will hear the media say President Clinton in a news story to be clear who is being discussed. The media using "President (Name)" in the third person makes many think it is a correct form of address.
The correct form for formal introduction -- e.g. from a podium before his speech to the audience would be something like ... It is my pleasure to introduce The Honorable William Jefferson Clinton.
    In conversation address him as Mr. Clinton. 

    If you make an introduction say Mr. Clinton may I present...

        -- Robert Hickey

How to Address Former President Bill Clinton,
Former Secretary of State
(and Senator) Hillary Clinton,
Chelsea & Her Husband?

     Hi, Robert!  As you know, I sing with Lionheart – and we sang at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last night. We were surprised by some special audience members – Bill and Hillary Clinton, Chelsea and Chelsea's husband, Mark Mezvinsky.
    Lionheart would like to send them a note thanking them for coming to come hear us.  To whom should it be addressed? and what would be the proper salutation?  I know it's “Mr. Clinton” and not “President Clinton”, but I'm not sure how to handle a mix of current office-holder, past President, daughter and daughter's fiancé all at once: “Dear Clintons,”?

           -- Kurt-Owen Richards, The bass-baritone in Lionheart

Hi Kurt:
    It’s great that the Clintons came to hear you. I enjoyed seeing you perform at the Lionheart concert at The Cloisters in December. 
    This is probably the most frequently asked question I get, though you are the FIRST PERSON who wasn't asking as a rhetorical question!
     It's a bit odd to address a letter to a group of people who don't live or work together (as you would a family or colleagues at the same office.)  But that said I will go with it, and tell you how to do it correctly if you are sending just one note.
    The Clintons et. al.: For a social envelope could be ....
       The Honorable William Clinton
       The Honorable Hillary Clinton
       and Mr. and Mrs. Mark Mezvinsky
    You could add "Jefferson" -- his middle name ... and "Rodham" to hers if you want to.
    [And I decided to address Chelsea and her husband in the traditional way for couple.  It's possible they would be Mr. Mark Mezvinsky and Ms. Chelsea Clinton if she never uses Mezvinsky.]
     The salutation would be
        Dear Mr. Clinton, Senator Clinton, Mr. and Mrs. Mezvinsky,
    Bill is first and Hillary is second because former Presidents are #5 on the White House Precedence List.  A former Secretary of State is #19.  A former Senator is not even on the list.
     I include a version of a White House Precedence List in my book so you can look this sort of order up.
    Hillary Clinton doesn't go by Secretary Clinton after leaving office. Being a secretary, like many jobs, does not come with a personal rank that continues forever. She goes back to the last form of address to which she was entitled – and that was Senator.  Former Senators (unlike Secretaries) do continue to be addressed as Senator after they leave office.

            -- Robert Hickey

How to Address an Invitation's Inside Envelope
to The Clintons?

Dear Mr. Hickey,
       I just received your book and it is a wealth of information!  I am addressing a wedding invitation to the Clinton's.  I understand, per your answer, that the outer envelope would be addressed as follows:
    The Honorable
William Jefferson Clinton
    and The Honorable
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Would the inner envelope be addressed Mr. and Mrs. Clinton?
    -- Many thanks, Claudia

Dear Ms. Engle,
    Really happy you are finding the book useful. Since you have it ... here's where where you should look to find the answers to your questions:
    See on page 167 for all the forms of address for a former president
    Former cabinet secretaries go back to whatever form of address to which they were entitled to before they assumed office, though they are certainly described as former Secretary of .... .  Former senators DO continue to be addressed as Senator (Name) so that's what it traditionally correct for Hillary.
    So, what's correct is:
      Mr. Clinton and Senator Clinton
    -- Robert Hickey

How To List a Former President of the United States in a Program?
      I have your book and I find it very useful.  We have an event coming up in May and I want to be sure I have listed the public officials correctly in the program. I’m not quite sure how to list former President George W. Bush. My inclination is to list him has Former President George W. Bush. Is this correct?  Your advice is greatly appreciated!
         -- SS., American Wind Energy Association, Washington, DC

Dear SS:
     Listing officials in a program is a bit different that addressing them directly, but if you want to use the form used in direct address ... it is absolutely O.K.
     Former presidents are The Honorable:
           The Honorable George W. Bush
     Not sure you need to identify that he's a former president, people will know that. If you want to, I generally avoid 'former' since it sounds so has-been.  I if you need to list something after his name, consider ...
           43rd President of the United States
President of the United States, 2001-2009
          -- Robert Hickey

How to Refer to a Former
President and First Lady in Text?

     I was thrilled to get your book as a gift. I am enlisting your advice on the correct way to phrase the following message:
    [Company X ] commends the leadership, dedication, and commitment of former president George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush in their efforts to provide hope for cancer patients in their fight against cancer.
             -- Nelson Jacques

Dear Mr. Jacques:
    Most formally it would be:
    [Company X] commends the leadership, dedication, and commitment of The Honorable George W. Bush and Mrs. Bush in their efforts to provide hope for cancer patients in their fight against cancer.
    1. It's really not necessary to identify that he was The President and she was the First Lady. People know that.
    2. Mrs. Bush liked to be referred to by her first and last name  "Laura Bush."  (Probably to be specific that the First Lady "Mrs. Bush" was "Mrs. Laura Bush" as opposed to "Mrs. Barbara Bush".)   So also consider:
    [Company X] commends the leadership, dedication, and commitment of The Honorable George W. Bush and Laura Bush in their efforts to provide hope for cancer patients in their fight against cancer.
             -- Robert Hickey

How to Refer to a
Former President of the United States?

     I learned forms of address before there were television "readers' who spoke of  current-president of the United States George W. Bush as "Mr. (Last Name)", yet called a former president as "President (Last Name)."
      In the 1940s,  I was taught that judges and senators were entitled to continue using their titles because there are many judges and senators, but since there is only one president at a time, a former president resumed an earlier title held by him.
       You are more cognizant of today's forms of address. Have things changed? I would appreciate it if you would bring me up to date!
              --- Mrs. S.L.S.

Hi Mrs. S.L.S.
    What you hear in the media are not forms of address: they are reporters specifying for clarity in the third person a person in the context of their story. So, referring to "President Clinton" "President Kennedy" and "President Obama" are all clear ways of referring to a person in a written story or newscast.
    In direct address "Mr. President" is still correct ... and IS USED CURRENTLY at the White House by The President's staff, government officials, and members of the diplomatic corp.
    The one-at-a-time rule continues to be correct.
    Eisenhower went back to "General Eisenhower" -- as you note -- there are more than one general at a time.  There are plenty of admirals, senators, and judges at one time, too.
     In Arkansas there is only one Governor at a time so I wouldn't call him "Governor Clinton" The correct form of direct address would  be "Mr. Clinton."  In a formal introduction from a podium you could identify him as The Honorable (full name), Governor of Arkansas (year-to-year) and the 42nd President of the United States.
    I've seen Newt Gingrich addressed on the Sunday-morning news shows as "Speaker Gingrich." It is wrong.  He was "Mr. Speaker." Now he is Mr. Gingrich / 58th Speaker of the House or
Mr. Gingrich / Speaker of the House 1995-1999.  I am certain he knows it's not correct, but for whatever reason he did not correct them.
         -- Robert Hickey

Not Finding Your Question Answered?
Below are other topics covered in my blog and at right is a list of officials, Between the two I probably have what you are looking for.
     After hunting around a bit, if you don't see your question answered send me an e-mail. I am pretty fast at sending a reply: usually the next day (unless I am traveling.)
      If I think your question is of interest to others, I will post the question & answer – with your name and any personal specifics changed.
      -- Robert Hickey

Mr., Miss, Jr., III, & Names        
Married Women       
Deceased Persons         
People with Two Titles
Post-Nominal Abbreviations and Initials         
Couples: Private Citizens / Joint Forms of Address 
Couples: U.S. Military / Joint Forms of Address     
Couples: U.S. Officials / Joint Forms of Address      

Former Officials            
Professionals and Academics        

United States Federal Officials, Currently In Office             
United States State Officials, Currently In Office              
United States Municipal Officials, Currently In Office             
       All About The Honorable with U.S. Officials         
       Former United States Officials of all types             
United States Armed Services
       Addressing Active Duty Personnel              
       Addressing Retired Personnel      
       Use of Rank by Retired Personnel      
       Use of Rank by Veterans      

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Australian Officials          
British Officials, Royalty, and Nobility        
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Business Cards       
Flags and Anthem Protocol             
Invitations: Writing & Addressing
Invitations: Just Armed Service Personnel        
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Plaques, Awards, Diplomas, Certificates    
Precedence: Ordering Officials 
Thank You Notes             

Site updated by Robert Hickey on January 20, 2015

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