How to Address a Former President of the United States

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   2. Use of Rank by
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   3. Q&A on
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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

Bill Clinton: What to Call Him
If He Becomes the "First Husband"

WASHINGTON, July 21, 2016 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/

When Bill Clinton first won the presidency, the form of address used for him and the first lady, Hillary, was as follows:
     The President and Mrs. Clinton

This form of address fits into the traditional formula in writing: The President and Mrs. (Surname) and in conversation:
     Mr./Madam President and Mr./Mrs. (Surname).

If Hillary Clinton wins the current presidential election, Bill Clinton will be a first: the first First Husband, Spouse, Partner, or Significant Other.

So, how will the White House staff address Bill Clinton? How will his name appear with the President's on invitations?  How will his place card read at a state dinner? How should the media address him or refer to him?  Perhaps First Gentleman Bill Clinton, awkward as that might seem? According to Robert Hickey, author of The Protocol School of Washington's Honor and Respect: The Official Guide to Names, Titles and Forms of Address, the formula for the husband of President of the United States (POTUS) has been around for a long time. It just hasn't been used thus far:

In writing: The President and Mr. (Full Name)

As a former elected official, Bill Clinton does have a special title. He is "the Honorable." Using this courtesy title fits right in without a hitch.

In writing: The President and the Honorable (Full Name)

However, which version of Bill Clinton's full name would be correct?  That is a matter of how formal a reporter or social secretary chooses to be for any given occasion. Bill Clinton, William J. Clinton, or William Jefferson Clinton might be frequent choices.

Still, two questions linger:

1. How should he be addressed in direct conversation or as a salutation?
     a.  Mr. Clinton
     b.  President Clinton

2. How should reporters refer to him in order to not mislead or confuse their audience on who is the current president and who is not?
     a.  Mr. Clinton
     b.  President Clinton
     c.  Former President Clinton

According to Hickey, the right option for both questions would be  a. Mr. Clinton.

"While it is common practice in the media and elsewhere to address and identify former presidents as 'President (Name),' this is a mistake," said Hickey. "Serving as President of the United States does not grant one the personal rank of 'President' for life. The office of President is a one-person-at-a-time role that a specific individual holds and then hands off to the next person."

"Courtesies, honors, and special forms of address are symbols of the power of the office. They belong to the office and to the citizens, not former office holders."

Hickey goes on to say the media and the public should be wary of identifying or addressing previous holders of the presidency and other unique offices by referring to them as "former (title)." This qualifier diminishes the singular prestige of both the office and its current occupant and is potentially misleading/confusing to their audience.

"There is an accepted term of respect used for previous presidents and other elected U.S. officials to recognize their service. This title is one of high distinction that they keep for life: she or he is addressed as "the Honorable (Full Name)."

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

     Yes, but everyone uses President (last name).
               --- Anna McDonald, Stafford, Virginia

     Do they? Are presidents of organizations and companies addressed as President (surname)? Do these former office holders keep the rank President forever?
      President is it not typically used as an honorific and formers go back to what they were before. President is a role, not a rank.  You do hear it in the media where they have a need to identify politicians, but you won't see formers so addressed in official situations where noting who is currently in power -- and who is not -- is important.
                          -- 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 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 ...
    1. I suggest you not use the word "former". if you feel necessary to define his prior service it's better to include he was the 43rd President or he served as president from 2001 to 2009. "Former" sounds so 'has been'.
    2. It's not necessary to identify that she was the First Lady.
    3. 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 "Laura Bush" as opposed to "Barbara Bush".)   So I would probably consider:
    [Company X] commends the leadership, dedication, and commitment of The Honorable George W. Bush and Laura Bush in their efforts ...
             -- 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         
Sequence Post-Nominal Abbreviations: Sr., Jr., etc.    
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      

Tribal Officials 
Clergy and Religious Officials           
Canadian Officials         
Australian Officials          
British Officials, Royalty, and Nobility        
Diplomats and International Representatives
Foreign National Officials and Nobility        

Author's Name on His/Her Book       
Business Cards, Names on
Introductions, Names in
Invitations: Names on
Invitations: Names of Armed Service Personnel on        
Name Badges & Tags            
Names on Programs, Signs, & Lists            
Naming a Building or Road            
Place Cards            

Plaques, Awards, Diplomas, Certificates, Names on    
Precedence: Ordering Officials 
Tombstones, Names on      

Site updated by Robert Hickey on 17 October 2016

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For forms of address for invitations, place cards, name badges, introductions, conversation, and all other formal uses, see Honor & Respect: the Official Guide to Names, Titles, and Forms of Address.

Copyright © 2016 Robert Hickey.     All Rights Reserved.
Photo: Marc Goodman.

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Honor & Respect is dedicated to Dorothea Johnson, Founder of The Protocol School of Washington®