There a Dr. in the House?
By Jay Nordlinger
A shorter version of this article appears in the Feb. 11 NR.
hats in an honorific? Not Shakespearean, I realize, but it is our topic for today. The question came up not for the first time when the New York Times ran its several articles on the Cornel West controversy at Harvard. (West, a star professor in the Afro-American Studies department, was tiffing with the universitys new president, Lawrence Summers. It seems that Summers wanted West to straighten up his scholarly and professorial act. West, quite naturally, got upset.) Some of us suspicious types noticed that the Times referred to West and other Afro-Am profs as Dr. Dr. West, Dr. Gates, Dr. Wilson while referring to Summers as plain ol Mr. (The Times did the same with the schools former president, Neil Rudenstine. All these people have Ph.D.s, of course.) This was passing strange the kind of thing that made you go, Hmmm, in the words of the old rap song.
Hows that? First, the Times seldom refers to any Ph.D. as Dr. The head of Mt. Sinai Hospital, yes; the Nobel Prize winner in physics, perhaps. But an English prof or a sociologist or a drama teacher or something? Unusual. Second, all of the men referred to as Dr. were black, while the palefaces were Mr. Was this an act of racial condescension, the attempt of a great liberal newspaper to puff these aggrieved black academics whose seriousness and academic legitimacy are repeatedly and rightly questioned up? It seemed to many of us that this was likely. Issues of this kind were addressed by Roger Kimball in the last NR, in his piece on the West controversy, titled, pointedly enough, Dr. West and Mr. Summers.
The Times werent the only white liberals in the game. Al Hunt, in his column for the Wall Street Journal, referred to West as Dr., Professor, and Mr., covering all bases (and that was a lot of titles for a short column); Summers got Mr. and President.
These questions may seem trivial and they are trivial, in the context of a war against terrorism and all but they include in them enduring cultural and national questions. Cornel West and his like (not that there are many of his like, West being a pretty singular character) are very big on pride, self-esteem, and what Aretha Franklin called R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Hes exactly the type to insist on, and elicit, Dr. (though hes also been known to refer to himself with great frequency, as a matter of fact as Brother West).
It turns out that West did indeed insist on Dr. It is the policy of the New York Times to leave it up to the individual to the individual Ph.D.-holder, that is how he is to be referred to in the paper (though Dr. cant be used for an honorary degree, thank goodness). (Physicians and dentists get Dr. as a matter of course.) A senior news editor at the Times confirmed to me that West has informed the paper that he wants Dr., while Summers the youngest man ever tenured in the Harvard economics department, by the way wants Mr. (Arthur Schlesinger Jr. by the way, again has fought all his life against being called Dr. He never earned a Ph.D., having been made a Harvard professor without one. Come to think of it, this may speak well for a Ph.D.)
Another official at the Times in the public-relations department told me that the papers reporters make it a habit to ask subjects who hold Ph.D.s how theyd like to be referred to. This, however, would be news to many people. I know several people Ph.D.-holders whove been quoted regularly in the Times for many years who tell me theyve never been asked such a question. (Theyre called Mr. or Ms. ) These include big-time, true-blue, super-serious academics. When I mentioned this to the senior news editor, he replied that these people need only give the word, and theyll be Dr. (You know who you are; be it on your conscience.)
In the West controversy, the Times wasnt quite consistent. In late December right off the bat West was Dr. But in a January 13 article, he was Mr. (No word yet on whether hes planning a lawsuit.) (For that matter, Dr. Gates Henry Louis Skip Gates Jr. was merely Mr., too.) On December 29, Charles Ogletree a (black) law professor at Harvard and a key ally of West was Mr. Later, on January 4, he was bumped to Dr. It would appear that he requested Dr. (although the particular reporter could have bestowed it on her own). It would also appear that Ogletree is the first law prof in history, or at least recent history, to be called Dr. in the Times, or most anywhere else. (Dr. Bork, anyone?)
As for the Wall Street Journal, the stylebook says that a Ph.D. is called Dr. if appropriate in context and if the individual desires it. The editorial page, however always independent and (gloriously) contrarian wont give you Dr. unless you wear a white coat and stethoscope. The paper at large also requires that Martin Luther King, though dead, be called Dr. King, always. And this, the editorial page follows. King is virtually the only non-physician in this society always to be called Dr. (and virtually the only dead person as well).
In fact, Dr. King is one of the great linguistic sacred cows in America. The Times does Dr. King, too, though many great and eminent persons who are dead are referred to in those pages by their last names only (e.g., Einstein). (Odd that Martin Luther King should be more a doctor than Einstein, dont you think?) It was one of Bill Bennetts masterstrokes, while he was secretary of education, to refer to King as Rev. King. One year, he was the Reagan cabinet member selected to go down to Atlanta to represent the administration on Martin Luther King Day. He made a point of referring to the great man as Rev. King, which was both startling and soothing to the ear. Bennett was reminding his audience of the religious nature of this figure, at a time when conservatives in general were trying to restore the place of religion in public affairs.
Why, indeed, should King be Dr.? It is true that ours is a country in which black men, not long ago, were routinely called boy (or worse); we are properly conscious of dignity and redress. But what is more significant about MLK? That he repeatedly put his life on the line so that black Americans could, at long last, become fully Americans eventually losing his life because of it or that, early in his life, he managed to plagiarize his way to a Ph.D.? Anyone, practically, can get a Ph.D.; very few can be a Martin Luther King Jr.
Back to the Times for a moment: It still burns many old-timers that the paper once referred to Fidel Castro as Dr. Castro. (The dictator took a law degree from the University of Havana.) The queer practice of Dr. Castro lives on among certain leftists, and in many British newspapers, not only the Guardian, which loves Communist dictators, but the Daily Telegraph, which doesnt. Of course, absolute rulers are always lavishing titles on themselves (including General, although, as many have noted, its strange that Col. Qaddafi never moved himself up). Elena Ceausescu, the late (and bullet-riddled) First Lady of Romania, gave herself a Ph.D. in chemistry. She also had chemists write books in her name and arranged to have many prizes awarded to her in that discipline.
In 1986, the Times achieved something of a stylistic breakthrough, assenting to Ms. This allowed Gloria Steinem to utter what must be the best line of her career: Now I dont have to be Miss Steinem from Ms. magazine. Put it in Bartletts, maybe. The Times is pro-choice on a womans honorific, as on abortion: One can select Miss, Mrs., or Ms. Hillary Clinton must have chosen Mrs. somewhere along the line. Imagine the thought process the machinations, the considerations, the strategic ins and outs that went into her decision!
Besides Martin Luther King, the most famous non-stethoscope-wearing Dr. in America is Kissinger though HK long ago asked the Times to call him Mr. (which it does). (Ive always thought Dr. Kissinger rather natural for the man, given his background in Germany: Herr Doktor and all that.) Another former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, had a curious transformation. At first in the Times, she was Mrs.; then Ms.; then, finally, she was Dr. at her request (Doctors Orders, as a title in the Times put it!). (Must be the funniest Times headline ever, which, admittedly, isnt saying much.) As the paper reported in that story, Albright asked for Dr. because I worked hard for it (meaning, her Ph.D.). The Times recorded that she wondered whether the change might make her appear insecure, but she went ahead and asked for it anyway. Her teacher at Columbia, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter administration, is Mr. in the Times.
Condoleezza Rice, the current national security adviser, is Ms. Rice her choice. Yet White House spokesmen routinely refer to her as Dr. Rice. This is somewhat strange, because the presidents chief economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsey, is very much a Dr. Ph.D. in economics from Harvard but is never, as far as I can tell, called Dr. Hes Mr. (or just Larry). Why should this be? Is this a sneaking bit of racial condescension or puffery? Is it a bit of gender-related condescension or puffery? Is it a harkening back to an earlier national security adviser, Dr. K? Or it is because there are a lot of Texans and southerners around the White House?
There is very much a North/South split in this country about Dr., as about so many other things. It is common practice for professors in the South to be called Dr. At the universities I attended northern you would sooner have struck a professor than called him Dr. In fact, it was something if the sullen and self-absorbed students grunted their acknowledgement of the prof at all.
Feelings about Dr. are bound up in that bitch-goddess, Status. (Yes, I know: James said Success. But Status is a sister.) The best line in either Austin Powers movie belongs to Dr. Evil, who, when addressed as Mr., says, I didnt spend six years in evil medical school to be called Mr., thank you very much! Our senior editor Jeffrey Hart, professor emeritus of English at Dartmouth, remembers serving as a campaign adviser to Nixon (not that this is necessarily a segue from evil). To Jeffs amusement, Nixon called him Dr. Hart. This accords with the Nixon we know: class-conscious, status-nervous, chip-on-the-shouldery, the boy from Whittier who received a tuition scholarship to Harvard but couldnt go, because the family didnt have the money to transport him to and from Massachusetts. Nixon, according to Jeff, would also say, Im no Ph.D., but . . ., before launching into a disquisition on some arcane topic.
For some, to be called Dr. is a way of saying, I am somebody, in the words of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. (Ah, the Rev. Mr. Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton thats a whole nother article, as we say in my family.) Many years ago, another NR senior editor, Rick Brookhiser, surveying all the mail sent to Bill Buckley, adjudged that the most interesting letters were those from prison. And the least interesting? The ones from people who signed themselves Ph.D. I know someone whos a lawyer in West Virginia who has found that the surest way to rattle his oppositions expert Ph.D. witness is to refer to him as Mr.
But then, I have another acquaintance who earned a Ph.D. in biochem and he pleads for his Dr. because, There arent many perks in this line of work, and Id like my little payoff from polite society. Well, at least hes not a drama teacher. The bulk of the Ph.D.s I know balk at being called anything but Mr. (or maybe Professor, in the case of academics), believing that Dr. has come to mean Marcus Welby, and thats about it. As for those who feel slighted when they are Dr.-less, all we can say is, Ph.D., heal thyself.