The Presidential Name Game: The Surprisingly Shifting Sands of What Presidents Call Themselves

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David Pietrusza is the author of three volumes (1920, 1948, and 1960) on 20th century presidential elections and well as a forthcoming study on 1932’s contests in the United States and Germany.

When Jeb Bush semi-officially semi-announced his semi-candidacy a thought popped into my head: I didn’t actually know Jeb’s real first name.

The inevitable voyage to Wikipedia soon solved that. The Bush in question is officially and legally John Ellis Bush, but the experience triggered a larger inquiry regarding how very often in the last century we have elected presidents who have not merely touted nicknames (“Silent Cal,” “The Great Engineer,” “Ike,” “Tricky Dick,” “The Great Communicator,” etc.) or simply gone by their famous initials (FDR, JFK, LBJ) but who have significantly altered their bona fide cognomens.

A hundred years ago the lean, intellectual Woodrow Wilson occupied the White House—except that Professor Wilson was in actuality Thomas Woodrow Wilson. The theory is that he transmogrified into the former identity out of his obsession with the number thirteen. There are thirteen letters in “Woodrow Wilson.”


Warren Gamaliel Harding might have been better served by ditching “Gamaliel,” though he didn’t. His vice president and successor, however, John Calvin Coolidge, like Wilson before him, abandoned his first name and emerged, similarly alliteratively, as Calvin Coolidge. There seemed to be no superstitions at work: the future Silent Cal’s father was also “John Coolidge,” and the move may have been simply one to avoid confusion.

Herbert Clark Hoover retained his natal name, though his ancestors had altered Huber to Hoover, just as Franklin Roosevelt’s ancestors had originally been Van Rosevelts or Van Rosenvelts, and the Eisenhowers had previously been Eisenhauers. Beyond that, Dwight David Eisenhower’s parents had christened him David Dwight Eisenhower, but Eisenhower Sr. was also a David Eisenhower, and his son’s brace of given names quickly found themselves reversed. Our most famous First Lady, by the way, was not actually Eleanor Roosevelt but rather Anna Eleanor Roosevelt.

Most recently, of course, Barack Hussein Obama was also temporarily Barry Soetero, a result of adoption by his Indonesian stepfather Lolo Soetoro. Before that William Jefferson Blythe III emerged as William Jefferson Clinton in honor of his own stepfather, Roger Clinton. Similarly, Nebraskan Leslie Lynch King, Jr. became Michigander Gerald Rudolff Ford, Jr. and thenGerald Rudolph Ford, Jr. He was not even cognizant of his original identity until age seventeen.

It is, of course, a possibility, indeed, even an inevitability, that we shall boast a president whose name has changed in a very different manner, perhaps from Rodham to Clinton or Herring to Warren or even Heath to Palin. The idea of Amble to Bachmann, however, appears to have come and gone.

Beyond that, the door remains open for a Rafael Edward answering to “Ted” (Cruz),aPiyush better recognized as “Bobby” (Jindal),aJames Richard now billed as “Rick” (Perry),or even (never say die) a Willard Mitt universally identified as “Mitt.”

About all we might safely rule out for 2016 is “a boy named Sue.”

Though, perhaps, not in 2020. 

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