Why Is Obama's Middle Name Taboo?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

Barack Obama speaks at a rally in Austin, Texas, February 28, 2008.

Barack Hussein Obama, Jr.: that is the full name of the junior Senator from Illinois — neither a contrivance nor, at face value, a slur. But John McCain couldn't apologize quickly enough after Bill Cunningham, a conservative talk radio host, warmed up a Cincinnati rally with a few loaded references to "Barack Hussein Obama." Asked afterwards if it was appropriate to use the Senator's middle name, McCain said, "No, it is not. Any comment that is disparaging of either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama is totally inappropriate."

The pundits were quick to applaud McCain's fatwa against the use of Hussein, and broadcasters began trying to report on the controversy without actually saying the name too much, dancing around the offending word as if they were doing a segment on The Vagina Monologues. In both cases, the word comes off as not quite illicit, but certainly a little taboo.

So who gets to say Hussein? At the Oscars, host Jon Stewart took innuendo about as far as it can go, saying that Barack Hussein Obama running today is like a 1940's candidate named Gaydolph Titler. But that reference, served up to a crowd that presumably swoons for Obama, got laughs. So maybe the H-word is more like the N-word: you can say it, but only if you are an initiate. Blacks can use the N-word; Obama supporters can use the H-word.

Obama's campaign thanked McCain's for his apology, claiming a victory for the high road. Fine. But McCain might also know that if middle names become fair game, John Sidney McCain III has his own liabilities. Recently, it has been the unmanly middle names that have caused their owners the most political trouble. In 2006, Jim Henry Webb hammered home the fact that his Virginia Senate opponent was actually George Felix Allen — a middle name that conjured up images of Felix Unger, or perhaps the real life Prince Felix of Luxemburg, either one a far cry from the tobacco-chewing good ole boy Allen styled himself as. In the last presidential election, both Bush and Kerry had middle names inherited from elite East Coast families. But Bush's middle name had much more swagger; you'll never see a TV show called Forbes, Texas Ranger.

Online, the onomastics are already in high gear. Lefty bloggers, in full Obama rapture, point out that Hussein means "beautiful." One conservative observer insinuated that Obama, as a Christian with a Muslim name, might be marked for death by even our allies in the Islamic world, if they think he converted from Islam (for the record, he was never Muslim). By that ornately twisted logic, though, one might add that it was the martyrdom of Hussein in the year 680, beheaded at Karbala in a clash with the caliphate, that gave rise to 1400 years or so of Sunni/Shi'a violence. So how on earth could Obama be a fair broker in Iraq?

The real problem is that if the right wants to start a whispering campaign about the name Hussein, Obama is only helping them. By cutting short the discussion, Obama is banishing his name to the voters' subconscious, where the dark opposites of hope — bigotry and fear — can turn the word over and over again in their minds until November.

The same day that Cunningham was dropping H-bombs on Cincinnati, Obama was at the Democratic debate in Cleveland, hastily accepting Hillary Clinton's assertion that she didn't order the leak of a picture of Obama wearing a turban in Kenya. "I think that's something we can set aside," he said.

It was a missed opportunity. He could have explained that he has nothing to hide. Explained why there's nothing wrong with him dressing in ceremonial clothes on official visits — like batik Bill in Indonesia in 1994 or headscarf Hillary in Eritrea in 1997. Maybe even explained why his middle name is Hussein — what his heritage means, and what it doesn't mean. In short, to reintroduce himself to those general election voters who are just starting to pay closer attention.

No matter what his advisers say, Obama wins nothing by shying away from his differences. After all, Obama is the candidate of change. He should take a cue from McCain's courage on Iraq. Say what you will about McCain, but he knows he's the war candidate. And though may have regretted saying it out loud, McCain clearly accepts that if voters don't buy his vision for the war, he'll lose. It's not too much risk for Obama to stake his campaign on voters' ability to rationally understand the difference between a Hawaii-born Christian and Saddam Hussein, the butcher of Baghdad.