You can call Sen. Rand Paul crazy or you can him a visionary, but in either case some people — including the 2016 Republican presidential candidate’s social media staff — also want you to call him “Dr. Rand Paul.”
That’s the way the Kentucky ophthalmologist-turned-politician is described on his Twitter page (though his username is just plain @RandPaul).
So far the news media — or that shrinking portion of it that still uses courtesy titles — isn’t going along. This is from Thursday’s New York Times story about Paul’s decision to accept campaign contributions in Bitcoins:
“The novelty of the payment method is likely to help Mr. Paul highlight his edgy appeal to other libertarians, tech-savvy voters, young people and others who favor Bitcoins.”
The Gray Lady hasn’t been consistent when it comes to political figures who graduated from medical school. In a 2009 article about former Vermont Gov. (and Democratic presidential hopeful) Howard Dean, the NYT referred to him on second and subsequent reference as “Dr. Dean.” (On Twitter, Dean’s handle is @GovHoward Dean.)
But partisanship may be less of a factor than continued confusion about whether politicians with medical degrees should be called "Dr." Even Rand Paul's supporters are inconsistent. He's "Dr. Rand Paul" on Twitter but "Sen. Paul" in the press releases put out by his Senate staff.
You'd think we would have settled on a single usage, given the number of physicians who have gone into politics, including Haiti’s François “Papa Doc” Duvalier; Benjamin Spock, who ran for president of the United States in 1972 as the candidate of the People's Party; and Paul's father, Ron.
The easiest solution would be to call all politicians "Mr." "Ms." — medical degree or not. That would be in keeping with the impatience a lot of Americans feel with holders of other sorts of doctorates who insist on being addressed as “Dr.”
The problem is that deference to doctors is deeply rooted in social custom to the point that a professional credential has acquired almost ontological significance. Physicians are addressed as “Dr.” even on the golf course, just as a priest is “Father” even if he isn’t wearing his collar or administering the sacraments.
Still, it seems vaguely anti-democratic for someone with an M.D. to insist on being called “Dr.” when he is practicing politics, not medicine. If Paul were to be elected next year, would he be addressed as "Dr. President"?
When I was in my hometown of Pittsburgh over Easter weekend, I heard an ad on local TV for a lecture by “Dr. Charles Krauthammer.” I found it jarring because Krauthammer, a psychiatrist before he turned to political punditry, probably wasn’t going to be talking about Freud or transference. Krauthammer’s byline in the Washington Post isn't “Charles Krauthammer, M.D.”
By the same token, Paul and his supporters should ditch the “Dr.” — unless he’s diagnosing a voter’s cataracts or macular degeneration.
Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3