Is Joe Biden married to a physician? You might have gotten that impression while watching television coverage of the inauguration. “Dr.” Jill Biden’s doctorate is in education, yet word obviously has been sent out from the White House that she should be accorded the honorific that appears on her White House biography.
The vice president’s wife thus joins the select group of non-medicos who are routinely referred to as “Dr.” in much the way that the late singer was denoted “Miss Peggy Lee.” That select company also includes "Dr. Cornell West" (PhD from Princeton) and "Dr. Maya Angelou" (the recipient of a zillion honorary degrees).
Whether to refer to holders of non-medical doctorates as “Dr.” long has bedeviled news organizations. Henry Kissinger and former ambassador to the U.N. Jeane Kirkpatrick sometimes got the honorific treatment, but not the late Sen. George McGovern, who held a PhD in history.
The New York Times, which continues to use courtesy titles in its news coverage, recently referred to former Secretary of State (and University of Denver PhD). Condoleezza Rice as “Ms. Rice” in a story about her new position as a CBS News commentator. But the Gray Lady in the past has described Jill Biden as “Dr. Biden," though she was "Mrs. Biden" in the paper's inauguration coverage.
A recent press release from the office of Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a physician, was headlined: “Dr. Coburn’s Statement on President Obama’s Gun Control Proposals.”
One might question the relevance of Coburn’s medical practice (in which, by the way, he delivered more than 4,000 babies) to his views on gun control. But, for better or worse, referring to physicians as “Dr.” regardless of the context is well entrenched in etiquette, just as priests are called “Father” even outside the confessional. I have lots of friends (and a brother-in-law) with PhDs; none of them expects to be addressed as “Dr.” So what’s up with Jill Biden?
A friend and fellow journalist told me that he often hears from members of under-represented groups (women, minorities) when he doesn’t refer to a PhD from their group as “Dr.” White male PhDs apparently are more nonchalant about their credentials, perhaps because they didn’t have to strive as hard to obtain them. Whatever the explanation, it’s ironic that the spouse of just plain “Joe” Biden should be described as “Dr.” when so many other holders of advanced degrees in public life have to settle for “Mr.” or “Ms.”