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For example John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson (and hence JFK, FDR, LBJ).

How did this styling originate? It seems to have ended with Nixon. I don't when it started, but there were a few in the 19th century as well. Was it just presidents, or politicians, or the general population?


Further thoughts ...

There was an uninterrupted stretch, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson.

It does not seem to apply to the general populace. Think of writers, film stars, jazz musicians, scientists. It was very rare. The few other American politicians I can think of from this era (Adlai Stevenson, Joe McCarthy) - I don’t know their middle initials.

Did these presidents adopt the middle inital only when they achieved office? Is it a style they adpoted themselves, or was it established by the press?

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Yeah, I always wondered about Michael J. Fox. –  Chris Dwyer Aug 17 '10 at 14:41
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@Chris Dwyer Michael J. Fox had to use a middle initial because there was already a Michael Fox registered in the Screen Actors' Guild. Funny enough, his middle name is actually Andrew, but he didn't like "Michael A. Fox". –  Kosmonaut Aug 17 '10 at 20:15
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Well, at least in the case of GW Bush it is pretty clear why his middle initial got used a lot. Something just seems undignified about the Jr. suffix at the end of a president's name. –  JohnFx Aug 25 '10 at 15:37
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@JohnFx - and, strictly speaking, the 43rd POTUS is not a "Jr", as his father's name is "George Herbert Walker Bush", and his is "George Walker Bush" –  warren Aug 25 '10 at 17:13
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@warren - Thanks for the clarification. I wasn't exactly sure whether the middle name counted in the rules for being a "Jr." –  JohnFx Aug 25 '10 at 18:44
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5 Answers 5

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Safire's Political Dictionary by William Safire says this under initials, presidential.

A contribution made by newspaper-headline writers to American history. Before 1932, the President was referred to in headlines as the President, or by his last name, occasionally by his nickname ("Teddy," "Cal"), once by his initials (T.R. for Theodore Roosevelt). Presidents, in signing brief memos, would often use the initial of their first name (A. Lincoln).

Franklin D. Roosevelt initialed memos "FDR" and his staff referred to him that way. This proved a boon to headline writers, saving six spaces on both "Roosevelt" and "President." Use of initials was terse but not disrespectful, as "Frank" might have been. English newspapers had long followed the practice: Gladstone was headlined as "GOM" (Grand Old Man). Following FDR, HST was immediately adopted as short for Harry S Truman. Though Eisenhower initialed short notes "DE," his nickname was short and famous enough to take the place of initials, though "Ike" was considered too familiar for The New York Times.

Irreverent headlines writers who referred to John F. Kennedy as "Jack" before his election quickly switched to "JFK" afterward. Ted Sorensen wrote: "JFK - as he persuaded the headline writers to call him, not to imitate FDR but to avoid the youthful 'Jack.'"

Even before his association with FDR [I think he means JFK], LBJ was preoccupied with initials: Lady Bird Johnson, Lynda Bird and Luci Baines all carried the same initials, as did his ranch [and his dog Little Beagle Johnson]. "All the Way With LBJ" was used as a preconvention slogan in 1960, but achieved little national recognition. Johnson became LBJ outside his own circle only after he became President. In 1964 he used his initials in campaign advertising: "USA for LBJ."

Jimmy Carter avoided using his initials because "J.C." is usually associated with Jesus Christ. Richard Nixon's last name was short, which meant headline writers did not need "RN"; miffed, the former President used initials as the title of his 1978 memoirs. Jerry Ford's name was even shorter, doing away with the need for a gruff "GRF." Neither Reagan nor the elder Bush used their initials widely, but initialese cropped up with the Clinton term as FOB--not "freight on board," but "Friends of Bill." Headline writers seized on the middle inital of the younger Bush's name, both because it differentiated him from his father and because the irreverent, drawling "Dubya" came with him from Texas.

There is also some interesting discussion of this question at: The Straight Dope

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It is a very interesting question. Similarly to being known by just the first name, I think it is a mark of recognition to attain to being know by one's initials. Only a handful of people are widely know that way. Thanks for the recognition points. –  Daniel Aug 28 '10 at 18:08
    
Hi @Daniel: Loved the insight provided by this answer. Thanks for sharing! –  MikeSchinkel Sep 12 '10 at 0:28
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If you are referring to abbreviate the middle name as in "John F. Kennedy", that was general to all the population.
Nowadays, middle names are less used; you probably see the middle name used in particular contexts.

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There has been a resurgence of the use of middle names among actors, particularly women. Also in news reports covering criminals and suspects, probably in the interest of being particularly specific. –  Dennis Williamson Aug 18 '10 at 0:37
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My understanding is that this is entirely a personal preference - in the realm of performance, to distinguish between similarly-named individuals, and in the realm of politics because maybe it "sounds better". "John Kennedy" sounds (to me) far less important than "John F Kennedy".

Personally, I use my middle initial on "official" documents, and leave it out on more rudimentary ones. Likewise, I'll sign an email with merely my first name or my initials when it's in reply or informal, and use my first and last names when it's more formal.

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My guess is that this convention derives from the US military, which mandates reference by first name, middle initial, and last name, to the point that Eisenhower changed his name from David Dwight to Dwight David in order to conform*.

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Following that last link brings me to World War II and Its Meaning for Americans, which says When he entered West Point in June 1911, he switched his first and second names because he liked the sound of “Dwight D.” better. Nothing there about conformity or a military mandate. Similarly, I've never heard of, say, Colin Powell being referred to "Colin L. Powell," so I believe you're mistaken. –  Dori Aug 26 '10 at 23:03
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As warren said, I believe it is personal preference. But those preferences are influenced by cultural trends, which change over time. As traditions were abandoned (starting in the 1960's), lots of behaviors were simplified, and I think this is just one manifestation of that.

However, I slightly disagree with kiamlaluno. I don't think middle names are less used if that is meant to imply that people don't have them. People mostly do still have them in America, but the norm is to simplify one's moniker. This is in keeping with the simplification of lots of customs in public and private life (acceptable dress, proper letter styles and forms of address, to name just two areas).

We referred to Bill Clinton, not William J. Clinton, because "Bill" sounds more like just a regular guy (so regular folks will vote for him), whereas "William J." is a stuffy old person (because the use of the full first name and middle initial is an outdated custom) to whom no modern person would particularly relate and therefore would not support. Mr. Clinton presented himself not as a member of the establishment with lots of traditional expertise as his strength, but as a regular person in touch with the trials of the common or average person ("I feel your pain.").

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