When writing about an event that occurred in the recent past, how should one refer to people who held well-established positions for a short amount of time?

For example, if I am writing about a bill in United States Congress in 2005, and what to insert a quip about George W. Bush, who was President at the time. I could write:

... passage of the bill was threatened by a veto from President George W. Bush.

(Bold text for emphasis in this question.)

However, since the current President is Barack Obama, I'm concerned about confusing the reader, so I'm considering:

... passage of the bill was threatened by a veto from then-President George W. Bush.

Note that my reference to the President is only an example.

While changes in the President may be a common usage of the "then-" prefix, I'm also concerned about relatively obscure positions, such as Deputy Chief of Staff, where a reader likely does not know the position's lineage.

Thus, which would be preferable?

then-Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove


Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove

Normally, I would simply stick to historical present-tense, but that could be tricky to do for the current context.

Edit 1: Emphasis on problem.

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    There are over 2 000 000 Google hits for "then p/President"; this is standard usage. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 20 '16 at 17:36
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    I think in the context of writing about 2005, it would be normal, and perfectly clear, to refer to GWB as President, since that's what he was at that time. If in the same article you had reason to refer to Bill Clinton, it would be as e.g. "but former President Clinton mobilized public support in favor...". – jamesqf Mar 20 '16 at 17:57
  • @EdwinAshworth See my edits to the question. The President is only an example, and I'm concerned about generic use for any important position. – drmuelr Mar 20 '16 at 18:11
  • @jamesqf Thank you for contrasting two holders of the same position. This was another point I was wondering about, but didn't include for the sake of staying on-topic. – drmuelr Mar 20 '16 at 18:16
  • There are hundreds of thousands of Google hits for "then deputy" (though of course many are other / ambiguous usages, eg 'he was promoted to the position of Temporary Deputy Chief Constable, then Deputy Chief Constable in December 2011' // 'Then Deputy James took it but he failed [?]). There are still plenty of the relevant ones ('his then-deputy Peter Clarke' // 'issued in June 1999 by then Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder'. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 20 '16 at 18:17

Example 1: The subject is something other than the person in question.

If you are referring to a specific event during the (event's) associated time period, you would say/write the following:

then-president Martin Van Buren was responsible for X.

The above example would be used in a paragraph where you are explicitly discussing the subject X. This is because the "then" usage, redirects focus to the time-period/subject. The word "then" behaves like a preposition here.

Example 2: The subject is the person.

When referring to someone who held significant office when they are not the subject of discussion, you can say/write the following:

Former president Martin Van Buren was responsible for X. He also...

The above example would be used in a paragraph explicitly discussing Martin Van Buren as the subject. This is because saying "former" does not assign a specific time period.

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