Which is correct: "John" or "Senator McCain" when addressing in a debate?

Searching everywhere I have to search has lead me nowhere. A person I work with mentioned Obama constantly refering to McCain as “John” and that it was inappropriate during a debate. I went back over the transcript and it does happen often, but is it inappropriate? Is refering to an opponent during a debate, or refering to a public figure like a senator by their first name instead of their title and last name wrong? What are the rules here?

They’re both senators so I don’t see why they can’t call each other by their names…

50 or 100 years ago, the answer would have been clear: in a public debate, senators should address each other formally as Senator ----. However, politicians and other public figures are expected to be far less formal these days, and I don’t see why a Senator addressing another as “John” or “Barack” is not completely acceptable. (They would not do so in debate on the Senate floor or in a committee, however).

I’m not sure there is any hard and fast rule as to the propriety of one form of address over the other. Senator is more formal, and some might feel shows respect, whereas first name might seem more “real.”

Just one more silly thing for folks to get excited about one way or the other. :stuck_out_tongue:

Add to the mix Moderator Lehrer’s constant urgings to the men that they should “talk to each other,” that they should direct their comments to one another as friends and colleagues, rather than continuing to address themselves to the silent audience and/or the TV cameras. This can be seen as further contributing to the less-than-formal atmosphere of the event.


The proper form of address for someone who does not know either of them informally should be ‘Senator McCain’ or ‘Senator Obama’.

The two of them, being peers, would have the right to address each other informally by given name.

I’m not really sure you can get a factual answer for this. Many people like to use deferential titles. Many people do not. One is not inherently more respectful than the other, although many people certainly do have some hangups about making sure people use deferential titles. I’m not entirely sure where the notion comes from that there’s a “right” to use someone’s name or not, as one can be quite formal and respectful both ways. I would address each of them by his first and last name. Customs differ.

It does not matter much if McCain had the right in informal conversation to address Obama by his first name - it would have been politically disastrous to do so. Lots of people would have seen that as condescending.

On the other hand, no similar hazard applied to Obama, and he had an interest in diminishing the stature of his opponent and emphasizing that he was his peer (or even his superior). That’s why he never used Senator McCain’s title in the debate, nor even his last name terribly much, near as I can tell.

I’m not bent out of shape about this - it is what it is, and were I in their shoes I’d do what I can with this - just as they are doing.

Yes. The Senate is a place where its members often have to work closely together, even if they stand on different sides of the aisle. Traditionally, they usually try to portray themselves as above petty partisan back-biting, too. The House tends to be more rambunctious and prone to partisan rancor.

But what I find annoying is that the media will tend to refer to female politicians by first name much more than male politicians.

Also, I’ve noted that British media will just use “Mr.” instead of political titles.

Perhaps. But as soon as Senator Obama addressed him as “John”, there was no reason why he could not use the equally informal “Barack”. However, I think that Senator McCain, as the older man (and I’m not criticising him for this), probably feels more comfortable being more formal.

Senator Obama did in fact use Senator McCain’s title on numerous occasions during the debate.


Is this for British or American politicians? If for British, it’s not normal to refer to politicians by their title, i.e., it’s “Mr Brown” rather than “Prime Minister Brown”. In particular, there’s no title for members of the House of Commons corresponding with “Congressman”, “Congresswoman” or “Representative”.

What an incredible filter you have.

Transcript of presidential debate

I may have missed some because it became tiresome moving over so many examples.

Your statement is embarrassing and outrageous, especially in GQ.

I obviously misremembered. But I tallied up a little metric so that we can see the difference:

Obama calling McCain “Senator McCain” - 36 instances.
Obama calling McCain “John” - 25 instances.
McCain calling Obama “Senator Obama” - 45 instances.
McCain calling Obama “Barack” - 0 instances.

On listening to the debate (over the course of a couple of nights on YouTube) I confess that the "John"s didn’t really stand out to me, perhaps that’s because I was listening to what was being said before and after the address instead of the address itself.

The person who mentioned it is not so much pro-McCain as anti-Obama, a position I find disturbing although I’m afraid dangerously common.

I was hoping there was a clear and quoteable protocol when addressing another party in a debate, especially another party with a constituant title.

As far as I’m concerned they could have called each other Betty and Wilma as long as they got their point across (whether they did or not is far outside the scope of this thread and GQ itself).

I do find the contrast in positioning interesting though, with regards to Sen. McCain refering to Sen. Obama exclusively in the formal and Sen. Obama refering to Sen. McCain in a variety of ways spanning formal to casual. As Mr. Moto pointed out, Sen. Obama seemed to have more at stake as far as a perception of experience so to revert to the casual was to bring the image of his relationship with Sen. McCain down to a more equal level. From Sen. McCain it would have been as condecending as if he refered to Sen. Obama as “son”, “sport”, or “tiger”.

On preview, that’s a great breakdown Mr. Moto, thanks. Although I fear that using it with my friend will give undeserved weight to his strawman. Without a citeable protocol I think I will stick to my generic “You better just make sure you know your candidate.” parry to his anti-Obama jabs and thrusts.

I’ve been annoyed at this informality since I was a teenager and various dignitaries would address each other on the evening news informally, or use the first name of the anchor. It’s done, I don’t care for it, but apparently I’m an old fogey. I’ve never seen the question addressed on any television discussion or Miss Manners type column.


Thinking of this thread made me laugh when the first thing Sarah Palin did tonight was ask Biden if she could call him “Joe” when they shook hands before the debate.

She only did so once, however, and it was in a weird “Say it ain’t so, Joe” phrase.

I see it as at least mildly innappropriate. A debate is a formal setting, and formal titles should have been used. Also noted Biden doing the same thing tonight to McCain. This suggests to me that it was a tactical choice.

I don’t think “Barack” comes out as well as “John” though. I’m NOT against his name, it’s a fine name, but it’s the same principle as “David”* to me. Every single person I’ve known named David I’ve called exclusively by their last name (i.e. if their name is David Gunther I’d call them Gunther), on occasion I might say Dave, but it’s rare. David (or Barack) just doesn’t, well, resonate or something, it makes me almost avoid saying it. “Obama” on the other hand, kind of rolls of the tongue, and if you’re gonna be saying the last name anyway why not just tack on their title?

This says nothing for the formality or lack thereof, but I didn’t find it particularly “off.” If they weren’t supposed to address each other directly, or were giving solo speeches it may come off as a bit condescending, but I thought it was okay. If you wanted to go with “by the book” etiquette, you’d probably be right in that “Senator <name>” would be proper, but if we’re going by that strict a standard they’ve both probably made a dozen or so “errors” walking onto stage, much less talking.

*I’m sure David is uncommon to have this hangup on, but I know a lot of people who have specific names they don’t like saying. Maybe I’m wrong on “Barack” too, most people probably don’t have this hangup, but it may be a potential reason.