To really cut someone down to size, give them a brutal nickname they just can’t shake. That’s a rule as familiar on the schoolyard as it is in the White House.
The infighting that consumed Donald Trump’s administration was no secret, but the recent onslaught of insider-y books on his presidency has delivered new texture about the gossipy backstabbing that took place — sometimes with real world ramifications.
According to former Trump press secretary Stephanie Grisham’s I’ll Take Your Questions Now, White House staffers used to call Ivanka Trump “the Princess,” while Grisham called Ivanka’s husband Jared Kushner “the Slim Reaper” for his tendency to destroy other staffers’ work. First lady Melania Trump, who tended not to leave the White House much, was called “Rapunzel” by the Secret Service. White House aide and current congressional candidate Max Miller was nicknamed “the Music Man” because he used to play soothing songs, including “Memory” from Cats, to calm Trump down during presidential tantrums.
In I Alone Can Fix It, by the journalists Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, we learn that the Kushner recruits brought in to try to stem the coronavirus crisis were called “the Slim Suit Crowd” by staffers at FEMA and “that whizbang crew of numb nuts” by West Wing aides. In Michael Wolff’s Landslide, it emerges that the young data guru Matt Oczkowski, who was kept away from Trump because he was so nerdy, was called “Oz” because of his name as well as his behind-the-curtain data wizardry. We also learn that Trump called pollster Tony Fabrizio “Fat Tony” — not the most creative nickname — but Michael Bender’s Frankly, We Did Win This Election tells us that Fabrizio had another nickname that he himself embraced, “The Rat.”
In the Joe Biden administration, fewer nicknames have thus far been reported, but Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s new book Peril reveals that White House senior adviser Mike Donilon earned the sobriquet ‘Mr. Silent.’ That’s because he is so quiet on phone calls that other aides often forget he is on until Biden solicits his opinion.
Nicknames are nothing new in the rough and tumble world of politics. In fact, their use goes back at least to Roman times: the Roman General Fabius was called Cunctator (Delayer) for his passive tactics, while Pompey got the name Adulescentulus Carnifex (the teenaged butcher) for his aggressive military style. As the Romans knew, a good nickname can capture the essence of the person.
But in the White House, nicknaming can have another purpose: a way to undercut one’s internal rivals. Indeed, nicknaming one’s colleagues and supposed allies ultimately reveals more about the dubber than the dubbed. The need to diminish, to push aside, to get ahead all emerges when trying to distill the essence of a colleague into a pejorative moniker. And if we look back in American history, it’s clear that’s one norm Trump didn’t break.
Kennedy & Johnson
We see this dynamic frequently in the John F. Kennedy presidency, where nicknames revealed who was on which team in intra-administration divides.
The core Kennedy players, especially Attorney General and presidential brother Robert F. Kennedy, loathed Vice President Lyndon Johnson, and used nicknames to demonstrate their disdain. At dinners at the Kennedy home of Hickory Hill and at fancy Georgetown parties, Kennedy acolytes referred to the vice president with names like “Rufus Cornpone” and “Judge Crater” — referring to a judge who, like the vice president, had “disappeared.” Ethel Kennedy even got in on the action, called Johnson “Huckleberry Capone.”
Lady Bird Johnson did not escape the attention either; the vice presidential couple was referred to as “Uncle Cornpone and his Little Pork Chop.”
Johnson was aware of these slights and had his own nicknames for Kennedy and his brother, referring to President Kennedy as “the boy” and “Johnny,” and Bobby Kennedy as “Sonny boy.” The use of nicknames went beyond just the Johnson-Kennedy enmity. Also coming in for mockery from Kennedy aides was the group of journalists and hangers-on centered around the intellectual yet ineffectual undersecretary of State Chester Bowles. This group’s nickname? “The Chet Set.”
Deploying nicknames against one another is, of course, a bipartisan tradition. In the Richard Nixon administration, national security adviser Henry Kissinger privately referred to the president as “that madman,” “our drunken friend” and “the meatball mind.” Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman had his own nicknames for Nixon, including the “Old Man,” “Rufus,” “The Leader of the Free World” and, in his diaries, “P.” Haldeman himself was known as one of “the Germans,” along with his colleague, domestic policy adviser John Ehrlichman.
More entertainingly, Labor Secretary Peter Brennan, a blue-collar New Yorker, was called Secretary Bunker, after All in the Family’s Archie Bunker. And ethnic outreach staffer Mike Balzano, who came from waste management, was known as “the garbage man,” both for his previous job and for his White House responsibilities.
Some of the top reporters of the era also did not fail to escape the nicknaming. The foreign correspondents who covered the famously press-friendly Kissinger were called “the Choirboys” because they were supposedly so close to Kissinger.
In the Jimmy Carter administration, the president’s cousin Hugh Carter, brought in to save money in White House operations, was tagged as “Cousin Cheap” for his cost-cutting efforts. Hyper-aggressive national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski got tagged as “Woody Woodpecker” for a combination of his behavior, his red hair and his angular features.
That and other nicknames were seen by one staffer as an indication of Brzezinski’s lower standing in the White House relative to other aides. As an anonymous Carter told the Washington Post, “Inside the White House I don’t think Zbig could win a major battle with Ham [Jordan] or Jody [Powell]. There’s no question that if Jody wanted to take Zbig on Zbig would get his a– handed to him. Just look at all the nicknames they call him.”
Reagan and Bush
Under Ronald Reagan, nicknames remained nasty, but they became more purposeful. When Ed Meese, a top adviser who had once been Reagan’s gubernatorial chief of staff, made a play for White House chief of staff, he found himself fighting off perceptions that he was disorganized. Meese’s opponents eagerly seized on his famous briefcase, into which papers would go at night, never to be seen again. The briefcase itself scored multiple nicknames, including “a briefcase without a bottom,” “the black hole” and, most legendarily, the “Meesecase.” This may be the only time that an aide’s possession got a nickname.
Very rarely, a nickname has helped someone get a job. Reagan tapped Caspar Weinberger for secretary of Defense in part based on his cost-cutting reputation as a former OMB director, captured in the nickname “Cap the Knife.” Once Weinberger was ensconced at the Pentagon, however, Reagan budget chief David Stockman would discover to his chagrin that the reputation conveyed by the nickname did not carry over to Weinberger’s new position.
A more nefarious nickname plan came from Reagan press aide Larry Speakes, who deliberately tagged rival David Gergen as “the Tall Guy,” later shortened to “Tall,” in an effort to diminish him. Speakes supplemented his anti-Gergen efforts with jokes — “Gergen had been kidnapped as a child and raised by giraffes” — and dirty tricks. Speakes would have the podium lowered and the screws tightened so that Gergen would tower above it, looking ridiculous. Of course, Gergen caused some of his own problems as well with his closeness to the press. Reagan national security adviser Richard Allen called Gergen “Professor Leaky,” and even thought that Gergen was slipping in and out of the Situation Room during the fraught period after Reagan was shot to give surreptitious updates to the press.
Nancy Reagan, who held a lot of power in her husband’s White House, had a slew of nicknames. According to Karen Tumulty’s recent The Triumph of Nancy Reagan, the first lady was called “The Iron Butterfly,” “The Belle of Rodeo Drive,” “Fancy Nancy,” “The Cutout Doll,” “The Evita of Bel Air,” “Mommie Dearest,” “The Hairdo with Anxiety,” “The Ice Queen” and “Attila the Hen.” All of these handles revealed a core truth of the Reagan administration: Nancy was a key player, and aides crossed her at their peril.
Another first lady who could be brutal in her assessments of staff was Barbara Bush. When longtime Bush friend and political fixer James Baker reluctantly gave up his job as secretary of State to try to rescue President George Bush’s floundering 1992 reelection campaign, Barbara felt that Baker was not fully engaged in the effort. According to Peter Baker and Susan Glasser’s The Man Who Ran Washington, Mrs. Bush would derisively call Baker “The Invisible Man,” prompting the president to say, “Barb, get off his case.”
Many of the nicknames in the Clinton administration highlighted ideological divisions within that White House. In 1994, when Bill Clinton and the Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time in four decades, Clinton brought in conservative adviser Dick Morris to help “triangulate” himself back into the good graces of the American people. This led to epic struggles between Morris and the more liberal aides like George Stephanopoulos and Harold Ickes. Ickes’ longstanding willingness to take on unsavory tasks for Clinton led to his being nicknamed “the garbage man” and “director of the sanitation department.” Ickes and his allies called the quirky Morris “the Unabomber,” while Morris referred to Ickes and company as “the thugocracy.”
Stephanopoulos meanwhile got a stand-alone nickname when he left the White House, wrote a tell-all book and became a pundit, leading aggrieved aides still in the administration to call him ABC News “commentraitor” George Stephanopoulos. Another Clinton-era nickname magnet was Sidney Blumenthal, known as “Sid Vicious” for his sharp pen as a journalist. Once in the White House, he was so prone to conspiracy theories that he was called “GK,” for the Grassy Knoll theory of a second shooter favored by Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists.
In the George W. Bush administration, the nicknaming impulse came from the very top. Bush loved giving team members nicknames — generally, though not always, friendly ones. Political strategist Karl Rove was known as “The Architect” or “Turd Blossom,” depending on whether he was in favor that day. OMB Director Mitch Daniels was “The Blade,” speechwriter Michael Gerson was “The Scribe,” and Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill was “The Big O.”
Bush himself was no stranger to being nicknamed. In his father’s administration, the late Colin Powell used to call the future president (and his future boss) “Sonny”; Bush was also called “The Lip,” for his big mouth, at Andover, and his wife Laura Bush used to call him “Bushie,” especially when she wanted to put him in his place.
W’s nicknames, and his own experience as a nicknaming victim, suggest that he learned early on their value as a form of prep school-style hazing. At the same time, earning a nickname from the president became a badge of honor for mid-level staffers in the Bush White House, demonstrating that the president knew them sufficiently to tag them. These included energy expert Robert McNally (“Electric Bob”), campaign personal assistant Israel Hernandez (“Altoid Boy”), and second-term speechwriter Jonathan Horn (“Horny”). Another possible reason for Bush’s use of nicknames, suggested by Indiana University’s Michael Adams, was Bush’s love of baseball, a sport that revels in great nicknames.
Among the Bush staff, though, the nicknames were more cutting. The vice president’s chief of staff David Addington, a sharp-elbowed internal player, was nicknamed “Keyser Sӧze,” after the ruthless, mysterious mob boss in the 1995 film The Usual Suspects. James Comey, then the deputy attorney general but already carrying a reputation for being sanctimonious, was nicknamed “Saint Jim.”
Nicknames abounded even in the “no-drama” Obama administration as well. Jim Jones, Barack Obama’s first national security adviser, was frustrated with second-guessing from the Obama team and left the White House on poor terms. He used to call young White House staffers “the water bugs,” and the White House itself “the Politburo.”
Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes was so critical of Israel that his nickname in the White House was “Hamas.” Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett’s propensity for getting her way in policy disputes by making her case during nocturnal visits to her friends Barack and Michelle Obama in the White House residence earned her the nickname “The Night Stalker.” And Homeland Security Adviser — and now Biden Deputy Attorney General — Lisa Monaco’s steady stream of dire security warnings led Obama to dub her “Dr. Doom.”
The Trump administration, however, put all its predecessors to shame in terms of the sheer number of nicknames. Even before the recent books came out, everyone knew that Trump had insulting nicknames for his political opponents — “Crooked Hillary,” “Sleepy Joe,” “Pocahontas,” “Lyin’ Ted” and “Little Marco.”
Trump was also prone to tag his own team members with nicknames, some more positive than others. Communications director Hope Hicks was “Hopey,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was “Ditsy” DeVos, chief of staff John Kelly was “The Church Lady,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was “Mr. Peepers,” and RNC head Ronna Romney McDaniel was “My Romney,” distinguishing her from her Trump-critic uncle, Sen. Mitt Romney. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was blessed with multiple unflattering nicknames, including “Mr. Magoo” and “Benjamin Button.”
Former Trump aide Steve Bannon claims that one of Trump’s favorite books is Carl Jung’s autobiography, Memory, Dreams, Reflections, and that Trump’s derisive nicknames derive from an understanding of Jungian archetypes. (Trump probably did not read the book but Bannon likely did.)
Trump staff, probably encouraged by the example of their principal, also dubbed one another with a host of nicknames both entertaining and illuminating in a factionalized White House. Kelly reportedly called the youthful Hicks “the high schooler.” Kelly Deputy Chief of Staff Kirstjen Nielsen, later the secretary of Homeland Security, tried to impose stricter discipline on White House operations, and was dubbed “Nurse Ratched” for her efforts. Another deputy chief of staff, Zachary Fuentes, earned the moniker “ZOTUS,” a play on the first letter of his first name and the widely used White House abbreviation for president of the United States.
Pro-trade and pro-immigration economic adviser Gary Cohn was tagged “Globalist Gary” by his nationalist rivals; some Trump aides shortened this to an emoji when referring to Cohen via text as 🌎. Other aides who got the emoji treatment were Anthony “the Mooch” Scaramucci, referred to as an open mouth, or 😘; and chief of staff Reince Priebus, who was often called “Prancer,” had a reindeer emoji: 🦌.
So far, there have been fewer nicknames to publicly emerge from the Biden administration. There are no doubt tensions and rivalries, including some recently revealed ones between the presidential and vice presidential staffs, but Biden does not like reading about palace intrigue in the press, so aides are probably less likely to brag about their nicknaming triumphs. As more time passes, some tell-alls will surely emerge from this White House with nickname revelations, but they are unlikely to be as frequent — or as juicy — as the ones from the Trump memoirs.
What’s clear from the history of presidential nicknaming is that there is more to it than just locker room talk. In politics, as in life, nicknames help encapsulate the essence of a person, or at least that’s what the nicknamers hope. Nicknaming in the White House is not done idly. It has a purpose, albeit typically an unpleasant one. And as long as power is up for grabs and jealousies are sparked by ambitious players, the nicknames won’t be going anywhere.