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Friday, July 26, 1996 | return to: opinions


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Netanyahu nixes `Bibi’ but headlines scream for it

by Jonathan S. Tobin

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Israel's new prime minister has a nickname that almost everyone likes. Except for Shai Bazak, his official spokesman. Upon Benjamin Netanyahu's election, Bazak urged journalists to refrain from calling the premier "Bibi."

This is a big mistake.

A good nickname is hard to find. Most politicos would sell their grandmother for a winning tag like "Bibi." Netanyahu didn't even have to pay a public relations pro to think it up. According to Netanyahu family lore, it stems from childhood confusion with another older Benjamin who was the big BB while the future prime minister was the little Bibi.

Of course, nicknames can be a double-edged sword for politicians. A good nickname can be a political advantage. It was hard to resist pulling the lever for "The Gipper," as President Ronald Reagan was affectionately called, based on his portrayal of Knute Rockne. On the other hand, unwillingness to buy a used car from a man called "Tricky Dick" led to Richard Nixon's downfall.

Other names are mixed blessings, like Britain's Margaret Thatcher's appellation -- the "The Iron Lady." It conveyed strength and resolve to those who supported her while it conjured up a medieval instrument of torture for her detractors.

Acronyms like T.R., FDR, JFK and LBJ were good luck to both Roosevelts, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. They also helped headline writers who dread long names.

Nicknames also break down the formal distance between the electorate and their leaders. The last two Democratic presidents, Carter and Clinton, have insisted on being called "Jimmy" and "Bill," no doubt to lend credence to their "man of the people" pose. A nickname gives you a chance to talk as if you actually knew the person who leads your country.

It is also useful to monarchies. Sixteenth-century Britons referred to their sovereign Elizabeth I as "Queen Bess." The soon-to-be ex-wife of England's current heir zoomed to popularity as "Di." Who knows? Even though there is no reference to it in the Bible, maybe even a few Israelites called their great King "Dov" -- the Hebrew equivalent of "Dave" -- though probably not to his face.

But has there ever been as good a nickname as "Bibi?" It is short, colorful, politically neutral and a writer's delight. Its two-syllable length also allows his most ardent supporters to serenade him with the "Bibi, King of Israel" song, into which "Mr. Netanyahu" would definitely not fit.

It also helped this product of Israel's most elite military unit and one of America's elite universities convince the Israeli in the street that he was one of them.

What lies behind this decision? The prime minister may believe being called "Bibi" shows disrespect, as if making everyone call him "Mr." will increase the government's prestige. But since when did Israeli politics and journalism look to Miss Manners for guidance?

Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu's success in office will depend on the strength of his character, intellect and political skills. I happen to think he will do just fine leading Israel whether anyone calls him "Bibi," B.N., his excellency, the prime minister or "late for dinner." And sticking to formality will not convince his critics that he is on the right track.

Mr. Netanyahu's staff should lighten up, forget about formality and make good use of his moniker. After all, it's not every political leader who can get the press to sing, "Yessir, he's their Bibi!"

The writer is executive editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.


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