Joan Vennochi

The political name game

It’s a trivial pursuit, but Willard M. Romney has birthers of his own

(Istockphoto/Photo Illustration/Globe Staff)
By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / April 14, 2011

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IF DONALD Trump is so interested in birth certificates, he should ask Republican rival Mitt Romney to produce his.

That could finally solve the mild Mitt-stery surrounding Romney’s given name.

His first name is “Willard,’’ after the hotel magnate J. Willard Marriott, his father’s best friend.

His middle name comes from his father’s cousin, who played quarterback for the Chicago Bears from 1925 to 1929. That cousin’s name was “Milton’’ and his nickname was “Mitt’’ — a totally understandable preference for a football player or a presidential candidate. But what does the birth certificate belonging to the presidential candidate actually state?

Four years ago, I asked Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom to settle the matter.

“It’s Willard Mitt Romney on the birth certificate,’’ he replied, via e-mail.

Could I see it? I asked. “Sure. He was born in Detroit. City Hall should have it,’’ he e-mailed back.

Birth records are restricted in Michigan and only a person or parent named on the record, or a legal guardian or representative can request a copy. “That shouldn’t be a problem for an old reporter like you,’’ Fehrnstrom responded. It was.

A Boston Globe timeline on Mormonism and the Romney family, which was produced as part of a major series during his last presidential run, states that in 1947, “Willard Milton ‘Mitt’ Romney is born on March 12 in Detroit.’’

The origin of Romney’s name was a topic of minor interest during the last presidential campaign cycle.

In November 2007, Time asked, “Raise your hand if you knew that Mitt Romney’s given name was actually Willard Milton. Anyone?’’ Blogging for the Chicago Tribune in April 2007, Eric Zorn riffed about “Willard’’ and “Mitt,’’ then added: “Not that Romney’s real first name is a big deal or anything. But I wonder how many of you out there who’ve been obsessing about Barack Obama’s middle name (Hussein) and the minutia of the biographical details of his childhood had ever even bothered to ask or wonder about Romney.’’

When John McCain emerged as the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, the ex-governor of Massachusetts and his moniker stepped out of the spotlight. Now that Romney’s back in it, it will be interesting to see how he handles the Trump-inflamed controversy over President Obama’s birth certificate.

Earlier this year, Romney took a light-hearted approach toward names and birth records. During a February appearance on David Letterman, Number 10 on his “top 10’’ list was: “Mitt is short for Mitt-thew.’’ Number 2: “I have absolutely no idea where my birth certificate is.’’

Are queries about the name on Romney’s birth certificate a trivial pursuit? Or, is the answer a telling test of truthfulness? Ask those who see Obama’s birth certificate as a way to challenge his personal honesty and the legitimacy of his presidency.

The evidence that Obama was born in Hawaii includes a short-form birth certificate and two newspaper announcements at the time. The Honolulu Advertiser and the Star Bulletin published announcements of the birth of a son to Mr. and Mrs. Barack Obama on Aug. 4, 1961. Like Michigan, Hawaii restricts who can request a birth certificate. The state is prohibited from releasing a long-form document “unless the requestor has a direct and tangible interest in the record.’’ Obama has not made such a request.

When it comes to birth records, Obama and Romney have something in common. Raising questions about Obama’s birth certificate is a way to remind people of the differences that set him apart. Those include his skin color, white mother, Kenyan father, and an upbringing that took him out of the country. Raising questions about Romney’s birth certificate can also be a way to remind people of the differences that set him apart. Those include his Mormon religion and its intricate ties to his family history.

The good news for Obama: if Romney gets past Trump and the “birthers,’’ the anti-Mormon bigots and the Romneycare-bashers, he is unlikely to turn birth records into a major campaign issue.

The bad news for Obama: If Romney somehow becomes the GOP nominee, he will be a serious challenger, no matter what the name on his birth certificate.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at