The Strange Club of D.C. Politicos Who All Have One Thing in Common

In a field full of trailblazing presidential candidates, Doug Burgum does not stand out.

Amid a primary that features three African American men, two Indian American candidates, one Cuban American mayor, a millennial and a thrice indicted ex-president, he best resembles a Republican throwback: the rich white boomer.

But there is one way the North Dakota governor is history-making: He’s a Doug. And according to another Doug (Brinkley, the historian) only two other Dougs have been in the mix for president before, neither in a serious way. One (Gen. Douglas MacArthur) never really ran. The other (Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder) ended his campaign before voting began. Should Burgum see his way through a state’s primary election — and he’s already qualified for the debate stage — he will be making certified Doug history.

“It is not a burden, it is a privilege,” Burgum told me of his glass-ceiling defying run. “An opportunity for all the Dougs. A real breakthrough moment.”

Burgum’s run for president is cementing what has become an era of unadulterated political nirvana for the wider political Doug community.

Earlier this year, a Doug was awarded the congressional space medal of honor. One ended his time as Alabama senator only to become a trusted confidant of the Biden White House. Two Dougs have served as chairs of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Former Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey was interviewed by Special Counsel Jack Smith about Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Doug Mastriano lost a Pennsylvania gubernatorial race but appears interested in running for higher office again. Doug Mills, of the New York Times, is the most prominent news photographer in the business. There are top Doug operatives in the Democratic Party as well as in the Republican Party. And there is a Doug making history right now, as the country’s first second gentleman.

It’s not particularly surprising to find a lot of men who share the same name in national politics. In the Senate, 10 percent of current members go by Jon or John.

But the Dougs are different. A weird, niche community of them has formed that, frankly, doesn’t exist among the Jeffs and Joes and Chucks of the world. They have a bond with each other, born out of sharing a name neither rare nor common. They tweet at each other, seek each other out at parties, and keep tabs on their collective achievements.

The biggest booster is, without a doubt, Doug Andres, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) whose Twitter feed obsesses over Dougs like a Swiftie unable to hold it together at an Eras tour concert. Slight upward movement in the polls by Burgum is greeted with proclamations of Dougmentum and predictions of a “Doug surge.” Any public utterance by second gentleman Doug Emhoff — whom Andres once insisted was “huge” in Japan — will be described as either “vintage” or “peak” Doug. Andres has declared both 2022 and 2023 the “Year of the Doug” while alerting followers that we are, in fact, living in a “Doug Nation.” His fandom for Democratic Dougs is a rare flash of bipartisanship in a town filled with acrimony; a template for what a better Washington could be.

Off the social media platforms, Doug connections are still apparent. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who headed the CBO under George W. Bush, has struck up a friendship with Doug Elmendorf, who led the same office under Barack Obama — their shared wonkiness binding them alongside their shared name. Doug Heye, a longtime GOP operative, gets along swimmingly with Doug Thornell, a longtime Democratic operative.

Like Andres, they all seem to be in awe of Emhoff.

“I was at an event … talking with Thornell when the second gentleman walked by. We didn’t get a picture and I thought to myself: ‘Ugh, what a missed opportunity,’” recalled Heye. “I had met him during [White House Correspondents’ Dinner] weekend and he was quite nice.”

Heye paused for a beat. “All Dougs are.”

Most people, when they meet someone with the same name, tend to think of it as moderately interesting but altogether uneventful.

Not the Dougs. It’s a big enough community that it would seem impossible to never encounter another. But it’s gotten increasingly smaller. Douglas was the 30th most popular baby name in the 1960s. It was the 828nd most popular in 2022, according to the Social Security Administration.

“It’s about time that the Dougs have ascended the mountain top,” said Brinkley. “It’s been a second tier name. But it’s never gone away.”

The name Doug or Douglas traces back to Douglas Water, a tributary of the River Clyde in Scotland. Cleveland Evans, professor emeritus of Psychology at Bellevue University and America’s foremost expert on names, said it became common in both the USA and Canada in the 1940s and 1950s. The predominant theory was that parents in that era saw it as a “‘different but not too different’ shift from the previously popular Donald, another D- name with Scottish roots.” (Trump, since you’re now wondering, was born in 1946.)

MacArthur’s national popularity following World War II certainly didn’t hurt either. Burgum, who was born in 1956, was among many named for the famed general after his dad served as an officer on a destroyer in the Pacific. “He had never seen the ocean,” Burgum recalled of his father. “He lived to tell about it, and the role of MacArthur.”

Given the average age of our political class, it’s likely that we’ve reached Peak Doug. “I think it’s a ‘dying’ name. Like an old person’s name,” said Doug Mayer, a senior adviser to Chris Christie’s presidential campaign. “But I’ll take it.” And because Dougs see themselves as a dwindling tribe, they tend to draw larger meaning from meeting or hearing about other Dougs.

Almost every one of the nine Dougs contacted for this piece said they once had the nickname Dougie Fresh. That includes Burgum, whose children referred to him by the stage name of the ‘90s rapper. (Befitting the Dougspolsion we’re currently in, the original Doug E. Fresh actually released his first full-length album in 26 years in 2021; and, as fate would have it, it was an homage to D.C.’s own go-go music.)

Half the Dougs recalled, without prompting, that there was a well-known animated television series in the 90s called “Doug.” The other half noted, again without prompting, that the insurance company Liberty Mutual runs an ad campaign featuring a tandem called Doug and LiMu Emu.

“Not sure if you’ve seen the TV commercials,” Doug Jones, the former Alabama senator, texted me after we talked. I had, but had never noticed the names. These are your heroes when you are a Doug.

Burgum started our call by talking about the popularity of Doug the Pug, a dog with a large instagram following. Mills answered a text by revealing that he’s soon to have a son-in-law named, you guessed it, Doug. “Won’t ever forget his name,” he added.

Several of them said they grew up worshiping D.C. football’s most famous Doug: Williams, the first Black quarterback to start (and win) a Super Bowl. All of them idolized former football star Doug Flutie.

Some Dougs believe there is something almost spiritual that connects them; that they share personality traits: a mild-mannered nature, an affability, an ever so slight neuroticism masked by a touch of self-deprecation. The name, as one D.C. Doug, whose boss would not allow him to be quoted on record, put it, “seems most fitting for a carefree middle-aged dad. The neighbor everyone loves who wants you to come over for a BBQ this weekend.”

Holtz-Eakin had a similar interpretation. Dougs, he stressed, may be fun behind the grill. But they “are best at enabling others. They’re about helping people.”

It was that predisposition, he added (in what genuinely seemed like sincere analysis), that made him and Elmendorf effective CBO chairs.

It’s also why Emhoff is viewed among his fellow D.C. Dougs as the Grand Duke of D.C. Dougs. It’s not just because he is the living personification of a man willing, indeed eager, to see his wife succeed to heights greater than his, but because he seems so comfortable and carefree doing it. He hops around between deeply important functions (like visiting Auschwitz to raise awareness about anti-Semitism) and those that seem impossibly cool (like leading the presidential delegation to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup). It’s pure, straight from the mountain top, unfiltered Doug-ness.

“He is,” as Thornell put it, “an historic Doug.”

Emhoff did not comment for this piece, which, frankly, is deeply un-Doug-like. But his communications director, Liza Acevedo, did relay that he views “the relationship between Dougs as a kinship,” one of “dads who care about their families, communities, and friends.”

The vice president, Acevedo added, “is the only person who is allowed to call Mr. Emhoff, ‘Dougie.’”

Finally, she relayed that in law school, Emhoff was given a nickname.

It was … “Dougie Fresh.”

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