Not wishing to presume about the election

The US presidential race affords an opportunity to consider the difference between ‘heir apparent’ and ‘heir presumptive.’

Lucas Jackson/Reuters
U.S. Republican presidential candidate and businessman Donald Trump speaks to the media regarding money he listed as being donated to veterans groups at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York.

The party that not long ago had more candidates than Snow White had dwarfs – way more – now has a “presumptive nominee” for the presidential election. And so presumptive, meaning “likely” or “probable,” has trended on the Merriam-Webster website, like a movie star in your news feed.

A couple of election cycles ago, the late political commentator and word maven William Safire made a strong case against presumptive:
“[T]here is a purple coloration to that word that befits a royal court rather than a democratic election.” 

We get it from the legal phrase “heir presumptive,” which refers to one in line for a throne. He preferred presumed nominee. “Presumptive nominee is not incorrect,” he wrote, “but connotation counts; presumptive strikes me as presumptuous.” 

One might think that would be even truer in this election cycle, when the question of political “dynasties” has led to some murmuring among the people. (In fact, the mother of one of the potentially dynastic candidates was doing some of the murmuring.) 

In the rarefied precincts of dynastic inheritance, there are two kinds of heirs. An heir apparent is next in line to inherit a throne. Typically this is the eldest child of a reigning monarch. An heir presumptive, a childless monarch’s younger sibling, say, or niece or nephew, is in line for the throne and may well end up there. But his or her status is open to change if the monarch has a child. Heir presumptive may sound pretty solid. But an heir apparent comes closer to a sure thing. 

The corporate world has borrowed from this language to refer to leadership succession, but to my mind, they’ve generally chosen the wrong term. Heir apparent is the term widely used in business and elsewhere to refer to one seen as next in line to succeed another, either concretely within an organization or more abstractly (as in sports glory, for instance). 

But the less common heir presumptive captures the continuing potential for a change of status. And that potential is real. 

Ask Tom Staggs. 

He’s the recently departed chief operating officer of the Walt Disney Company. He was widely referred to (in a Los Angeles Times headline, for instance) as “heir apparent” to Disney chairman and chief executive Robert Iger, set to retire in 2018. 

To quote the Times: “In 2015, the ... company elevated longtime executive Thomas Staggs to the No. 2 role, a move widely interpreted as anointing him CEO in waiting of the world’s largest entertainment firm.” 

Note the royal, and indeed biblical, reference to “anointing” a successor. But, to quote the Times further: “Disney’s board of directors was not yet prepared to make a final decision regarding the CEO selection, and Staggs ‘read the tea leaves,’ said one person close to the company who was not authorized to comment publicly.” 

A true “heir apparent,” whether dynastic or corporate, shouldn’t have to read tea leaves. 

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