American Beat: The Rite To Bear Arms

Is there anything more pretentious than a coat of arms?

I'm willing to make exceptions for people whose families have coats of arms that go back to the Magna Carta. But, seriously, if your neighbor called you up and said, "Hey, come on over and see my new coat of arms," you'd think he was pretentious. And if you actually went over and found that he had redecorated the family room in a Scottish motif and was wearing a kilt as he hung the coat of arms on the wall, you'd think he was not only pretentious, but weird too.

Which brings us to Colin Powell.

The world--or, at least, the world of people who are obsessed with coats of arms--was stunned by the news last week that the U.S. Secretary of State had applied to the official Scottish authorities for an official coat of arms to celebrate his previously unheralded British Empire ancestry (Powell's father was born in Jamaica and his mom's family hailed from Scotland).

Now, I'm not calling the Secretary pretentious, but get a load of this guy's proposed design for his coat of arms: "azure, two swords in saltire, points downward, between four mullets Argent in a chief of the second, a lion passant Gules." To translate from the pretentious Scottish, that means a blue (azure) shield with two crossed (in saltire) swords, a silver (argent) bar (chief) with four stars (mullets) and a red (Gules) lion with his right paw raised and his head facing to the left (passant). Powell's motto will appear in a fake parchment banner underneath all the other artwork. The motto he's chosen is "Devoted to public service"--not, as many others had suggested: "A powerless pawn of the Bush Administration."

The symbolism is obvious--swords, stars, lions, fake parchment. It all speaks of a man who is either very proud of his military heritage or auditioning for a much-needed makeover on "Queer Eye." But why were the points of the swords facing downward? I'm no expert on coats of arms (my own personal coat of arms would depict a chicken, a knife and fork, and a bottle of barbecue sauce), but was this Powell's way of saying that he had put his fighting days behind him? Perhaps he was even showing overt disapproval of the war in Iraq.

Fortunately for you, dear reader, I have deep sources in the Scottish heraldic community. And fortunately for President Bush, I was wrong about the symbolism of the down-turned swords.

"I wouldn't draw any conclusion," said Dave Richardson, general manager of Swyrich, a Canadian company that designs coats of arms. "He's probably not making a statement about Iraq."

But he is making a statement. Despite our Second Amendment, Americans have no legal right to bear arms. But anyone whose heritage goes back to countries that do issue official coats of arms--countries like Scotland, France, Germany, the Ukraine, etc.--can apply for one.

The big wig in the Scottish coat-of-arms community is the Lord Lyon (a.k.a. Robin Orr Blair, who was appointed King of Arms in 2001) --and, to be honest, he's a bit of a hardass. I went to his website and immediately felt as if I was being scolded by an overdressed snob who can trace his lineage back to King David (my family can only go back as far as King Cullen).

"There is a widespread misconception that a family or a clan can have a family or clan Coat of Arms," the Lord tells us. "This is completely incorrect. A Coat of Arms belongs only to one individual person and can only be used by that person and no one else." (OK, I get it!)

According to Parliamentary law that dates back to the days when the English were still putting the letter "e" on the end of every noun, the Lord Lyon can grant arms to only "virtuous and well-deserving persons."

Yet even the most virtuous and well-deserving need to submit a formal petition asking for a coat. "The process is not complicated," according to the Heraldry Society of Scotland, which then describes dozens of rules, regulations, protocols and pretentious spellings that a would-be arms buyer must follow.

Under the words "I humbly sheweth," Powell must give his full ancestry, accompanied by birth and marriage certificates, a separate "Schedule of Proofs," and an image of his proposed coat of arms.

Oh, and there's the small matter of the check. Given how pretentious it is to get a coat of arms, it's no wonder that "a new grant of armorial bearings" will set Powell back more than $3,500, plus another $1,500 to transfer the coat from his father to him.

The Lord Lyon can still reject the petition, but my sources in Scotland--and when I say "sources," I mean those distillers I met on that whiskey junket last year who keep sending me bottles of single malt that they swipe from the company gift shop; you know, reliable sources!-- tell me that the fix is already in. The Lord Lyon has tentative plans to present Powell with his coat of arms in September (a visit that's clearly timed to swing the election. I can't prove that, of course, but it's pretty obvious that the Republicans are courting the coat-of-arms vote).

At least Powell is doing the right thing. A few years back, Donald Trump, the real estate tycoon and TV star formerly known in the New York press as "the short-fingered vulgarian," decided he needed a coat of arms for his growing casino-hotel-golf empire. Did he go through the process that Powell is now undertaking? Did he follow all the rules of heraldic design? Did he willingly misspell words to satisfy some mace-bearing, in-bred Scottish lord? No. He just paid a graphic designer to throw some symbols together.

And what a coat of arms this is! To call it "tacky" is to insult genuinely tacky people everywhere, people who struggle every day to decide whether to put Miracle Whip or regular mayonnaise on their American cheese and Wonder bread sandwiches. Trump's coat features a shield of ermine (heraldic experts say it's a symbol of royalty), three lions in the rampant pose (a symbol of magnanimity), and an arm sticking out of the top holding a golf club (a symbol of, well, golf).

"You don't see a golf club very often," said Richardson. "You often see an arm, but it's usually holding a sword. A golf club is..." His voice trailed off before he could issue the obvious insult. (Those Canadians are so darn nice! I wish they were running the war in Iraq!).

Underneath the coat of arms, where most people put their motto, Trump inscribed, simply: "Trump."

"That's not necessarily his motto--unless he means it as a verb. Otherwise, it's just his name," said David Wooten, executive director of the American College of Heraldry, which help people design and register new armorial bearings (Trump never called them, by the way--and he never called me back for this story, either).

Wooten took a live-and-let-ruin approach when it comes to Trump. But he confirmed my suspicion that the apprentice's sorcerer is pretty much persona non grata among people who take their coats of arms seriously.

"The international heraldic community often looks down at Americans because most of us assume arms," Wooten said. "There are bucket shops at every mall offering to sell you 'your coat of arms,' but there's no such thing. Now they say, 'a coat of arms in your family's name,' or something like that."

But those kinds of outfits may be on the decline as more and more people are applying to--sorry, petitioning--the Lord Lyon directly. According to Elizabeth Roads, Lyon Clerk at the Court of the Lord Lyon, the big guy grants about 150 new arms every year. Roads said the increase in petitions was a result of people seeking out their roots. That may be bad news for those of us on this side of the pond who lack Scottish ancestry--unless you happen to think your pretentious neighbor looks good in a kilt.