May 8, 2011:
Prince Charles of Great Britain recently interceded to change the name of a new aircraft carrier from Prince of Wales (his current title), to Ark Royal (used as the name of five aircraft carriers, over the last century, and of the flagship of the fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada in 1547). Charles did this at the behest of Royal Navy officers, who pointed out that it would be good for morale.
No such attention to morale in the United States. After World War II, the military procurement system became more corrupt, largely the result of so much more being spent on defense. One aspect of that corruption was the growing custom of naming major warships after influential politicians. This was a way for the navy to curry more favor, and money, in Congress.
The worst example of this was the Nimitz class carriers, which could also be called the "Politician Class." All ten carriers were named after political figures who helped the navy, except for the lead ship, which was named after the World War II Pacific commander, Admiral Chester Nimitz. The successor to the Nimitz class continues the tradition, being named after president Gerald Ford. But at least Ford served, with distinction, on a carrier (the USS Monterey) during World War II.
Some of these namesakes were contemporary politicians, and some of those were still living. Naming ships after living persons is rare, but not uncommon. George Washington had four warships named after him before he died. In fact, over a dozen U.S. warships were named after notable revolutionary period leaders. Up through the U.S. Civil War, about one American warship a decade was named after a living person (usually a politician). In 1900, the first modern U.S. submarine was named after the fellow who developed it (John Philip Holland). Throughout the 20th century, but especially after World War II, warships were named after living people, mainly politicians who were helpful to the navy. So far this century, five warships have been named after living Americans. These were USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) in 2001, USS Nitze (DDG-94) in 2004, USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23) in 2004, USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77) in 2006 and USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG-108) in 2008. The last one is interesting, as admiral Meyer is, well, a geek, and the man most responsible for development of the Aegis air defense system. American carriers go to war surrounded by Aegis equipped ships, for protection against enemy aircraft and ballistic missiles.
The most debased example of using warship names to attract political favor, and defense dollars, was the recent U.S. Navy decision to name a smaller carrier (actually, an amphibious ship, LPD 26) after a recently deceased member of Congress, John Murtha. This really angered the troops, especially marines. That was ironic, as Murtha had spent 37 years in the marines (33 of them in the reserves). He served a year in Vietnam, as a staff officer. He parlayed that military experience into a political career, first at the state level, then in Washington. Murtha was known as a particularly easy guy to do business with and a supreme opportunist. He was nicknamed the "King of Pork" for his ability to get projects (often useless, but lucrative, ones) approved for his district. What made Murtha especially unpopular with the marines was his willingness to join the chorus of accusers condemning seven marines accused of murdering Iraqis in 2005. All the accused eventually had the charges dismissed or were acquitted. It was a witch hunt, and marines saw Murtha as one of the more eager witches. Murtha had also been in trouble before on ethics issues, and was known to play dirty when it suited his purposes. But guys like Murtha loved to spend federal money, especially for the navy and marines. So while most sailors and marines loathed the man, the brass were more respectful, and held firm on the decision to name an amphibious ship after him.
The navy does still name ships after their combat heroes. Two new destroyers were recently named after SEAL commandoes, including one who was awarded a Medal of Honor. But the largest ships are still named after the people who expose themselves to paper bullets, not the real ones.