My friends, in discussing the verbal tics of certain aspiring presidents, I would be remiss to pass over the punishing repetitions of that other aspirant to the throne, our friend Arizona Senator John McCain. Recently, the Times reported that McCain’s campaign minions have been struggling to massage his style and make it fit into the tight corset of general election speaking engagements. Before he learns to read the teleprompter, however, something’s got to give, and that something is McCain’s favorite phrase: “my friends.”
Though McCain’s doesn’t friend his listeners with quite the same range that Senator Obama asks them to look, he cakes it on just as thick. To wit: in a twenty-two minute victory lap after the Michigan and Arizona primaries (mostly applause and hooting), McCain globbed on the icing seven times. (“Well, my friends—well, my friends, here’s a little straight talk for you: What a difference a couple of days makes.”)
There are, to be sure, distinctions. There are the friends who endorse him, as when, early on, former presidential hopeful Kansas Senator Sam Brownback announced he was backing “my friend and true American hero, John McCain,” a platitude that solicited a reciprocal “my friend” from said American hero. This, however, seems to be a deviation from a pattern The Washington Post delineated in recalling McCain’s fist-pumping attack on Iowa Senator Charles Grassley in a 1992 meeting over the fate of American soldiers still MIA in Vietnam: “While the plural ‘my friends’ was usually a warm salutation from McCain, ‘my friend’ was often a prelude to his most caustic attacks.” (McCain apparently addressed Grassley as “my friend” before launching into such a friendly disquisition that Grassley stood up and demanded an apology.)
McCain has many friends and frenemies in Congress, yes, but his best and oldest friends are his voters, especially his Hispanic not-yet-voters. In a recent ad, McCain beckoned his Latino holdouts with his now familiar siren song: “My friends, I want you, the next time you’re down in Washington, D.C., to go to the Vietnam War memorial and look at the names engraved in black granite. You’ll find a whole lot of Hispanic names.”
The Senator is also especially kind to his more tightly-wound voters, who worry that, should he win the presidency, he’ll keep the United States military in Iraq for a century. “My friends, the war will be over soon, for all intents and purposes, although the insurgency will go on for years and years and years,” he crooned. “But it will be handled by the Iraqis, not by us.” There. Feels better already, doesn’t it, friends?
And then there are the friends who secretly don’t want to be friends. Take Todd Haupt, a Minnesota Republican who just lost his real-estate business and makes a living selling health drinks. “I hate when he says, ‘My friends,’” Haupt told a reporter. “McCain is not my friend.”
Right. Then there are the friends who never were friends, like those who presumed McCain’s guilt in the Keating Five Scandal almost twenty years ago. “If you don’t believe that a 354-page document, my friend, is sufficient after a nine-month investigation then you are different than most Americans.”
Those so-called friends, however, should never be confused with the friends who know McCain had a point when he called the Supreme Court’s recent habeas corpus ruling “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.” “We made it very clear that these are enemy combatants, these are people who are not citizens, they do not and never have been given the rights that citizens of this country have,” McCain explained. “And my friends, there are some bad people down there. There are some bad people.” And, to clarify, these “people” are not friends who, obviously, do have such rights.
This speechifier seems to be a recent acquisition, however. McCain rarely used the phrase before his failed 2000 presidential bid and, back when he was a first-term Congressman, he was quite spartan in his use, referring to “my friends who didn’t return” in a 1985 Vietnam War special with Walter Cronkite called “Honor, Duty, and a War Called Vietnam.”