Why McCain can’t stop saying “my friends.’

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“My friends,” John McCain recently informed a crowd, “we spent $3 million of your money to study the DNA of bears in Montana.”

McCain’s meeting with parishioners at Rick Warren’s Saddleback presidential forum certainly was a friendly one: He referred to “my friends” another 11 times. In the week leading up to Saddleback, the senator also friended, among others, a crowd in York, Pa., (“Two years ago, I traveled to South Ossetia, my friends”); workers at a locomotive factory in Erie, Pa., (“…  my friends, look at the events that are transpiring in Georgia”); and Iowa state fairgoers  (“My friends, I’m all in favor of inflating our tires, don’t get me wrong …”).

John McCain’s insistent recourse to “my friends” is easily the most mystifying verbal tic of any politician since Bob Dole’s out-of-body presidential campaign of 1996, which featured Dole’s not entirely reassuring promise that “Bob Dole is not some sort of fringe candidate.” Like Dole’s use of the dissociative third person—or illeism, a propensity also shared by Elmo and the Incredible Hulk—this year’s obsessive invocations to friendship invite scrutiny.

Is this a doctrine of pre-emptive friendship—immediately declaring crowds won over with an oratorical “mission accomplished”? Perhaps, but McCain’s friending is a strategy that hearkens back to classical rhetoric. Horace’s call to “amici performed a similar function in ancient Rome, and Tennyson’s 1833 poem “Ulysses” drew upon that tradition for the immortal lines: “Come, my friends/ ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” (Rather less stirringly, it’s also the phrase of choice for the unctuous Rev. Chadband in Bleak House.)

But as a crowd bludgeon in modern political speechmaking, “my friends” can be laid at the feet of one man: William Jennings Bryan. His famed 1896 “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic National Convention invoked the phrase a mind-crushing 10 times. Inveighing against “those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below,” Bryan declared, “My friends, the question we are to decide is: Upon which side will the Democratic party fight; upon the side of the idle holders of idle capital or upon the side of the struggling masses?” Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” is historically considered to be among the most viscerally powerful speeches ever made by an American politician, with one New York World journalist reporting the crowd’s reaction as “tumult—hills and valleys of shrieking men and women.” The temptation to bottle that kind of lightning again is alluring.

Tracking the subsequent use of “my friends” through inaugural, State of the Union, and convention acceptance addresses reveals a pattern. While there’s occasional use of “my friends” among most 20th-century candidates and presidents—and even a few 19th-century ones, right back to Jefferson—its persistent use is a different matter:

Franklin Roosevelt’s 1932 convention acceptance speech: 11
Adlai Stevenson’s 1952 convention acceptance  speech: six
Dwight Eisenhower’s 1956 convention acceptance speech: six
Richard Nixon’s 1968 convention acceptance  speech: five
George H.W. Bush’s 1988 convention acceptance speech: four
Michael Dukakis’$2 1988 convention acceptance  speech: seven
George H.W. Bush’s 1989 inaugural address: four
George H.W. Bush’s 1989 State of the Union address: four

McCain falls neatly into line: Roughly every generation since FDR, a candidate resurrects “my friends.” But while used in its first few decades by good or great orators, it’s notable that in the last half-century it’s been exclusively resorted to by the worst orators in our presidential races.

What happened to change the phrase’s status in our language after Eisenhower’s 1956 speech? I have my own unprovable pet theory: It’s because the following year saw The Music Man debut on Broadway. Ever since, the phrase has been irrevocably associated with old-timey con men in straw boaters: “My friends, you got trouble right here in River City!

When McCain invokes “my friends,” he’s making an appeal to the old days—the really old days.

Perhaps that’s why this Foghorn Leghorn-ish turn of phrase also finds popularity among conservative populists. Since its last major outing in 1989, the phrase’s most notable public users have been Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan, who deployed it six times in his 1992 RNC “culture war” speech. This was the hectoring strain of “my friendism” also favored by 1930s radio demagogue Father Charles Coughlin, and it’s in these less nuanced uses that the phrase’s dynamic becomes clearer: There’s an implicit aggression originating in the singular form of the phrase. Generally, when someone not personally known to you addresses you as “my friend,” the safe assumption to make is that he is not your friend. In the American vernacular, “my friend” precedes a punch in the face.

This is the discomfort of “my friends”: Although it hopes to evoke amici’s wave of the arm over the agora, on the stump it remains a phrase that demands fealty when, in fact, that relationship has not yet been granted to the candidate. It feels faintly bullying—an unpleasant echo of the singular menace of my friend.

McCain’s staff, it should be said, does not seem particularly eager to memorialize their candidate’s friendliness. A search through archived speech transcipts at his campaign Web site reveals only scattered instances of “my friends.” Congressional Quarterly transcripts, however, tell a different story: After his Saddleback appearance, for instance, McCain went on to a New Mexico town hall and friended the crowd eight times. (“My friends,” he informed them, “we have to have nuclear power.”)

To be fair, nearly every president seems to have indulged in friending at least once. (Even Obama used it in his first speech as a senator.) Among the wide ranks of modern presidential “my frienders”—let us call them MF’ers for short—only Jimmy Carter and “Silent Cal” Coolidge appear to have been determined to avoid the term. For Democrats and Republicans alike, it seems, a president who isn’t a little bit of an MF’er is a once-in-a-century event.