A Multitude of 'My Friends'

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 2008

John McCain is a man with many friends, and many more on the way.

"My friends," he says frequently in public appearances, to emphasize a point or buy time or forge a connection with his audience. Sometimes he says it to signal bad news he regrets having to share: "My friends, our borders are broken."

Other times, he uses it to make a vow. "If I'm president of the United States, my friends, if I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get Osama bin Laden," he announced last month at the Saddleback Church forum.

McCain's journey through the primaries was one big friend-fest, with town halls in which he'd use those two words upwards of 20 times.

"Any impersonation of John McCain these days begins with 'my friends,' " says Cary Pfeffer, a communications consultant in Phoenix who covered McCain as a TV reporter in the late '80s and early '90s. "Friends know that I covered him . . . so every once in a while I'll pick up a message and it'll be someone saying, 'my friends.' "

McCain's longtime aide Mark Salter says he's become so familiar with the senator's precise speech patterns that when he writes McCain's addresses, "I just kind of naturally know where the 'my friends' will go and I'll write 'em in." (And if he doesn't write them in, Salter says, McCain says them anyway, and those two words show up exactly "where I thought they'd be.")

Now that all of John McCain's friends have come together in St. Paul to watch his acceptance tonight of the Republican nomination, it seems useful to call up an old friend -- a real one, as opposed to a rhetorical one -- and ask what he thinks of McCain's favorite phrase.

"I definitely take absolutely no credit for 'my friends,' " says Grant Woods. In fact, "I want to separate myself from anything to do with 'my friends.' " Woods, who worked as chief of staff and adviser to McCain during the 1980s and is now a supporter of the campaign, is like the many McCain observers who occasionally experience my-friends overload. As he puts it, "I think it's a good phrase -- used minimally."

"My friends" is a window into McCain's rhetorical style, which -- as has been written ad nauseam -- is better suited to intimate events than the massive rallies that the Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, prefers. McCain prefers conversations to speeches. When he says "my friends," he is trying to "form a personal connection with the people in the audience," says Dan Schnur, who served as the senator's communications director during his 2000 presidential run.

At least, some of the time he is.

"It's like 'aloha' in Hawaiian or 'shalom' in Hebrew -- 'my friends' can mean a lot of different things under different circumstances," Schnur says. "When he uses it one-on-one in conversation or to refer to a specific person, it takes on a much different meaning. Because in one-on-one interactions, the last thing you want from John McCain is a compliment. When John McCain likes you, he insults you."

The use of "my friends" is not uncommon in political discourse, especially for members of Congress, who spend their days paying homage to colleagues with such phrases as "my esteemed friend from Wisconsin." "My friends" is not partisan. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are fond of its sweeping statesmanishness. Sen. Joe Lieberman, the former Democrat from Connecticut who became an Independent and has campaigned extensively with McCain, is a major proponent of those two words, which might explain why he and the Arizona senator share such a bond. (Lieberman's Tuesday night convention speech tally: "friends," "my friends" or the even chummier "dear friends": 11.)

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