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A Multitude of 'My Friends'

"You know what drives me crazy about McCain?" Bill O'Reilly asked on the air in August. "When he says 'my friends.' . . . If somebody says that to you, 'my friend,' it sounds condescending. You don't know me. You know?"

"If somebody turned the 'my friends' thing into a drinking game," replied his guest, Dennis Miller, "it would have killed Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton."

In fact, somebody has turned the phrase into a drinking game, although The Washington Post does not recommend playing it. The Post does not endorse anything that might cause alcohol poisoning. The day after O'Reilly's remarks, McCain achieved what may have been a personal best at a town hall gathering in Lima, Ohio, using the phrase or some variation exactly 30 times.

"My friends, just like on the energy bill, I've argued for reform and change in Washington for years," he told the crowd. "And it hasn't made me friends. It hasn't made me friends in Washington. My friends, I was not elected Miss Congeniality again this year."

For the way it conveys the air of a learned elder, McCain's favorite phrase can remind his listeners of those dads on '60s sitcoms, the ones who called their sons "son." (Incidentally, McCain's own father, Jack, a four-star admiral in the U.S. Navy, was fond of using "my friend" to punctuate a point, according to a Washington Post profile.)

People who study the words that politicians use are split on whether it works for McCain or comes off as creaky.

"It comes out from him in a way that -- at least to me -- comes across as sincere," says John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, who suggests the phrase reinforces McCain's accessibility. "You could see going up to shake his hand, maybe give him a brief hug."

"It reads as an age marker, because I don't think anybody under the age of 50 has ever used the term," says Roderick Hart, the dean of the college of communication at the University of Texas at Austin.

In some cases, says J. Brian Smith, a consultant on many of McCain's congressional races, "my friends" functions as a mere rhetorical tic, giving McCain a moment to gather his thoughts. You know, the way Ronald Reagan used to say "Well . . . ."

Obama, who frequently uses the professorial finger-on-temple stance when listening, has his own rhetorical tics when talking, including "uh," which appears to serve as a stalling tactic. He also does a little rhetorical dance, Hart says.

"I'm still trying to get used to Obama's speech patterns," he says. "I find them for the most part really quite formal or really informal. There's no middle ground."

McCain, on the other hand, uses "my friends" in loads of settings; it's only the meaning that changes.

"Sometimes he says it and he means it, and sometimes he means quite the opposite," says Pfeffer, the former TV reporter. When it's the latter, "it can come with him almost gritting teeth when he's saying it."

"It's important to draw a distinction between 'my friends' and 'my dear friends' and 'my dear, dear friends,' " suggests Schnur. "I remember, at one point in 2000, him referring to a newspaper reporter who had just done a very critical story as 'my dear, dear friend,' " he says. "The only other time I heard him use that was with Mitt Romney."

One thing that can be said about "my friends": for a candidate who prides himself on authenticity, the phrase seems truly to belong to John McCain. It does not read as something pretested, as the programmed stuff of presidential oratory.

"He's actually very hip in many ways," says his old friend Woods. (For instance, Woods says, McCain just adored "Borat.") "He has his old-school ways, and some of his phrases are old school. And that's okay, that's him."

Back in the '80s, Woods says, he tried to talk McCain out of his habit of using "pal" when he ran into someone whose name he couldn't remember.

Woods recalls: "I said, 'Look, this pal. . . it's like Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly and "Anchors Aweigh." No one says "pal." ' And his response, basically, was, 'Thanks for the input, pal.' "


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