Sunday, September 07, 2008



Early this week in Slate I plumbed a rhetorical mystery: why does John McCain say "my friends" so much in his speeches?

"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.

My conclusion: blame William Jennings Bryan.

The Washington Post took up the story a few days later, noting that "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."

Curiously, it only came up once in the transcript of his convention acceptance speech, though I think I caught one more slipped into the actual performance, which drops him down to the paltry level of a 1960 Nixon RNC speech. Pshaw!

To make up for this lapse, I now bring you the greatest MF'er in literary history: the Rev. Mr. Chadband, the religious hypocrite in Bleak House who preaches to the poor while helping himself to the larder:
"Can we fly, my friends? We cannot. Why can we not fly, my friends?.... Is it because we are calculated to walk? It is. Could we walk, my friends, without strength? We could not. What should we do without strength, my friends? Our legs would refuse to bear us, our knees would double up, our ankles would turn over, and we should come to the ground. Then from whence, my friends, in a human point of view, do we derive the strength that is necessary to our limbs? Is it,” says Chadband, glancing over the table, “from bread in various forms, from butter which is churned from the milk which is yielded unto us by the cow, from the eggs which are laid by the fowl, from ham, from tongue, from sausage, and from such like? It is. Then let us partake of the good things which are set before us!”

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