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.)
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