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Speaking Politics phrase of the week: 'My good friend'

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(Read caption) Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada (l.) talks with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 10, 2014.

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“My good friend”: Perhaps the most annoying of political euphemisms, it’s Congress-speak for someone that the speaker may not be friends with – and who they may in fact loathe.

“My good friend” is routinely used on the House and Senate floors when one colleague addresses another. Of the many politicians, aides, lobbyists and scholars that David Mark and I interviewed for our book “Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs and Washington Handshakes,” most cited this expression as the one that best demonstrates how polite speech masquerades as the truth.

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When Rep. Gene Green of Texas (D) arrived on Capitol Hill in the early 1990s, “The joke we had was, when someone calls you their good friend, look behind you,” he recalled. “I try not to say it unless people really are my good friends.” 

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But Representative Green is the exception. After Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) won his recent primary following his numerous verbal skirmishes with Donald Trump, Trump running mate Mike Pence – a former Indiana congressman – sought to smooth things over. “Called my good friend Senator McCain today and offered our congratulations,” Mr. Pence tweeted.

And with Congress back in town – albeit briefly – the exercise in decorum is now being heard all the time. Last week, the House took up a bill that proponents said would make it easier for small businesses to raise capital by lessening the burdens of securities regulations imposed. Democrats, however, cried foul at their “friends.”

“I feel it is a very dangerous bill,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York (D), “but I would also like to point out to my good friends on the other side of the aisle that keep talking about the economy … that when President Obama took office, this country was shedding 700,000 jobs a month, and because of his leadership and Democratic policies, we have climbed out of that deep red valley of job loss.”

Meanwhile, Orrin Hatch of Utah (R), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, inveighed against what he called the Affordable Care Act’s continuing inadequacies. “My friends on the other side of the aisle have done their best to downplay our criticisms and minimize every negative story written about the problems with Obamacare,” Hatch said.

The Senate’s majority and minority leaders, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky (R) and Harry Reid of Nevada (D), are known for persisting in using the term despite their deep enmity toward each other. In 2012 they sat for a “60 Minutes” piece in which interviewer Steve Kroft later observed they made every attempt to hide their feelings. “They kept saying … ‘My good friend, Harry’ or ‘My good friend, Mitch,’ ” Mr. Kroft said.

“Friend,” of course has always been a fungible word in politics – witness the famous maxim attributed to President Harry Truman (but which he may never actually have said): “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

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But Washington isn’t the only place where the expression can have a negative connotation. In his best-selling book “Kitchen Confidential,” chef-turned-cable television star Anthony Bourdain wrote that among restaurant workers, “ ‘My friend’ famously means [an expletive for an obnoxious person] in the worst and most sincere sense of that word.”

Chuck McCutcheon writes his “Speaking Politics” blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

Interested in decoding what candidates are saying? Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark’s latest book, “Doubletalk: The Language, Code, and Jargon of a Presidential Election,” is out now. 


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