Bradford Plumer is an associate editor at The New Republic.
Yup, Rick Santorum went there. The former Pennsylvania senator, known for his less-than-enlightened views on gay rights (the inspiration for that famous Dan Savage Google-bomb), has opted for the "Some of my best friends..." defense. Earlier this week, when CNN's Don Lemon asked him if he had any gay friends, Santorum replied enthusiastically: "Yes, in fact, I was with a gay friend of mine just two days ago. So, yeah, I do. And they respect that I have differences of opinion on that. I talk about these things in front of them, and we have conversations about it. They differ from me, but they know that I love them because they're my friends."
Naturally, mockery ensued — but mainly because the self-serving line has become such a hoary cliche. Which raises the question: When did the token minority best-friend defense come in vogue?
Experts I talked to couldn't pinpoint an exact origin, but a search back through newspaper archives reveals that the line has been around for more than a century. (There are a number of "Dear Abby" queries that have opened along the lines of this letter, from 1971: "DEAR ABBY, First let me say some of my best friends are homosexual, I have nothing against them, but...") The phrase's earliest recorded political use was back in 1908. John Worth Kern, who was on the ticket for William Jennings Bryan's third failed bid for the presidency, trotted it out at the end of a campaign speech in Westminster, excoriating William Taft as a tool of big business. Toward the end of his stemwinder, he made a plea for political comity: "Some of my best friends are Republicans," Kern said, "and although we have had our political fights, we have never fallen out and quarreled.")
Then, in 1928, the trope famously got trotted out as a defense against intolerance. John Roach Straton, a fiery Baptist preacher from New York, had launched a noisy campaign against Al Smith, a Catholic running for president as a Democrat. Straton was the guy who popularized the notion that Smith was "the candidate of rum, Romanism, and rebellion," but, responding to charges that he was some sort of anti-Catholic bigot, Straton told the AP, "Understand I am not a foe of the Catholics. Some of my dearest friends are Catholic." (To prove his open-mindedness, Straton even agreed to debate Smith inside New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral.)
The most infamous case, though, came in 1937. Hugo Black had been nominated for the Supreme Court, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had just uncorked a series of articles revealing Black's past involvement in the Ku Klux Klan. Black's defense memorably included the line "Some of my best friends are Jews," which earned him no small amount of scorn from newspaper editorialists (that line, after all, had been the title of a book-length history of anti-Semitism by Robert Gessner the previous year). That didn't stop Black from getting confirmed — and he later made amends with his critics through his work on the Court — but the phrase stuck. In 1967, shortly before his death, Black repented and told The New York Times that he had no idea this was a well-worn anti-Semitic weasel phrase, adding, "In my case it was true!"
It's hard to find pundits who will actually stick up for the ludicrous "some of my best friends..." defense, although here's libertarian Murray Rothbard in 1990, defending Patrick Buchanan against charges of anti-Semitism:
Buchanan is clearly vindicated by everyone who has ever met him, since all agree he is not "personally" anti-Semitic, has many Jewish friends, saved the job of Mona Charen, etc. Here I also want to embellish a point: All my life, I have heard anti-anti-Semites sneer at Gentiles who, defending themselves against the charge of anti-Semitism, protest that "some of my best friends are Jews." This phrase is always sneered at, as if easy ridicule is a refutation of the argument. But it seems to me that ridicule is habitually used here, precisely because the argument is conclusive. If some of Mr. X's best friends are indeed Jews, it is absurd and self-contradictory to claim that he is anti-Semitic. And that should be that.
Social scientists, it's worth noting, wouldn't agree with this logic, and they have often looked unkindly on the line. In 1986, Mary Jackman and Marie Crane published a paper in Public Opinion Quarterly investigating what they called the "cynical reasoning implied by the infamous 'Some of my best friends are black, but...' expression." Their survey data suggested that "personal interracial contact is selective in its effects on whites' racial attitudes, that intimacy is less important than variety of contacts, and that any effects are contingent on the relative socioeconomic status of black contacts." In other words, having a handful of black friends wasn't at all incompatible with holding racist beliefs.
But forget the social science. Is the "Some of my best friends..." defense an effective stance for politicians to take? Possibly, although recent history suggests candidates have to be a lot more subtle about it than Santorum was — otherwise they're just asking for mockery. Back in 2006, George W. Bush tried to sooth over tensions with the NAACP (this was after Kanye West's "George Bush doesn't care about black people" quip) with an address at the group's annual convention. He slipped in this line: "You know, one of my friends is Bob Johnson, founder of [Black Entertainment Television]. He's an interesting man." (In fairness, Bush was using the line to pivot into a full-throated defense of estate-tax repeal.)
More skilled still was Bob McDonnell, who ran for governor of Virginia in 2009. After a graduate thesis that he had written 20 years earlier surfaced, in which he had described working women as "detrimental" to the family, McDonnell had to fend off accusations of sexism — and quick. So, naturally, he cut an ad titled "Working Woman" featuring his daughter Jeanine, who had served as an Army lieutenant in Iraq and told the cameras that McDonnell had always encouraged his daughters "to be independent and achieve our goals." The only more bulletproof character witness than a best friend is a family member.
Of course, there are caveats. Michele Bachmann famously has a lesbian stepsister, Helen LaFave. Surely LaFave could be useful to Bachmann's stated quest to prove to the world that she doesn't hate gay people, right? But there's a hitch: By all accounts, the stepsister is estranged — in part because of Bachmann's rabid insistence that, for example, legalizing same-sex marriage will lead to school kids being brainwashed into homosexuality. The moral? Better to get the stories straight before enlisting that best friend.