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The Close, Personal Friend Trend : The Rich and Famous--and All Their Many, Many Pals--Are Wrecking the Meaning of the Word Frienship


Bill Clinton has dozens. Barbra Streisand has more than most people could ever dream of. And let's not even talk about Steve Spielberg and Jeff Katzenberg.


We're talking Friends. Good Friends. Close Friends. The kind you do lunch with and make deals with. The kind you go to gourmet-sushi benefits for, and disclose things to the press about. The kind whose shoulder you drape your intimate arm around, beaming--as Clinton did at a recent event for Virginia's Democratic senator: "I'm glad to be here with my Good Friend Sen. (Charles) Robb."

Anybody who is anybody has them. We can't even count the number Hollywood producer Dawn Steel has--Jodie Foster, Debra Winger and Madonna for starters, and of course, Streisand. The President counts among his the governor of Wyoming, TV producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, all the folks at Little Rock's Rose Law Firm, Steve Breyer (the new Supreme Court justice), Jim McDougal of savings and loan fame, and Streisand.

In the rarefied air of the elites, even enemies are Good Friends. At a recent dinner in his honor, retiring Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell said of his rival, Republican Sen. Robert Dole, sure, they didn't always see eye to eye, but Bob . . . Bob has always been, in the truest sense of the word, "a Good Friend."

It should be nice, really nice, that the high, the mighty, the moneyed and the famous have so many Close Friends. But the truth is, the high and the mighty and all their Good Friends are wrecking the meaning of the word friendship for the rest of us.

"What we have is Good-Friend inflation. Nobody is just ordinary anymore," says Arthur Asa Berger, a professor of communication and popular-culture expert at San Francisco State University. "If everyone is a close friend, then the meaning of close friend disappears."

Isn't it hard enough to find and keep real friends these days without letting the word erode into a semantic shadow of its former self? Experts say real people are lucky to have two or three--at the outside, maybe, four. "And that would truly be a richness in a person's life," says Beverly Hills psychologist Toni Bernay, whose research on women in power shows the first thing to suffer in public life is true close friendship.

So, what's their secret? Why do the famous and the powerful have so many Close Friends? It's simple. They just say they are friends, and they are. Even if they aren't. "In power vortexes like Washington and Hollywood, friend is a different species than it is in Champagne-Urbana," says Stuart Fischoff, a professor of media psychology at Cal State Los Angeles. "It's the nature of mutual exploitation in powerful institutions. In truth, the depth of the relationship is like a reflecting pool. You resort to excessive terms if you need people."

Ah, yes. People needing people. Like Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was out at Disney because he and big boss Roy Disney were not Close Friends. But then, Katzenberg is in again, because he is Close Friends with media moguls David Geffen and Steven Spielberg, and-- voila --Geffen-Katzenberg-Spielberg.

Indeed, experts say, the famous and powerful are like friendship flypaper. If you can't be the powerful, you can at least know them, and through clever use of the language, lay a kind of up-close-and-personal claim on them.

"Close Friend is a showy status term now," says New York writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. magazine who interviewed 200 people for a book about friendship. "In a way, it's pitiful that people have to resort to such artificial messages. It's sort of like walking down the street talking on the telephone. OK, so you don't want to use the phone booth--but do you have to talk in the middle of 5th Avenue and 57th Street?"

And what about the powerful themselves, who feel compelled to claim so many Close Friendships? It could be an appeal to normalcy-- See? I'm just a Regular Guy, not power-mad or out of touch. "It humanizes you," says popular-culture expert Berger.

Rampant chumminess, of course, is not without its risks. Just as swiftly as the high and mighty are befriended, they can be de-friended when fortunes fall. "It's hard for those in power," says Bernay. "They're constantly doing this internal dance: 'Are they really my friend? Do they like me because of me, or because of what I can do for them?' And when the phone stops ringing, there can be a serious crash. We see a lot of that in this town."

In truth, adds Fischoff, the people with all those friends in Washington and Hollywood are "probably more alone than (people) anywhere else on the planet."

Swell. So maybe they don't really have all those Close Friends. In the end, it's just another example of the American love affair with linguistic excess, the same thing that turns stars into superstars and then into mega-stars.

But why should their Close-Friend gain, however transparent, be our loss? I mean, you can't even call someone vaguely elevated your "close friend" anymore--even if that someone really is--without people saying, "Oh, sure." So what do we do--come up with another word?

"Part of the problem is that the word friend is hard to define in our society," says Bernay. "People get nervous about it. Given the rapidity of the coming century--because we're all running so fast--maybe we have to look at the exclusivity of the term friend , and struggle a bit with its ambiguity, maybe step back from the '50s notion that everything is black and white. As we move faster and faster, we're redefining what friendship means."

Or maybe we could wait 100 years for the word to come back around to normal use. If you have a good friend to wait with, that wouldn't be so bad.

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