Maureen Dowd on All the President’s Friends: “The unelected yet powerful people who shape presidencies.”

From a Maureen Dowd column in the New York Times headlined “Friends in High Places”:

When you are the president’s best friend, you may be called on for many services — some dicey, some soothing, some world-shaking, and some profoundly personal.

In his new book, “First Friends,” Gary Ginsberg chronicles the unelected yet undeniably powerful people who shape presidencies.

We know too well how the advisers of presidents with all-access passes to the Oval can make or break legacies.

Look at how George W. Bush’s presidency was ruined when Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld got him to invade Iraq.

And consider how Rudy Giuliani ginned up Donald Trump’s craziest impulses, leading to two impeachments, one insurrection and endless legal bills.

But there has been less focus on the often “unseen hands,” as Ginsberg calls them, the BFFs busy on the sidelines.

He became interested in the topic as a lawyer vetting vice-presidential candidates for Bill Clinton. He was joined in the last round by Harry McPherson, an old Washington hand who had been the White House lawyer for Lyndon Johnson.

McPherson believed that if L.B.J., a solitary man at heart, had had an intimate, he might have navigated Vietnam more adroitly….

Ginsberg examines First Friends in nine presidencies and the impact of the back-room counsel. His tales include:

Bill Clinton dispatching Vernon Jordan to talk Hillary Clinton out of leaving him after he publicly confessed to his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

David Ormsby-Gore, the British ambassador and an old friend of Jack Kennedy, helping to guide Kennedy through the Cuban Missile Crisis and signing a nuclear test ban treaty.

Bebe Rebozo relaxing the coiled and paranoid Richard Nixon by mixing martinis, making steak and Cuban black-bean dinners and paying to put a bowling alley in the White House basement….

Presidents can put their friends in awkward circumstances. Nixon asked Rebozo to help him with a shadowy fund-raising scheme, and Clinton got Jordan — the two loved to talk about women — involved in trying to get Lewinsky a cushy job at Revlon in New York, before that scandal exploded.

And sometimes the friends put the presidents in a bad light. “By the late 1960s,” Ginsberg writes, “F.B.I. agents investigating criminal syndicates had identified Rebozo as a ‘nonmember associate of organized crime figures’ … The F.B.I. now had reason to believe the Key Biscayne lots Nixon had purchased were owned by a business associate of Rebozo’s connected to organized crime.”…

Citing the example of Donald Trump, “the friendless president,” Ginsberg told me that leaders need that emotional engagement of knowing that there is another soul who has their interest at heart.

I asked Ted Kaufman, the longtime loyal pal of Joe Biden, who nursed him through Beau’s passing, what it means to be a First Friend.

“I’d walk across cut glass for him,” he replied, “and I think he’d do the same for me.”

Maureen Dowd, winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary and author of three New York Times best sellers, became an Op-Ed columnist in 1995.

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