Presidents and Friends: “They need people whose affection doesn’t depend on political office and whose counsel isn’t rooted in self-interest.”

From a Wall Street Journal book review by Barton Swaim headlined “Fast Friends: Party of Two”:

Wealth and power bring admirers aplenty, but few friends. “It’s lonely at the top” is a cliché that happens to be true. But unlike other wealthy and powerful people, high-level politicians don’t have the luxury of insulating themselves from the crowd. They are required by their position to cultivate allies and supporters at every level of society and in all parts of the country. They are surrounded much of the time by admiring careerists and prestige-seekers who laugh at all their jokes and feign interest in their welfare, but what they need are a few friends—people whose affection doesn’t depend on political office and whose counsel isn’t rooted in self-interest.

Most U.S. presidents have relied on a friend to guide them in office. Gary Ginsberg chronicles nine such relationships in “First Friends: The Powerful, Unsung (and Unelected) People Who Shaped Our Presidents.” The subject first occurred to Mr. Ginsberg when, as a campaign staffer for Bill Clinton in 1992, he sat in on an interview with Sen. Al Gore about the possibility of joining Mr. Clinton on the presidential ticket. The interviewer asked the Tennessee senator to name some of his friends. He couldn’t do it. He could name close family members and political allies, but no friends. Mr. Ginsberg is too loyal a Clintonite to state plainly that Mr. Gore’s “friend deficit,” as he delicately puts it, made him ill-suited to the presidency. But clearly it signaled a problem.

It is a problem that, as Mr. Ginsberg shows, presidents usually manage to avoid. This is Mr. Ginsberg’s first book after a career as a communications executive. The book’s strongest chapters relate friendships in which the president might have been expected to lose touch with an old friend but didn’t, and in which the friend never tried to take advantage of his valuable new connection….

A decades long friendship was the one between Harry Truman and Eddie Jacobson. The two had met when Harry was a young bank clerk in Kansas City and Eddie had come into the bank to make deposits for his employer, a shirt maker. They fought in the same regiment in World War I and afterward briefly co-owned a haberdashery.

The friends remained close all their lives, but in 1948 they nearly fell out when Jacobson asked Truman for a favor. Jacobson wanted him to meet with the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann in the hope that the president could be persuaded to recognize the newly founded state of Israel. Truman, though his oldest and closest friend was Jewish, had no special sensitivity to the Jews. He had become annoyed with the Zionist effort in Washington and wanted nothing further to do with Weizmann. But the president relented. “You win, you bald-headed son of a bitch,” Truman said to Jacobson. “I will see him.” Truman met with Weizmann, and the U.S.—despite scheming opposition from the State Department—recognized the fledgling Jewish state….

Two presidents treated here needed someone mainly to listen, not to contribute. Richard Nixon’s famously odd friendship with Bebe Rebozo, the apolitical Cuban-American hotelier and playboy, was based on Rebozo’s ability to take Nixon’s mind off politics and off himself. “Bebe is like a sponge,” Pat Nixon remarked; “he soaks up whatever Dick says and never makes any comments. Dick loves that.”

I place Franklin Roosevelt’s relationship with Daisy Suckley in the same category. The two met in 1922, when Franklin’s mother asked Daisy, a distant cousin to the future president, to keep him company while he convalesced after contracting polio. They would spend many hours together and exchange scores of letters. Their relationship was flirtatious but probably not sexual. After FDR’s death, Suckley became his foremost archivist….

The author is even more protective of John Kennedy, whose friendship with British ambassador David Ormsby-Gore was—according to Kennedy biographer Barbara Leaming—“among the most important of Jack’s life” and had “immense historical ramifications.”

I don’t doubt Ormsby-Gore’s influence on JFK—they had known each other since Kennedy’s days in London, when his father was ambassador; during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy had listened to Ormsby-Gore rather than his own State Department. But the effort to present the 35th president as a swashbuckling intellectual, working out the implications of highfalutin conversations about democracy and leadership he’d once had with his Oxford-educated friend, is straight from the Camelot School of Kennedy Studies. With these debates still circulating in Kennedy’s mind, we’re told, the young Massachusetts senator wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 1954 that the statesman’s duty isn’t “to pander to people’s false beliefs in an effort to win votes, but rather to take steps to educate and enlighten public opinion.”

Forgive me, but that sounds like a college term paper. Also, pace Mr. Ginsberg, they’re not Kennedy’s words. The essay, “Foreign Policy Is the People’s Business,” is indeed a collection of platitudes, but the line about pandering to false beliefs is Barbara Leaming’s paraphrase of Kennedy’s piece in her book “Jack Kennedy: The Education of a Statesman.” If you’re wondering, as I did, whether Kennedy even wrote the Times essay—recall that speechwriter Ted Sorensen did the heavy lifting for “Profiles in Courage”—don’t look to Mr. Ginsberg for guidance. Two pages later we learn that “with so much time spent on his back convalescing [from spinal surgery], Kennedy could write his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, which brought him additional fame and gravitas. In many ways, Profiles in Courage . . .”

The sloppy dependence on liberal mythmaking shows up in the Nixon chapter, too. Nixon “established his bona fides as an anticommunist crusader and a reliable conservative,” Mr. Ginsberg writes, “but in the process he alienated a generation of left-of-center journalists, influencers, and voters with his win-at-all-costs approach to campaigning and governing.” Alienating voters is not how I would describe a man who in 1972 won 49 states and 60% of the popular vote.

The book’s earlier chapters—Thomas Jefferson’s reliance on James Madison, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s catastrophic loyalty to Franklin Pierce—work well as history. But the closer Mr. Ginsberg gets to the present, the more he recites the consensus views of his chosen party. By the last chapter, on Bill Clinton’s friendship with the late Vernon Jordan, we aren’t reading historical inquiry so much as political opinion on familiar controversies—and I need no more of that.

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