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 LBJ, a solitary man at heart, had had an intimate, he might have navigated Vietnam more adroitly. So McPherson wanted to know, “Does Al Gore have any friends?”
When Gore stumbled over the answer, McPherson wondered, “If he can’t develop or even claim one real friendship, how’s he going to lead a nation?” But Clinton didn’t seem to care; he had enough friends for both of them.
Ginsberg examines First Friends in nine presidencies and the impact of the backroom 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.
Eddie Jacobson, an army buddy and partner of Harry Truman in a Kansas City haberdashery, helping persuade Truman to recognise the state of Israel.
Edward House serving as a de facto chief diplomat for Woodrow Wilson, negotiating the first World War armistice and the doomed Treaty of Versailles, until Edith Wilson came along and dismissed him as “a perfect jellyfish”.
Presidents can put their friends in awkward circumstances. Nixon asked Rebozo to help him with a shadowy fundraising 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, “FBI agents investigating criminal syndicates had identified Rebozo as a ‘non-member associate of organised crime figures’ . . . The FBI now had reason to believe the Key Biscayne lots Nixon had purchased were owned by a business associate of Rebozo’s connected to organised crime.”
First Friends trade interesting gifts. When Thomas Jefferson was in Paris, he kept in touch with James Madison with presents marking current obsessions. “Jefferson mostly sent books about political philosophy, European governments and failed democracies, as well as contraptions like a telescope that retracted into a cane, phosphoretic matches, a pedometer and a box of chemicals to further indulge Madison’s growing interest in chemistry,” Ginsberg writes.
Madison sent sugar maples, Pippin apples and pecans but was unable to procure a live opossum. Abraham Lincoln and his friend Joshua Speed – a Springfield, Illinois, shopkeeper – had a rare intimacy. The two shared Speed’s bed for years in Springfield after Lincoln told Speed he couldn’t afford a mattress. Historians still debate the nature of this relationship.
But when Speed moved back to the family farm in Kentucky and said he did not want to surrender his right to own human property, Lincoln wrote to him bluntly about his disappointment.
“You know I dislike slavery; and you fully admit the abstract wrong of it,” Lincoln chided, urging Speed to think of those “poor creatures hunted down” and “carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils”.
Other friends specialised in sycophancy. As Pat Nixon said of Rebozo, “Bebe is like a sponge; he soaks up whatever Dick says and never makes any comments. Dick loves that.”
Citing the example of 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 long-time loyal pal of Joe Biden, who nursed him through Beau Biden’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.” – New York Times