I was in the third grade when I saw Abraham Lincoln assassinated. It was during the sixth-grade play at Windermere Elementary School, outside of Buffalo, New York, and I was jarred and transfixed. Until then I didn’t know anything about politics let alone Lincoln, but from that moment on I was obsessed with the American presidency: the people who occupied our country’s highest office, their strengths and weaknesses, what made some succeed while others failed, and those who surrounded them.
Thirteen years later I found myself working on Colorado senator Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign. Hart had just pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Democratic Party history, beating former vice president Walter Mondale in the New Hampshire primary. As the sudden front-runner, Hart needed an advance team. A good friend recruited me, and, as a college senior with nothing better to do, I eagerly accepted.
Over the next four months, I traveled the country as a bit player, organizing events for a maverick young politician seeking to wrest the nomination from a better-known opponent. Hart would ultimately lose, but I saw how a campaign operated and the important role that close friendships can play.
Two friends of Hart’s in particular fascinated me. One, Billy Shore, was his chief of staff and close friend, always at Hart’s side. He seemed to be Hart’s alter ego, someone with the right combination of intensity yet inner calm to keep an often pensive candidate switched on. He was so in sync with the candidate that on long plane flights, depending on how Shore read his friend’s mood, he would know to either keep Hart entertained for hours or remain utterly silent.
The other was Warren Beatty, the famous Hollywood actor; their close friendship stretched back a dozen years to when Hart had managed George McGovern’s losing 1972 presidential campaign. Beatty would appear dramatically in some of the Hart campaign’s most important events and speeches. His movie star glamour always generated a buzz, but he also had the effect of elevating the enigmatic Hart into a lighter and more demonstrative personality.
“Stop acting and talking like a politician” was one of his favorite refrains. Beatty’s visits were infrequent—part of his mystique—but his influence on the campaign was palpable, particularly in the marathon conversations he and Hart would have late at night, Beatty’s preferred time of day. He was the only one in Hart’s tight circle with greater wattage and status, and he used them—as well as the fact he needed nothing from Hart—to tell him in blunt terms when something wasn’t working, which was often.
In some ways, the subject of this book came about through those two formative insights: one that’s universal—the realization that the presidency of the United States is larger than life—and the other personal and human—the realization that even someone aspiring to the most powerful office in the world can use a friend just like anyone else.
The more I learned and interacted with politics, the more interested I became in how people act around the enormous power of a presidency and how the presidency is shaped by those people. Inside the proverbial room where it happens, do they act authentically or conformingly? Can they speak difficult truths, or do they genuflect to preserve their place in the room? I also began to wonder about those with influence outside the room—the unseen hands who, because of their history, independence, wisdom, or intimacy with the leader often helped shape and decide the questions debated in the room. Those who, when the heat gets too high, the tension too palpable, the leader can call on: for a meal, a game of golf, a late-night phone call, a walk in the park—a respite so that he can then return to his duties with more clarity and perhaps even a new perspective.
Of course this is what friends do, and why would it be any different for people at the highest levels of politics and government? But over the years, as my own involvement in politics and business grew and I gained access to some of those rooms, I began to observe two things more clearly. First, it truly is lonely at the top, and trust, candor, and care for people in positions of great authority and responsibility can be extremely rare. And second, in my own career, much of whatever success I’ve had was made possible by the true friendships I’ve forged.
My interest in this subject went from a mild curiosity to a revelation in June 1992, when I found myself in an apartment next to the U.S. Supreme Court building interviewing Al Gore, who ten days later would be nominated for the vice presidency of the United States.
This was my fourth stint working for a presidential campaign, and this time I had chosen a winner—Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, who was on the verge of becoming the Democratic nominee for president.
I was one of five lawyers assigned by the campaign to vet potential VP candidates. Gore, a second-term senator from Tennessee, was among the candidates on my list. Four years earlier, after graduating law school, I had actually worked on Gore’s unsuccessful campaign to be the Democratic presidential nominee. I got to know him well and admired his intelligence and commitment to the issues he cared most about. The fact that a former low-level staffer was now his primary vetter must have irked Gore, as I went about prying into every detail of his political and private lives. The task included weeks of public research and private investigative work, including traveling to Nashville to interview every important person in his life, even his wife and parents. I wrote my final memo to the senior campaign team in Little Rock detailing my findings, and waited for word.
A week or so later, I was told Gore was one of four finalists, and I should prepare for a final interview. The campaign brass shrewdly decided that someone older and wiser than a twenty-nine-year-old former Gore underling was needed for this sensitive task. They chose Harry McPherson, an old Washington hand, to join me for the last round of questioning. A Texan by birth, McPherson was best known as former president Lyndon Johnson’s White House lawyer and chief speechwriter—a tall and stately man who conveyed the easy confidence of someone who had already made his name and neither needed nor wanted anything from anyone.
McPherson and I met at his Connecticut Avenue law office. He wanted a briefing to understand the essence of Al Gore. He asked me a number of questions I was ready for, then one that I wasn’t: “Does Al Gore have any friends?” I hesitated before I said anything, slightly stumped. “It’s a simple question,” McPherson repeated. “Does Al Gore have any friends, because it’s not clear to me he does, and if that’s the case, I’d be concerned.”
In all the spade work I’d done over three months, this wasn’t anything I’d given any thought to nor addressed in any of my vetting memos. And yet I sensed he was on to something far more important than Gore’s views on the MX missile or noxious greenhouse gases. Looking back on my firsthand campaign experience with Gore, it occurred to me that I couldn’t recall a Billy Shore or a Warren Beatty around. And there certainly wasn’t the gaggle of friends like I’d seen already on the Clinton campaign—the famous “Friends of Bill”—who had rescued the rocky candidate during the New Hampshire primary by traveling to the state to personally reassure skittish voters of his character and integrity. Their continued efforts afterward were a key reason Clinton cited for his success in securing the nomination.
Gore was different, but I wouldn’t say he was friendless. He certainly was friendly, as smart and earnest a politician as any I had dealt with in my nascent political career. Harry, however, couldn’t get past it, drawing on the years he had worked closely with LBJ. He had come to understand and value the importance of having a First Friend—and of not having one. On a daily basis, Johnson manifested the power of personality as central to the effective functioning of the presidency. No one could cajole, flatter, berate, or bludgeon another into capitulation as well as Lyndon Johnson. Using his hulking frame almost as a weapon, he would hover over his prey, lean in, and, alternating between whispers and shouts, eventually get his way.
Yet despite LBJ’s outsized personality, Harry long believed that the president was, at heart, a solitary figure. He had legions of people around him, but no true, close confidants. Harry recognized that there was a gaping hole in Johnson’s life, one that could have been filled with a friend who might have enabled him to be a more successful president. Over his long agonizing debates over Vietnam, for example, Harry had theorized an intimate could have helped clarify his thinking and eased the pressure as the country divided over the war and ultimately forced his early retirement. With Gore, he worried about the same deficiency.
A week later, Gore met with us for the final interview at his parents’ apartment in a building across from the Capitol. After some brief pleasantries, Harry began.
“Senator, who are your friends?” he asked.
Gore shot McPherson a look of surprise, with a hint of anger that I knew all too well from the 1988 campaign.
“Harry, what are you asking?” Gore said.
“Senator, who are your friends . . . the people you most like, relax with, travel with, drink with. Your friends.”
A few seconds of silence ensued. Gore leaned forward in his armchair.
He looked straight at McPherson and spoke in an assured, senatorial voice.
“Norm Dicks and Tom Downey,” he said.
Both men were then members of the House of Representatives, and they had served with Gore during his eight years as a congressman. Harry expected to hear these names, but he wanted more.
“Who besides men you’ve served with would you describe as close friends? Any friends from Carthage? From Harvard? From Nashville?
From DC outside of Capitol Hill?”
“Well . . . my brother-in-law, Frank Hunger.”
McPherson was also expecting that name. “Anyone outside your family?”
Another uncomfortable silence followed. Finally, Gore repeated the same three names.
The rest of the interview was occupied with questions about his military record, House and Senate careers, legislative victories, and personal financial dealings, all of which satisfied Harry and the campaign leadership. Gore had indeed demonstrated the character and experience to be a strong VP candidate, but as we departed Capitol Hill, Harry kept returning to the question of Gore’s inability to name anyone other than Dicks, Downey, and Hunger.
Then he just said it out loud:
“If he can’t develop or even claim one real friendship, how’s he going to lead a nation?” This was Harry’s bottom line on the subject. Later, I would learn he relayed this fear directly to Warren Christopher, but for reasons that never made their way back to me, it was discounted. Gore was chosen as Clinton’s running mate, and he served as vice president loyally and effectively for eight years until they had a bitter falling-out over Clinton’s behavior with Monica Lewinsky.
We will never know whether Gore’s perceived friend deficit might have affected his presidency. He lost the 2000 election narrowly and controversially to a man who would enjoy many close friendships but nonetheless suffer through a failed war and an economic collapse that would undermine his presidency.
The point here is not to assert that a First Friend is essential to presidential success. It would be a reach—and a misreading of history—to draw that conclusion. And yet the deeper I delved into dozens of presidential friendships, the more convinced I became that those presidents who did have First Friends were almost always the better for it—and so was the country.
I finally decided to write this book two years ago in the context of the Trump administration and the strongly held perception—fair or not—that this president’s friendships were transactional rather than genuine. It made me, like Harry, wonder whether the presence of a real friend during his years in the White House (family being a different matter), most critically in those fateful last two months of his presidency, might have saved him from his worst moments: softened his intemperate behavior, given him a calm that so often eluded him, and perhaps provided him with unvarnished honesty at seminal moments when everyone else seemed terrified to offend him (and those who did were ridiculed or fired).
Beginning my research in earnest, I looked to the vast trove of presidential literature and to popular culture to find clues to how First Friends over the centuries had affected our leaders and their time in office. To my surprise, there was very little. An entire library could be devoted to books that profiled those in a president’s immediate orbit: his wife, senior staff, an occasional chef, sometimes the butler, and even his pets. But the role of the First Friend, the man—or more rarely, woman—who was the closest person to the president outside of his immediate family or staff, was a mystery.
To be sure, there were some occasions when a First Friend himself was a celebrated figure, like a Nathaniel Hawthorne, and became the subject of numerous biographies. There were also a handful of other instances when the friendship itself was notable enough to warrant a book, like the bond between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Daisy Suckley or Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed. But mostly popular culture holds no place for the First Friend: The most famous president in prime-time television history, Jed Bartlet, didn’t have a First Friend outside his staff on West Wing, nor did Frank Underwood in House of Cards. Occasionally, a First Friend will appear in a movie, such as FDR’s confidante Daisy in Hyde Park on the Hudson, or in the news, especially if there is a scent of scandal around him, as there was with Bebe Rebozo and Richard Nixon, or if the First Friend has done something to change the course of history, as Eddie Jacobson did with Harry Truman. But typically those friends were forgotten as quickly as they became famous.
Politics is also, of course, the bastion of convenient quote-unquote “friendships,” in numbers perhaps exceeded only by people’s lists of “friends” on modern social media. But real friendships manifest themselves in different ways and are forged for different reasons. When I think of my closest friends, some are confidants, others are sports buddies. I enjoy some friends for their wisdom and wit, others for the comfort and stability they provide. I imagine the same holds true for everyone’s friends, including our commanders in chief. As much as we like to venerate our leaders, they are in the end motivated by the same need for companionship and affirmation that we all have, the same need for respite and fun we all crave, and a break from loneliness that can sometimes consume us. The crucial difference, of course, is a president’s relationship with a First Friend plays out under an often-searing spotlight (or deliberately out of its gaze) and with immense, staggering stakes. Most of ours, thankfully, do not.
This book focuses on nine different relationships between a president and his First Friend. I chose those that I found most compelling and illuminating and made choices to cover the most critical periods of America’s 245-year history: America’s founding, the Civil War, two World Wars, the Cold War, and the one presidency to bridge the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Identifying a First Friend was obviously a subjective choice. For a few, like John Kennedy, there were many equally compelling options; for others, like Woodrow Wilson, the choice was obvious. For the one president I include who is alive today, Bill Clinton, I was relieved to leave that decision to him. A voracious and legendary collector of friends—arguably the president who demonstrated the greatest capacity for friendship among his peers—I’m grateful he was able to narrow his many options to one. Our nearly two-hour conversation about Vernon Jordan was among the richest and most illuminating in this book.
The list of First Friends I profile regrettably includes only one woman and one person of color, undoubtedly reflective of the times and the lack of opportunities during much of the history I cover. Vernon Jordan speaks eloquently to that in chapter 9. I’ve deliberately chosen not to include First Ladies or other close relatives of the president for the simple reason that friends by nature are different from family, a subject well-trod and understood. And if I hadn’t kept the definition strictly platonic, I might have included the curious case of the mistress who also doubled as First Friend to future president Warren Harding when he was a senator. (Unbeknownst to Harding, his mistress happened to be a German spy at the very moment Harding was voting on whether to approve America’s entry into the First World War. Thankfully, he was able to suppress his lust long enough to vote his conscience.)
As part of my research, I consulted a number of books on the nature of friendship to better understand how it can be applied, normatively or not, to the most powerful person on the planet. The most useful construction I found also happens to be the oldest and perhaps most enduring, from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle describes three kinds of friendships: those based on utility (Do I get what I need from this friend?), pleasure (Do I enjoy being around this friend?), or best of all, on the essential character of each of the friends (Do we each want only good things to happen to the other?). Those relationships, the rarest but most precious of the three, can exist only if both parties possess similar virtues and values. And when one party is a politician, these “complete” friendships become even rarer, as we will see.
A president who is constantly surrounded by and attended to by family and staff, burdened by the crush of domestic and international affairs, might seem to have little need for friends. With time a precious commodity, and access to anyone in the world assured, friendship would seem more of a frivolous indulgence than an imperative. Perhaps that is the reason First Friends have been largely unexplored and their roles little understood. This is my attempt to fill that gap. Through telling these stories, my hope is to show how a First Friendship—one of the most intimate relationships in a very public life—can provide insight into the president himself, and to explore how and where these friendships have helped shape, for better or worse, not only presidencies and their legacies, but our country.
This is an adapted excerpt from FIRST FRIENDS: The Powerful, Unsung (And Unelected) People Who Shaped Our Presidents by Gary Ginsberg to be published Tuesday, July 6, by Twelve Books/Hachette Book Group.
©2021 Gary Ginsberg and reprinted by permission from Twelve Books/Hachette Book Group.