One of the U.S. presidency’s ironclad rules is that you can never really trust anyone you meet post-election. Although all politicians ought to know that apparent friends often have their own agendas, for the president of the United States this is a special challenge. As a result, friends who predate a president’s service in office can potentially have an outsized influence and importance. In his engaging new book, First Friends, Gary Ginsberg, a lawyer, corporate executive, and former government official, takes a look at nine different friendships and their impact on ten different presidencies. (The reason the book looks at more presidencies than friendships is that one of the friendships—that of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison—was itself between two presidents.)
Some of the more recent friendships Ginsberg examines are better known, including Richard Nixon and the Cuban entrepreneur Bebe Rebozo, Bill Clinton and the Washington fixer Vernon Jordan, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his cousin Daisy Suckley, who gave him the Scottish Terrier “Murray the Outlaw of Falahill,” a.k.a. Fala.
Other friendships are less well known to us today. In the 19th century, two years after publishing The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a campaign biography of his Bowdoin college pal Franklin Pierce, who went on to win the 1852 election. Pierce, a Northerner who saw abolitionism as a greater threat to the Union than slavery, became a pariah in his own Democratic Party and in his native New Hampshire, while Hawthorne also suffered because of their association.
Having a close friend outside of politics was useful to Pierce, who was not known for seeking out a wide range of opinions. As Ginsberg tells us, “Not once during his entire term did Pierce change a single Cabinet member.” Years later, after Pierce’s unsuccessful presidency, which included a political appointment for Hawthorne as American consul to Liverpool, Pierce and Hawthorne vacationed together at Plymouth’s Pemigewasset Hotel. While there, Pierce was the first to discover the body of his old friend, who had died during the night.
Abraham Lincoln, for all his greatness, was not great at developing close friendships. According to Ginsberg, Lincoln had only six friends in his career as a lawyer and politician. Ginsberg focuses on Joshua Speed, whom Lincoln had known since he and Speed were young men in Springfield, before drifting apart over the slavery issue. They reconnected as Lincoln became prominent, another example of a president needing a reality check from someone who knew him before he was famous.
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One of the saddest friendships in the book is between Woodrow Wilson and “Colonel” Edward House. House, a wealthy Texan, was determined to have an impact in the arena, and sought to do so by befriending a promising politician. He settled on Wilson, who was in the midst of a rapid rise from president of Princeton to governor of New Jersey to president of the United States. House was a close adviser at every stage.
As Ginsberg shows, Wilson was as bad a friend as he was a president. Wilson and House had a falling out over the negotiations regarding the creation of the League of Nations. Exacerbating matters was Wilson’s new wife, Edith, who distrusted House and helped drive a wedge between the two men. According to Edith, Wilson was extremely unhappy with House’s performance on League of Nations negotiations: “House has given away everything we had won before we left Paris. He has compromised on every side, and so I have to start all over again and this time it will be harder.” For his part, House was not above recording in his diary: “There is a bon mot going the round in Paris and London, ‘Wilson talks like Jesus Christ and acts like Lloyd George.’”
A ubiquitous presence in Wilson’s first-term White House, House became less welcome over time. House and Wilson would see each other on June 28, 1919, the day that the world powers signed the Treaty of Versailles. As they parted, Wilson said, “Goodbye, House.” As Ginsberg notes, “It was the last time the two men would ever see or talk to each other.” House was not even invited to Wilson’s 1924 funeral. He attended a public memorial with 10,000 mourners at Madison Square Garden.
Ginsberg himself, we learn, worked on vetting vice-presidential candidates for Bill Clinton. During that process, former Lyndon Johnson aide Harry McPherson asked Al Gore to identify his close friends. Somewhat flummoxed, Gore could only name two House colleagues (Norm Dicks and Tom Downey) and an uncle, Frank Hunger. McPherson thought it weird, and later asked, “If he can’t develop or even claim one real friendship, how’s he going to lead a nation?” Gore got the job anyway, but the question was apt.