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Baum On Books

Book Review: First Friends

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There are books galore about American presidents — biographies, memoirs, analyses by colleagues, family members, scholars, journalists, by presidents themselves — but Gary Ginsberg hits on something new: a close-up look at various presidents through the eyes of their closest companions.

Called First Friends, this eclectic nine-part White House history provides a different perspective on political power and the pressures of leadership that is both sympathetic and fair. Enough with the partisan or gimmicky accounts from first ladies, first chefs, first couturiers, first dogs — it’s the close friends, as Ginsberg’s subtitle has it — “The  Powerful, Unsung (And Unelected) People Who Shaped Our Presidents” — whose proximity to the presidents can enhance or modify the historical record.

In two cases Ginsberg, who once worked for the Clinton administration, focused on friends recommended to him — Caroline Kennedy suggesting then British diplomat David Ormsby-Gore, and Clinton himself — the subject of the last chapter “Two Brothers of the South,” suggesting Vernon Jordan, the famous Civil Rights activist, who had an influential role in responding to Whitewater and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

He could have done more, Ginsberg writes in an email, but  he ran out of time. Still, a reader is thankful particularly for another look at Jefferson and Lincoln, the latter a depressive comforted by the selfless devotion of his Springfield friend Joshua Speed. Yes, they shared a bed for four years, and no, Ginsberg sees no evidence of a same-sex relationship.

Even those who think they know about Wilson, FDR, Truman and Nixon will take away a more nuanced picture, especially about FDR  because of his great friendship with his quiet distant cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, who, Ginsberg says, Roosevelt held “closer to his heart than almost anyone.” An affair? Ginsberg strongly doubts it, though she did bless FDR with Fala, the Scottish terrier.

The prose is conversational, the text suffused with quotations and secondary source references and an occasional cliffhanger chapter ending. Though no foot or endnotes, chapter bibliographies testify to extensive reading. Ginsberg also knows when to step aside, acknowledging inconclusive answers or persistent rumors. But his theme remains steady: that “those presidents who did have First Friends were almost always the better for it — and so was the country — unlike the fictional presidents on The West Wing and House of Cards, who had no close friends.

Some friendships get wonderfully burnished, such as the 50-year-old deeply affectionate bond between the eloquent, handsome Jefferson and the more introverted, politically mercurial Madison, both slave owners, both extremely intellectual. And surprise! Who knew about the abiding tie between Franklin Pierce, disliked by everyone, and the literary moralist Nathaniel Hawthorne, both Northerners who espoused Southern positions on slavery. They even carved their initials into a walnut tree! 

And then, of course, there is arguably the most bizarre relationship of them all — between the friendless, loveless, nerd-like Richard Nixon and the unintellectual, shady Charles or Bebe Rebozo (Pat Nixon called him Dick’s sponge). For 42 years they didn’t talk politics but shared lots of alcohol and long silences. First Friends — informative and fun.