Presidents face tons of pressure every day they are in office. Who do they rely upon, outside of their senior advisors and cabinet members, to help them get through the days? Their best friends, who are almost never in the aforementioned groups. But how much is known about these men? Not much until now. First Friends: The Powerful, Unsung (And Unelected) People Who Shaped Our Presidents (Amazon) was offered to me by NetGalley and Hachette Book Group in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.
“In the bestselling tradition of The Presidents Club and Presidential Courage, White House history as told through the stories of the best friends and closest confidants of American presidents.
Here are the riveting histories of myriad presidential friendships, among them:
Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed: They shared a bed for four years during which Speed saved his friend from a crippling depression. Two decades later the friends worked together to save the Union.
Harry Truman and Eddie Jacobson: When Truman wavered on whether to recognize the state of Israel in 1948, his lifelong friend and former business partner intervened at just the right moment with just the right words to steer the president’s decision.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Daisy Suckley: Unassuming and overlooked during her lifetime, Daisy Suckley was in reality FDR’s most trusted, constant confidant, the respite for a lonely and overworked President navigating the Great Depression and World War II
John Kennedy and David Ormsby-Gore: They met as young men in pre-war London and began a conversation over the meaning of leadership. A generation later the Cuban Missile Crisis would put their ideas to test as Ormsby-Gore became the president’s unofficial, but most valued foreign policy advisor.
These and other friendships—including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Franklin Pierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Bill Clinton and Vernon Jordan—populate this fresh and provocative exploration of a series of seminal presidential friendships.”
First Friends is an engaging, serendipitous look into the lives of Commanders-in-Chief and how their presidencies were shaped by those they held most dear.
After I finished First Friends and reading the acknowledgements, I had the impression that Ginsburg secured an interview with the Clintons and then came up with the idea of turning the conversation into a book. After researching a little more, I found out the author is a former aide to Clinton, so that totally makes sense. The friendship between Bill Clinton and Vernon Jordan takes up over 15% of the book, while the other presidential relationships got less than 10%. That’s not saying the section on Clinton and Jordan was bad; in fact, it was the most enlightening because there are first hand accounts from the actual players in the game.
However, as a former Clinton aide, one imagines this book might have a bias, and it does. Democrats good, Republicans bad. That is, when Republicans are even featured. Lincoln and Nixon are the only Republicans mentioned, and their chapters are not that well fleshedout. Which is frustrating, but I get it: this book was written by a journalist, not a historian. However, as a former journalist, I know that it is possible to check your opinions at the door and write objectively. But even with that, there are contradictions, like when discussing FDR, the author states, “in little more than three months, the Roosevelt administration had laid the groundwork for the American welfare state.”
That’s not to say that the stories told aren’t interesting, they certainly are. I especially found the relationship between John F. Kennedy and David Ormsby-Gore interesting in that I have read more than 50 books on the Kennedys and the only time I’ve previously seen Ormsby-Gore mentioned was in books about Kennedy’s sister, Kathleen. How could so many other historians have missed, according to Ginsburg, such an important relationship? From my previous reading, I was always under the impression that Lem Billings, his childhood friend, was closest to him. Or maybe the “Irish Mafia” of Dave Powers and Kenny O’Donnell, who advised the president for twenty years. But the author argues that JFK actually had many intimates, but it was Ormsby-Gore that he really could unwind with, could discuss foreign policy, and it helped that Ormsby-Gore was appointed Great Britain’s ambassador to the United States while Kennedy was in office.
Another interesting relationship that I knew about from previous reading was the one between Franklin Roosevelt and his seventh cousin, Daisy Suckley (pronounced Book-ly). FDR had few people with which he would share his innermost feelings. His father was older, ill, and died by the time Franklin was in college, and he had a fiercely protective mother, so it was only natural that Roosevelt’s most important relationships came with women.
Franklin couldn’t unwind with Eleanor, who was pretty tightly wound and felt like she was wasting precious time if she enjoyed herself. He had an intimate relationship with Eleanor’s social secretary, Lucy Mercer, that Eleanor found out about and put the ky-bosh on in 1918. There was Missy LeHand, Roosevelt’s private secretary, who was by Franklin’s side for 20 years until she was crippled by a stroke. And her replacement, Grace Tully, but it was with Daisy that Franklin really opened up, and even though Daisy always stayed out of the limelight, she was smart enough to keep their correspondence, but didn’t tell anyone about it. Their relationship was only discovered after her death in 1991.
There are some really revealing passages in the letters between the two: “Do you know that you alone have known that I was a bit ‘cast down’ these past weeks. I couldn’t have let anyone else know it–but somehow I seem to tell you all those things and what I don’t happen to tell you, you seem to know anyway.” Daisy held a special place to the president’s heart, it is clear. In fact, there are only four known photographs of FDR in a wheelchair, and two of those were taken by Daisy Suckley.
There’s a fawning chapter on Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, both of whom were great statesman but were also duplicitous, back-stabbing, and hypocritical. And the chapter on Wilson and Colonel House was interesting, if only to drive home the fact that Wilson wasn’t as great of a president as some believe. (Wilson really has no chance with me for ever liking him; he re-segregated the federal government and was against women’s suffrage until it became clear that the tide had turned at the state level and in Congress).
Overall, this is an interesting read on a previously unexplored area of the presidents.
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