First Friends: The Powerful, Unsung (And Unelected) People Who Shaped Our Presidents

  • By Gary Ginsberg
  • Twelve
  • 416 pp.

Presidential pals finally get their due in this rollicking read.

Imagine you are a contestant on “Jeopardy!” and you select “Presidents and Their Female Friends” for $200. The host says: “This 20th-century president was known for his close relationships with women.” You hit the buzzer and choose either John F. Kennedy or Bill Clinton, both of whom had well-documented extra-marital affairs.

Unfortunately, you don’t make it to Final Jeopardy because the correct answer, according to Gary Ginsberg’s First Friends, is, “Who is Franklin Delano Roosevelt?”  

In Ginsberg’s enchanting hybrid work of history and biography, he describes FDR’s enduring relationship with Margaret “Daisy” Suckley in delightful detail as the person FDR held “closer to his heart than anyone.” Although Ginsberg doubts an affair between the distant cousins, he cites Roosevelt as the only president to have had a woman as his best friend.

Previously, readers have been treated to books on first families, first ladies, first butlers, first chefs, first photographers, first dogs, and first cats. For his first book, Ginsberg, who served in the Clinton Administration, ingeniously presents bite-size biographies of U.S. presidents and their best friends — and how those friendships influenced presidential legacies and affected the country.

The author wraps history and humanity in a sparkling package, concentrating on nine U.S. chief executives and their closest friends, from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison through Bill Clinton and Vernon Jordan. It’s an inspired idea that will thrill anyone who loves life stories woven into presidential history.

Given the current age of tweets and texts, plus the nation’s diminished attention span, Ginsberg has devised a unique way to engage readers, fashioning 18 lives within 359 pages of narrative and perhaps sweeping into the dustbin the turgid 1,000-plus-page tomes of such as Robert Caro, who’s written four volumes to date on Lyndon Baines Johnson, with one more hulking in the wings.

If Mies van der Rohe was right, then less is more, and brevity is to be celebrated, as is exemplified by:

          The 23rd Psalm (118 words)
          The Magna Carta (650 words)
          Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (272 words)

The Great Emancipator’s friendship with Joshua Speed, who became a slave owner years after meeting Lincoln, is included in Ginsberg’s book and illustrates the bond between two men whose differing principles put a decade’s worth of distance between them before they mended their breach.

Probably the most bizarre first friendship in the book is the one shared by Richard Nixon and Charles “Bebe” Rebozo, a Cuban exile who got branded as Nixon’s bagman during the Watergate scandal. Pat Nixon called Rebozo “Dick’s sponge.” In 42 years, the two men never talked politics but shared long silences together, drinking copious amounts of alcohol.

By far the strongest chapter in Ginsberg’s book — and the chronicle of a relationship that changed history — was Harry Truman’s friendship with Eddie Jacobson, the son of a Jewish shoemaker and Truman’s former business partner in Missouri. It was Jacobson who prevailed on the president in 1948 to go against revered Secretary of State George Marshall and recognize the new state of Israel as the Jewish homeland.

Since, according to the Bard, “Brevity is the soul of wit and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,” I will be brief in my conclusion: Gary Ginsberg has written in First Friends a romp of a read. Enjoy!

Kitty Kelley is the author of seven number-one New York Times bestseller biographies, including Nancy Reagan, Jackie Oh!, and The Family: The Real Story Behind the Bush Dynasty. In addition, she wrote Capturing Camelot: Stanley Tretick’s Iconic Images of the Kennedys. She is on the board of the Independent and has been featured in the Biographers International Organization’s podcast series.

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