First Friends: The Powerful, Unsung (and Unelected) People Who Shaped Our Presidents
By Gary Ginsberg
Twelve, 2021, 304 pp.
It is hard to believe that there is any aspect of the American presidency that hasn’t been fully explored, from first ladies to first pets. Ginsberg noticed that there was one obvious, potentially powerful set of actors who had largely been ignored: presidents’ closest friends. These are the men and women who can relieve the loneliness a president lives with, help him think through what to do about a major problem, and say things to him that no one else can. The resulting book is an entertaining, sometimes thought-provoking read. It opens with the well-known, highly political 50-year friendship between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, during which they exchanged around 1,250 letters. There is Abraham Lincoln’s friendship with Joshua Speed, who may have saved Lincoln’s life from severe depression and probably did save his career. At another extreme are those friends whose main role was to listen: Daisy Suckley to Franklin Roosevelt and Bebe Rebozo to Richard Nixon. The latter two ate, drank, and relaxed together, “rarely if ever talked politics, . . . and often spent large chunks of time in silence”—but Rebozo proved there was nothing he wouldn’t do for Nixon. John F. Kennedy had already shared a close friendship with the British diplomat David Ormsby-Gore for 25 years when he momentously called on Ormsby-Gore to help figure out what to do at the peak of the Cuban missile crisis.