Aficionados of the U.S. presidency can find books on everything from “first spouses” to “first pets” and “first chefs.” For Gary Ginsberg, a former lawyer in the Clinton White House and confidant of John F. Kennedy Jr, a bigger fascination was the idea of “first friends” – the powerful, unelected folks who speak the unvarnished truth to the U.S. President, both on the golf course and in the Oval Office.

Ginsberg is familiar with the corridors of power, both as a communications executive (NewsCorp, Time-Warner, SoftBank) and consultant to Michael Bloomberg, the Prime Minister of Israel, and others. Ginsberg took advantage of the Covid slowdown to author a captivating look at presidential friendships, First Friends, landing on the New York Times’ best-seller list.

Ginsberg spoke with Aish.com from his home in Manhattan.

Author Gary Ginsberg

Author Gary Ginsberg

Aish.com: Full disclosure: We’re childhood friends from Buffalo, New York, home to two US presidents (Grover Cleveland and Millard Fillmore) and the site of William McKinley’s assassination. What first sparked your interest in the U.S. Presidency?

Ginsberg: I remember vividly as a third grader at elementary school, watching the sixth-grade stage the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. It’s somewhat curious why the teachers considered this the best introduction to the American presidency for an 8-year-old. Yet I came back from that play mesmerized by the character of Lincoln. From that point forward I started reading everything I could about presidents, which developed a lifelong fascination.

Aish.com: Many kids dream about becoming the first Jewish president. Were you counted in that group?

Ginsberg: Yes, and as a teenager I foolishly articulated that interest when being interviewed about a scholarship I’d won. The newspaper headline was, "Ginsburg wants to be first Jewish president." I thought it was kind of cool, but everyone else thought I was out of my mind. I never quite lived that down, nor did I ever live up to becoming the first Jewish president. But I was lucky enough to work for a president, and now I’m writing about presidents.

Aish.com: First Friends is packed with fascinating and curious relationships – whether Richard Nixon spending endless hours of silence with his friend Bebe Rebozo, or Abraham Lincoln sharing a bed for four years with Joshua Speed. How did you select which stories to tell, and what did you find to be the central ingredients of a good friend?

Ginsberg: I approached the book as a fan of the presidency. I just indulged my interests, and found new things that continued to intrigue me. JFK's daughter Caroline Kennedy gave me the idea to profile David Ormsby-Gore. I considered writing about Eisenhower, who had corporate titans as friends, but those relationships were mostly transactional. I was looking for deeper, richer friendships that reached that Aristotelian level, with mutuality of interests and values. When another soul has your best interest at heart, that makes us more complete and whole. Presidents who have close friends are typically better for it, and so is the country. Our own lives are better for it, too. I certainly wouldn't be where I am today without the support and companionship of my close friends.

1995: Ginsberg (center) and John F. Kennedy Jr. interview Alabama’s George Wallace.

BIRTH OF ISRAEL

More than any other “first friendship,” a remarkable example of influence is Eddie Jacobson in 1948 marching into the Oval Office unannounced and essentially convincing Harry Truman to recognize the new State of Israel. First Friends details the mind-boggling intersection of events spanning decades, pressing them both to rise to the moment:

In 1903, 19-year-old Harry Truman became a bank clerk in Kansas City. He struck up a friendship with a teenage customer, Eddie Jacobson, who worked at a local dry goods store and would regularly visit the bank with a bag of cash to deposit. The two became trusted friends, sharing a pragmatic, up-from-the-bootstraps attitude. Yet within a few years, Truman moved away to tend his family’s farm and it appeared unlikely their lives would intersect again. Greater forces, however, conspired:

In 1917, Truman volunteered to fight in World War I and was made first lieutenant in the Second Field Artillery. Jacobson also enlisted and was assigned to Truman's unit. Jacobson was a serial entrepreneur and sold Lieutenant Truman on the idea of a fundraiser to buy the troops better food and supplies. The initiative succeeded, earning Truman a promotion to captain. First Friends reports:

"I have a Jew in charge of the canteen by the name of Jacobson," Truman wrote, "and he is a crackerjack"…

Bolstered by the profitability of the canteen operation, Truman and Jacobson… hatched a plan to go into business together. With Jacobson’s extensive experience in the garment industry, the men decided to open a haberdashery in downtown Kansas City, their mutual trust so great that the partnership was made strictly with a handshake.

The upscale store, Truman & Jacobson Haberdashery, specialized in ties, shirts, hats, and belts. But in 1921, a collapse in grain prices hammered the Midwest economy, a harbinger of the Great Depression. The haberdashery closed its doors, never to reopen. Truman was forced to find a new line of work, setting him on a path to the U.S. Senate and ultimately the White House.

Eddie Jacobson (left) and Harry Truman at their clothing store, Kansas City, 1920.

Truman and Jacobson stayed in touch over the years, meeting for lunch and at World War I reunions. An avid outdoorsman, Jacobson often invited Truman on hunting and fishing expeditions on the Missouri River. While his buddies roamed the woods with their guns, Truman would stay back in the cabin reading a stack of books.

A devout Baptist who’d read the Bible cover-to-cover as a teenager, Truman was well aware of the narrative of the Jewish homeland:

The plight of Jews fleeing from Nazi Germany had attracted Truman's interest during his time in the Senate. In a 1943 speech in Chicago, Truman proclaimed, "Today – not tomorrow – we must do all that is humanly possible to provide a haven and a place of safety for all those who can be grasped from the hands of the Nazi butchers. Free lands must be opened to them."

Fast forward to the spring of 1948. British troops would imminently withdraw from the Holy Land, and Ben-Gurion was expected to proclaim Israeli independence. The White House began receiving cards and telegrams by the hundreds of thousands in support of a Jewish state. Yet President Truman was torn: supporting Jewish statehood in principle, yet facing fierce opposition:

Truman's own State Department, led by General George Marshall, a World War II hero and a man almost universally revered, adamantly opposed the idea of partitioning Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, believing it would push the Arab world into the Soviet sphere. Marshall also argued that such a move would imperil American access to Arab oil, and almost certainly require the presence of US troops to contain the violence.

OVAL OFFICE DRAMA

Aish.com: Amidst this pressure-cooker, Jacobson’s decisive meeting with Truman is the culmination of historic serendipity. What was going on in Jacobson's mind? What was motivating him at the core?

Ginsberg: Jacobson was the son of Lithuanian Jews who'd come to America in the late 19th century. His father was a shoemaker and Eddie was a high school drop-out. He wasn’t particularly religious, but he clearly felt passionate about the Zionist cause. On his own initiative, he’d brought a couple of groups to see Truman in 1946 and '47, to lobby on behalf of an independent Jewish state. He clearly felt it in his kishkes.

Aish.com: For months, Truman had been refusing to meet with Zionist Organization president Dr. Chaim Weizmann, a septuagenarian in failing health. What were the dynamics behind that?

Ginsberg: Truman understood the importance of a Jewish state, yet was irked by the aggressive approach of Jewish leaders. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver pounded his fist on Truman's desk and shouted at the President. Another Jewish leader displayed wads of cash in an attempt to bribe government officials. Truman was put off the incessant hectoring. When the subject of the Zionists came up in a Cabinet meeting, Truman expressed frustration: “Jesus Christ couldn’t please them when he was on the earth, so how could anyone expect that I would have any luck?”

So kind of like the Esther story, with extraordinary access to the power broker, Jacobson takes it upon himself to go deliver for the Jews.

Aish.com: So why did Jacobson think he could change the situation?

Ginsberg: Having been friends for 45 years, and having fought a war together, and being partners in a store, and all the hunting trips and meals together, Eddie Jacobson was one of the few people, if the only person, who could get Harry Truman out of his own head, and see the larger issue at play. Eddie knew of arguments to break this logjam, and felt that he only he could do it. So kind of like the Esther story, with extraordinary access to the power broker, Jacobson takes it upon himself to go deliver for the Jews.

Eddie Jacobson (right) and Harry Truman enjoying a walk in Missouri.

Aish.com: Tell us about that moment in March 1948. The provisional government of Israel is desperate for American political support, and Jacobson flies halfway across the country to meet with Truman.

Ginsberg: At the encouragement of Frank Goldman, national president of B’nai Brith, Jacobson flew to Washington without even securing an appointment beforehand. On the morning of March 13, he traipsed up the White House driveway and into the West Wing office of Matt Connelly, Truman’s appointments secretary and gatekeeper, who knew Jacobson and granted him immediate entry.

[In the Oval office,] Jacobson paused while looking his friend straight in the eyes. To Truman, the pause seemed interminable: “I finally said, ‘Eddie what in the world is the matter with you. Have you at last come to get something from me – because you never have asked me for anything since I’ve been in the White House and since we’ve been friends.’”

Finally, Jacobson broached the topic Truman least wanted to confront: “You must see Dr. Weizmann; you must support an independent Jewish state.”

In an instant, Truman’s face hardened and his demeanor changed. Jacobson had never seen or heard Harry Truman acting this way. He appeared brusque, almost unreachable. He didn’t want any dialogue on the matter, whether pertaining to a Weizmann meeting or anything remotely connected. Jacobson persisted, reminding Truman of the esteem in which he held Weizmann, employing every argument he could think of, from the plight of refugees to the biblical roots of a Jewish homeland.

Truman remained unmovable, hectoring Jacobson about how “disrespectful and mean” certain Jews had been to him.

Aish.com: So how did Jacobson break through? What ultimately changed the President’s mind?

Ginsberg: Jacobson is standing in the Oval Office, looking around the room, trying to figure out the best way to appeal to Harry’s heart. He spots a bronze equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson. Truman reveres Jackson. So Jacobson invokes that love to deliver the line that changed history: “Harry, please see Chaim Weizmann. He’s my hero. My Andrew Jackson.” Knowing what was behind that little statue was born of years of friendship. Nobody else could have pulled that off.

When Jacobson had finished his appeal, Truman began drumming his fingers on his desk. After what seemed like an eternity of silence, Truman swiveled his chair around. “You win, you bald-headed SOB," Truman declared. "I will see him.”

Aish.com: Five days later, Weizmann was at the White House for a secretive, off-the-record meeting in which Truman reiterated his support. Take us to that moment of final decision.

Ginsberg: Two days before the British Mandate was set to expire, Truman convened an Oval Office meeting to hear final arguments on whether to recognize the new Jewish state. Secretary of State Marshall insinuated that Truman’s motivation was to secure the Jewish vote and the financial backing of prominent Jewish businessmen. Marshall even threatened to vote against Truman in the upcoming presidential election. Truman was under massive pressure to listen to his State Department and go the other way.

Truman became the first leader to recognize Israel, 11 minutes after Ben-Gurion declared independence.

Aish.com: In the end, Truman became the first leader to recognize Israel, 11 minutes after Ben-Gurion declared independence. What is the historic significance of that recognition?

Ginsberg: What it conferred on Israel was legitimacy, and it gave other countries license to support the new state. It silenced all the doubts that had been coming out of diplomatic and military channels that the U.S. government did not support the state. At the end of the day, Truman was driven less by hardened political arguments and more by a sense of compassion and justice.

On May 14, 1948, as jubilant Israelis danced in the streets of Jerusalem, Jacobson celebrated in Kansas City. Three days later, he was greeted at the White House as Israel’s temporary, unofficial ambassador. The following year, Jacobson spent a month in Israel as a personal emissary of Truman’s, where he was feted by Ben-Gurion and Weizmann…

Isaac Halevi Herzog, the chief rabbi of Israel, visited the White House and told Truman, “God put you in your mother’s womb so you would be the instrument to bring the rebirth of Israel after 2,000 years.” The words brought tears to Truman’s eyes.

Truman greets Chaim Weizmann at the White House.

Aish.com: It’s amazing that in all their years together, Jacobson had never asked Truman for anything.

Ginsberg: That makes Jacobson’s argument that much more powerful. He's not a lobbyist. His job is not dependent on it. His friendship is not dependent on it. He's going there because he knows it's the right thing – not for Eddie, but the right thing for Harry. Jacobson knows what motivates Truman. He knows what's in his heart. He knows the compassion that he has for the Jewish people, and he just has to get over this sense of aggrievement because of the insults that he felt subject to by Zionist leaders.

Truman later wrote: “When the day came when Eddie Jacobson was persuaded to forego his natural reluctance to petition me, and he came to talk to me about the plight of the Jews... I paid careful attention.”

Aish.com: Truman seems an anomaly. He had a close Jewish friend and supported Jewish sovereignty. On the other hand, he had a penchant for antisemitic remarks and lived with his wife, Bess, in Missouri with her mother (Madge Wallace), whose strict family policy was to never host a Jew.

Ginsberg: Let's just put it on the table: Truman’s in-laws were basically antisemitic. Eddie Jacobson never went inside the Wallace home where Truman lived, because his wife Bess and his mother-in-law would not let a Jew beyond the porch. So while Truman was supportive of Israel, there was a limit to passion for the Jews.

[In 1955, Jacobson died of a heart attack at age 64.] Harry Truman visited the Jacobson family as they sat shiva in their Kansas City home. He was so overcome with emotion he could barely speak... “Eddie was one of the best friends I had in this world,” Truman said later. “He was absolutely trustworthy. I don’t know how I am going to get along without him.”

[At a subsequent memorial service for Jacobson, Truman said:] “I don’t think I’ve ever known a man I thought more of, outside my own family, than I did of Eddie Jacobson. He was an honorable man. He’s one of the finest men that ever walked on this earth, and that’s covering a lot of territory.”

ISRAEL CONNECTION

Aish.com: Michael Oren’s book, Ally, speaks about your involvement as a speech-writing consultant to Prime Minister Netanyahu, contributing to some historic speeches, including his UN address in 2012 which pushed the issue of nuclear Iran to the front of the global agenda. What was that process like?

Ginsberg: I flew into Israel a week before the UN address. We're sitting in the backyard on Balfour Street, just the two of us, and the Prime Minister is laying out his thinking on the issue, talking about the various stages of enrichment and the idea of not allowing Iran to cross the “red line.” As he's talking, I'm starting to visualize it, so I stopped and said, "Wait a minute."

Starting in 2010, every year we’d use a gimmick to dramatize his UN speech. One year it was 45 seconds of silence; another year was a diagram of concentration camps. Netanyahu is a pretty good artist, dating back to his days studying architecture at MIT. So I said, "How about if you draw out what you just described, showing a bomb with levels of enrichment and a fuse."

Bibi was immediately intrigued, and we spent the next hour designing the bomb and wordsmithing around it. In the end, the staff produced a bomb that was a bit cartoonish, but it became among his most defining moments.

Netanyahu at the United Nations 2012: “red line” on Iran.

Aish.com: What are your thoughts about the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship?

Ginsberg: No question, it's a worrisome moment. I think the biggest threat is from the progressive left. Israel has become a political football in a way it wasn't before. Fortunately, some voices are playing an increasingly prominent role in recognizing that a bipartisan alliance is crucial to the robust U.S.-Israel relationship.

As a Democrat, I recognize how important it is that the party not veer too far to the left, where we lose that bipartisanship. I'm gratified there are some strong voices emerging, like Richie Torres and others, who recognize how important this alliance is to the U.S. So I'm worried, but also hopeful that it's a durable alliance that will overcome some of the strains of the last few years. It's a precarious time and a lot of work needs to be done.