‘First Friends’ Tells Story of Truman’s Jewish Best Pal on Eve of Israel’s Independence
With the recent “First Friends: The Powerful, Unsung (And Unelected) People Who Shaped Our Presidents,” author Gary Ginsberg reminds readers of an easily forgotten truism: presidents are people too.
Released in July, the book chronicles nine presidential pals, from the nation-building work of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, to Bill Clinton’s close bond with the civil rights activist Vernon Jordan.
Alongside the succession of cabinet members and aides well known to history, these friends have played key roles in providing a given POTUS with policy advice, political feedback or simply someone to hang out with.
But Ginsberg, a former media executive, told The Algemeiner that the book’s concept was partly driven by a single White House meeting, staged at the precipice of Israel’s founding.
“It was one moment where a friend was able to walk uninvited into the Oval Office, and speak truth to power to accomplish an objective that had genuine global consequence,” said Ginsberg in an interview.
That moment came in the spring of 1948, just months after the United Nations vote to adopt the partition plan for Palestine, and with President Harry Truman facing the choice of whether to back a Jewish state once it was declared.
At one ear stood opponents of American support, including Secretary of State George Marshall, who feared it would push Arab states toward the Soviets and risk US access to oil. At the other, Truman was met with intense pressure from both Jewish voters and Zionist leaders including Stephen Wise and Chaim Weizmann.
“By the time he walks into the Oval Office in March of ’48, he’s about had it,” Ginsberg recounted. “He’s clearly frustrated with the lobbying efforts of many prominent Jews, who really distressed him. As he said famously in a cabinet meeting, ‘if Jesus Christ couldn’t keep the Jews happy, how am I supposed to do it?’”
Despite Truman’s “soft spot” for the Jewish people — as a Midwest man of the Bible, who a few years prior supported the US entry of Jewish refugees — the president’s instincts tended toward punting to the UN, which Zionist leaders feared would jeopardize Israel’s founding.
The decisive plea, as Ginsberg narrates, came not from an advisor or lobbyist — but a best friend, Eddie Jacobson.
Born in New York’s Lower East Side, Jacobson had befriended Truman during their adolescence in Kansas City, when he was regularly served by the young Missourian bank clerk. By chance, the two later met again in the same World War I artillery unit, where Truman’s “crackerjack Jew” Jacobson helped the future president run a successful canteen, boosting his military career.
After jointly running a Kansas City haberdashery that went bust, the two stayed close. And until the fateful moment in 1948, Eddie hadn’t asked Harry for anything.
“He appealed to Truman not on an intellectual level, but on an emotional one,” Ginsberg said. Calling on the president to live up to his model — former President Andrew Jackson — Jacobson urged a White House meeting with the Zionist leader Weizmann, who flew in to personally lobby for the Jewish state.
“Jacobson basically says, ‘You’re not acting like your hero right now — stop being such a weakling, and do what you know is right,’” Ginsberg relayed.
Truman listened to his friend, and weeks later, only eleven minutes after David Ben-Gurion declared the Jewish state, gave a short statement that made the United States the first nation to give Israel de facto recognition.
“The lesson is that relationships really matter,” Ginsberg argued. “Because once you forge that friendship, it creates a different dynamic; there’s a level of trust and faith that develops that can never be replicated.”
The surprising range of stories told by Ginsberg includes one man (Nathaniel Hawthorne) who eclipsed his White House friend, the 14th president Franklin Pierce, in fame. Another, Woodrow Wilson confidante Edward “Colonel” House, enjoyed a degree of foreign policy influence that would shock today’s voters.
As Ginsberg shows in his treatment of Richard Nixon — whose relationship with Florida businessman Bebe Rebozo helped end the former’s presidency — not every leader has been well-served by his friends. Other bonds, like that of Madison and Jefferson, who met as young men on the eve of Independence, shaped the country’s founding institutions.
“If you exercise the role intelligently, with wisdom, restraint, and good judgment, and you can provide both emotional comfort and intellectual sustenance — it can be a very important role,” Ginsberg said. “But it has to be played properly.”