In 1948, United States president Harry S. Truman had just about had it with the Jews. Annoyed and losing patience with what he perceived to be incessant lobbying efforts, he outright refused to entertain any further discussion about supporting the creation of the Jewish state.
Cards and telegrams came in by the hundreds of thousands. Jewish leaders wouldn’t stop haranguing him. Truman would sooner have kicked the ball downfield — far downfield — and deal with it some other time, if at all, than deal with the noise.
It was a small miracle, then, that Truman ended up recognizing Israel just 11 minutes after it was declared a state. It was a miracle perhaps aided and abetted by an unexpected last-ditch intervention from his friend, Eddie Jacobson.
“That was the single most climactic moment when a friend uses the benefit of his decades of friendship to convince the president to do something that he otherwise would not have done,” Gary Ginsberg, author of the newly-released book “First Friends: The Powerful, Unsung (and Unelected) People Who Shaped Our Presidents,” tells The Times of Israel.
“I think the evidence suggests that he played a very critical role in breaking the logjam that existed in Truman’s head,” Ginsberg says.
While not a “first friend” per se, Ginsberg, 58, has floated amongst the politically influential over the past 30 years. He was good friends with John F. Kennedy Jr., was one of five lawyers commissioned to interview Al Gore as a prospective vice presidential candidate, worked with the Clintons, and, according to former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren, Ginsberg proposed the idea to then-Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold up the now-iconic cartoon bomb at a UN speech showing how close Iran was to nuclear capability.
As far back as 1984, Ginsberg noticed two close friends of aspiring US presidential candidate Gary Hart: Hollywood actor Warren Beatty, and chief of staff Billy Shore. The combination of confidante and advisor meant they could be bluntly honest at times when hard truths were necessary.
Over time, Ginsberg noticed a trend of many others who had strong influence outside the decision-making halls — those trusted to calm nerves, add perspective, to help weigh options, or say the things others might hesitate to.
A first on these firsts
Having accumulated a series of these observations, Ginsberg found nothing in presidential literature about the topic, even though he says there were existing volumes on first wives, first chefs, first sons, and first butlers.
The decision to compile the research was sealed two years ago, as Ginsberg wondered whether a blunt, straight-talking good friend would have helped former president Donald Trump at a time when, in Ginsberg’s opinion, so many seemed to walk on eggshells around him.
The nine presidents (and besties) profiled in the book are: Thomas Jefferson and James Madison; Franklin Pierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne; Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed; Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House; Franklin Roosevelt and Daisy Suckley; Harry Truman and Eddie Jacobson; JFK and David Ormsby-Gore; Richard Nixon and Bebe Rebozo; and Bill Clinton and Vernon Jordan.
These stories criss-cross poignant moments in US history including the Civil War, two world wars, the Cold War, and a presidency that ushered in the new millennium.
The book begins with the friendship of Jefferson and Madison. “That’s a friendship that is known. They exchanged 1,250 letters over a 50-year friendship. So that was kind of hiding in plain sight,” says Ginsberg.
Ginsberg witnessed firsthand the friendship between Clinton and Jordan. So close were the two that Jordan was given the honor of sitting in the seventh row at the White House signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 — even though he wasn’t involved in any of the negotiations. In contrast, Rahm Emanuel — Clinton’s senior advisor for six years — recollected how he was seated in the 10th.
“No matter where we go in life, Vernon will always be three rows ahead of us,” Emanuel joked in the book.
Whereas Truman is revealed as ill-tempered, the book indicates that his lifelong friend Jacobson connected in a way no one else could. Truman initially bristled on whether to recognize Israel in 1948, but Jacobson’s persuasion in the nick of time changed the president’s heart.
A friend to Israel
Truman’s first real interaction with Jews was as a boy, when he was hired as a neighborhood “Shabbos goy,” or a non-Jew who helps Sabbath observers with tasks prohibited to them on the day of rest. As a young man, he worked as a bank clerk in Kansas City, Missouri, where he first met patron Jacobson, a second-generation Jewish immigrant. The two hit it off, later to cross paths in the same World War I battalion.
Post-war, they opened the Truman and Jacobson Haberdashery, selling silk ties, shirts, hats and belts. They would remain close friends for five decades, as the book details.
In 1948, then-president Truman was up against harsh opposition in his cabinet on the Israel file, as many feared that supporting the emerging Jewish state might affect Arab oil prices or give a pretext to the Soviets to enter the region. The president also feared he’d lose critical Washington allies in the lead-in to an election year. (None of those fears were realized.)
In a telegram, Jacobson pled with the president to meet face-to-face with Chaim Weizmann (later to become Israel’s first president), who had flown in to make the case for the Jewish state. But American Zionists seemed to have spoiled the chances, not doing their case any favors with “over-the-top zealotry” and “increasingly aggressive” pressure on the White House, according to Ginsberg.
Truman would later write in his diary that these efforts were “disrespectful and mean” and “the Jews are so emotional and the Arabs are so difficult to talk with, it is almost impossible to get anything done.”
Out of desperation, Jacobson flew in unannounced from Kansas City to make an urgent personal appeal. Waved through by the president’s secretary, there was a caveat: Jacobson wasn’t to bring up the Palestine issue — the president wasn’t interested.
After some obligatory kibitzing, Truman sensed that something was on his pal’s mind, and Jacobson came clean.
“[Truman’s] whole demeanor changes to angry,” Ginsberg says, “and Jacobson then gets his back up. He feels like for the first time in his life, that the president is truly an antisemite. He has an inkling of that because Truman wouldn’t let him into his house. They spent a lot of time in Kansas City together, but his wife’s family would never let Jews inside the actual house. He could go to the porch of the house, but never go inside. That’s how they felt about Jews. So now he’s thinking, ‘My friend is really, truly an antisemite.’”
At this point, Jacobson tugged at Truman’s heartstrings, recalling their decades of friendship, and eventually pointed to a statute of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office, appealing to the president’s admiration for the patriotic hero. Weizmann is like the Jewish Jackson, Jacobson insisted.
Truman became hot under the collar, physically turning his back to his friend, but relented.
Nine days later, Truman had a discreet meeting with Weizmann, who made the pitch.
“Truman is more now resolved that it’s the right thing to do,” says Ginsberg. On May 14, 1948, Truman was the first foreign leader to recognize an independent Jewish state. The book says that the president credited Jacobson’s involvement as having been of “decisive importance.”
History, however, notes that Truman’s words about Jews were seemingly at odds with his actions. Besides what was written in his diary, the president used slurs against Jewish people in conversation.
“I think he was a product of his time,” Ginsberg says. “Not to excuse it. I think some of the language he threw around was pretty typical of that period in American history.”
“It was a muddled history, because he was actually great on the issue of Jewish refugees and letting them into Palestine,” Ginsberg says. “But I think the action is much louder than any words he may have thrown around here and there.”
In the final analysis, Ginsberg says the book shows the power of a close, trusted perspective and having someone who could openly speak truth to power — an invaluable voice to temper high stakes and high-powered decisions.
“Hopefully those friendships provide a new lens and understanding of our presidents,” Ginsberg says. “I think that the lesson that I drew from it is that while it’s not a prerequisite to have a first friend to be a successful president, the ones that did enjoy such a friendship were better for it, and so was the country.”
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