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Examining Presidential Friendships, Which Are A Key Part Of Politics


It can be really hard for U.S. presidents to maintain their friendships. We saw that recently during the testimony of President Trump's ex-lawyer Michael Cohen. And here's President Jimmy Carter in 1977.


JIMMY CARTER: Bert Lance is my friend. I know him personally as well as if he was my own brother.

KING: Carter then went on to announce Lance's resignation as director of the Office of Management and Budget. The Georgia banker had been accused but never convicted of trading on his ties to Carter while Carter was in office. Though many presidential friendships have been problematic, many have also been beneficial. So we put questions about both to commentator Cokie Roberts in our weekly segment, Ask Cokie. Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: How are you doing, Noel?

KING: Very well, thanks. All right. So we've got our first question here from Leo Cooper, and he asked, have there been instances where a president's friendships have ended up compromising him?

ROBERTS: (Laughter) Lots of examples over the years - there was a very tough one for Lyndon Johnson when his friend and adviser Walter Jenkins was arrested in the YMCA men's room. It was right before the '64 election. It was used by Johnson's opponents in a whisper campaign against him. But there have been many, many of these instances, not only of friends, but of presidential siblings, as well.

KING: Yes, of course. Ray Proetti wants to know about a happier form of friendship.

RAY PROETTI: Friendships are a key part of politics, aren't they? The most successful presidents were able to make friends of enemies. Has that been lost in recent years?

ROBERTS: Well, it gets back to that thing we talk about so much, which is polarization. It's harder to have conciliatory friendships in these troubled times. But certainly, it's been true in the past that presidents have turned enemies into at least allies, if not buddies. The most famous, of course, was Abraham Lincoln with his team of rivals, although Salmon Chase kept trying to mount a campaign against the president from inside the Cabinet.

More recently, think about Reagan and Bush. After a hard-fought primary, they worked together well. And we often have the example of political enemies becoming friends after they leave office.

KING: Well, we have a listener who wants to know about exactly that. Guinevere Mathey says nepotism carries a negative connotation for us common folk, but it's what makes Washington go round. I'm most interested, she says, in the friendships honed in office that lead to lobbying relationships afterward.

ROBERTS: There are lots and lots of examples of that. There was a lobbying shop headed by former Republican Senate Leader Trent Lott and a former member of the Democratic Senate leadership, John Breaux. And this is not really nepotism, by the way, which implies hiring unqualified relatives and does carry a negative connotation. But, you know, Noel, there's a funny dichotomy among voters. They don't like coziness among politicians in Washington, but they do want them to get along well enough to get something done (laughter).

KING: Very fine line to walk, isn't it?


KING: Our last question hits a more personal note.

KRIS DAHLSTROM: My name is Kris Dahlstrom (ph), and I am from Coralville, Iowa. Is it hard for a president to keep communication open with his friends due to security protocol?

ROBERTS: Well, as you know, there's reporting that in the current White House, that's been an issue with staff wanting to formalize communication, at least in part for security reasons, and President Trump insisting on holding onto his phone and calling whomever he wants. We certainly know from the extensive LBJ tapes that he kept in touch with friends. But, you know, the White House bubble is definitely a bubble. And the best way presidents have found to deal with it is to bring friends inside that bubble, either to the White House or to Camp David, where everything is, in fact, secure.

KING: Cokie Roberts with our weekly segment Ask Cokie. Thank you so much, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.