Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Friendship and Statecraft

by John von Heyking

Harry S Truman famously claimed that if you want a friend in Washington, then get a dog. His point seems to have been that politics is a lonely business. Politics consists of clashing interests, with temporary friendships of convenience giving way to individual self-interest. Emotional detachment with a pinch of ruthlessness serves politicians better than friendship or altruism.

Yet, it was also Truman who became close friends with someone he should have despised. Shortly after Truman became president in spring of 1945, he reached out to former president Herbert Hoover to lead the effort to secure European food supply in the wake of World War Two. Hoover had led that same effort after World War One but his alleged failure as president to cope with the Great Depression made him, still by 1945, widely loathed in the United States. Truman reached out to Hoover because of his expertise but the two men ended up becoming close friends. Hoover wrote to Truman in 1962: “Yours has been a friendship which has reached deeper into my life than you know.”

Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy consider Truman and Hoover the founders of the “presidents club,” whose friendship pairings also include Johnson and Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan, Ford and Carter (along with Nixon and Reagan), and Bush Sr. and Clinton. The presidents club, which is characterized by close relations of the current officeholder with its predecessors, is bound by a shared interest in protecting the institution of the presidency. But in protecting the institution, its members also care for and befriend the person who holds the office. Friendship is important for statesmen because the person who holds office is prior to the office itself.

By seeking to form solid working relationships with others, statesmen resemble people in other pursuits, including business. They look for several characteristics in others, including competence and trustworthiness. Politics, though, operates at a higher level of magnitude than other pursuits because political decisions involve war and peace, and the highest ideals by which political societies exist. A life in politics involves making difficult decisions daily that can affect the lives of millions, which makes the moral character of statesmen of utmost concern.

Statesmen devote a considerable amount of effort gauging the intellectual and moral character of other statesmen. One example is that of Harry Hopkins, a close friend of Franklin Roosevelt whom he sent to London in 1940 to gauge the character of Winston Churchill. Roosevelt needed to know whether he could risk political capital on Churchill, who at that time was widely regarded as unreliable. The alliance between the United States and Great Britain during World War Two pivoted on the subsequent friendship of the two leaders. Another example is that of former French President François Mitterrand, whose friendship with former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl proved important during the process of German reunification in the late 1980s. So important was friendship for Mitterrand that he was often criticized for being too loyal to friends, despite his reputation for ambivalence and devious political manoeuvring.

Despite current concerns about political polarization and declining social trust, friendship has operated in the micropolitics of American politics since its founding. Being a republic or liberal democracy, its institutions and political process promote cooperation to a greater extent than other forms of government. Self-interest can explain much of this cooperation but not all, especially during times of crisis. Political friendships are more common in its type of government than in tyrannies or authoritarian regimes, where leaders are more likely to have flatters and followers than friends. As a liberal democracy, polarization and friendship seem to go hand-in-hand. The friendship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson exemplifies this pattern. They were friends during the Revolution, fell out afterwards when Adams succeeded Washington as president, and then resumed their friendship at the instigation of Benjamin Rush in 1812. In his letter to Adams, Rush captured the political significance of their friendship when he characterized them: “as the North and South Poles of the American Revolution. Some talked, some wrote, and some fought to promote and establish it, but you and Mr. Jefferson thought for us all.” Rush seems to have thought that the fate of the American Republic hung on the capacity of two of their leading founding fathers to be friends. Each exemplified two sides of the Revolution that had to be held together if the republic were to survive.

In addition to Jefferson and Adams, the founding generation included several other “founding friendships,” with Madison playing a key role in many, including with Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, and Hamilton. Madison defeated Monroe in the 1789 campaign for Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District, and noted with relief that the two were able to protect their friendship despite a difficult campaign: “I have no reason to doubt that the distinction was duly kept in mind between political and personal views, and that it has saved our friendship from the smallest diminution.”

Abraham Lincoln is famous for turning political rivals into friends. Several members of his “team of rivals” also became close friends, including William Seward. He also became good friends with former slave and leading abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. The friendship and magnanimity he extended to others played a large role in unifying the North, and set forth the vision of a post-war reconstruction, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”

The lives of statesmen can be solitary because the brute fact of leading others sets them apart from others. Leaders must be capable of solitary introspection that enables them to deliberate upon the possibilities and potentialities of action. Even so, political power depends upon the cooperation of others, and statesmen depend upon capable partners for their craft whom they can entrust with their thoughts and stratagems. This paradox of solitariness and friendliness is at the core of statecraft and helps explain why statesmen tend to have few friends, but on account of their scarcity, they are also intensely loyal to those they befriend. The life in politics can be an epic voyage, which is better navigated and enjoyed with friends who are capable of keeping up.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is it possible to be an effective leader without close friends?
  2. Are former presidents the only real friends a president can have?
  3. Why is it that leaders will try to befriend rivals? What do rivals offer?
  4. What kind of virtue is “magnanimity” and why does it matter?

Further Reading

Aldous, Richard (2012). Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship. New York: Norton.

Brower, Kate Anderson (2020). Team of Five: The Presidents Club in the Age of Trump. New York: Harper.

Donald, David Herbert (2003). “We Are Lincoln Men”: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Ellis, Joseph J. (2000). Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. New York: Vintage.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila (2015). On Stalin’s Team: The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Flood, Charles Bracelen (2005). Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War. New York: Harper Perennial.

Gibbs, Nancy and Michael Duffy (2012). The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Ginsberg, Gary (2021). First Friends: The Powerful, Unsung (and Unelected) People Who Shaped Our Presidents. New York: Twelve.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns (2005). Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Heyking, John von (2018). Comprehensive Judgment and Absolute Selflessness: Winston Churchill on Politics as Friendship. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press.

Lieber, Stuart (1999). Founding Friendship: George Washington, James Madison, and the Creation of the American Republic. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press.

Schabert, Tilo (2002). How World Politics is Made: France and the Reunification of Germany. Translated by John Tyler Tuttle. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Saul, John Ralston (2010). Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin. Toronto: Penguin.

Short, Philip (2013). Mitterrand: A Study in Ambiguity. London: The Bodley Head.

Stewart, David O. (2015). Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Wood, Gordon S. (2017). Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. New York: Penguin Press.


Sign up to receive new content from the Ford Forum.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: