Politicians who rise to the pinnacle of their profession amass thousands of dear friends, valued colleagues and allies along the way. Close friends, not so much. Every office on Capitol Hill has its power wall of broad smiles and shoulder-squeezes as proof. No one seems to miss the real thing.
So it came as a surprise when we learned over the holidays that Barack Obama, that paragon of reserve bordering on the arctic, has a small group of prep-school buddies he reunites with every Hawaii vacation. Getting together with these classmates is one reason the president has returned to the island in the years after his grandmother’s death.
This is all the more unexpected because Obama is by far the least emotionally available president to come along in a while. Compared with Bill Clinton, who turned the White House into a hotel, and the Bushes (the first of whom wrote thousands of notes; the second known for giving nicknames and bro-hugs from one end of Texas to the other), he’s a downright misanthrope.
According to the three Hawaii pals, knowing Obama way back when is a big part of what makes the relationship so binding. At the time, there was little to be gained from hanging with the dude they knew as Barry, who comes across in his memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” as a particularly pensive, searching teenager and hardly the most ambitious or connected one at Honolulu’s prestigious Punahou School.
They had time to ponder what life is all about, shoot hoops and become worthy of their collective nickname, the Choom Gang, whose minor sport was smoking pot. That shared history is what brings them together still, one of the gang, Mike Ramos, told the New York Times last week: “It’s the unconditional love, it’s the nontransactional nature of the relationship -- that enduring quality.”
Holding on to such relationships is hard for any of us. Kids, jobs and mortgages intrude. But nonpoliticians have the luxury of trying. Every waking minute of a politician’s life is spent on the make. The cost of so much networking to form new, useful relationships is dropping old ones. This isn’t to say that Richard Nixon didn’t come to like Bebe Rebozo, or that Ronald Reagan didn’t enjoy the Bloomingdales, or that George H.W. Bush didn’t appreciate the company of the Mosbachers, or Clinton that of his Arkansas fixers.
Politicians are hardwired to love the one they’re with, and in a mutually satisfying way: One side is animated by the prospect of help getting elected; the other is motivated by the prospect of access and bragging rights.
Unlike Senator Ted Cruz, Obama didn’t announce that he hadn’t come to Washington to make new friends, but he hasn’t nonetheless. Nixon, Reagan and Clinton made no distinction between consultants and friends, and Clinton, in particular, collected friends like baseball cards.
But such friends are subservient and dispensable. Clinton knew every county manager in the country, as well as the name of his or her spouse, kids and pets; Obama is unlikely to remember one outside Iowa or New Hampshire. When Clinton came under pressure, he had to cut loose friends such as Webb Hubbell. Hubbell wasn’t surprised. Everyone picked up along the way in politics knows the deal.
George W. Bush was all about making new friends as he tried to make a name for himself apart from his East Coast elite pedigree. He wanted to start fresh in the oilfields of Texas. Those carefully cultivated relationships helped him become an owner of the Texas Rangers, then governor and president. By the time he got to the White House, his most essential friend was Karl Rove -- until he wasn’t.
One reason Obama has the luxury of real friendships is that he didn’t have to spend time cultivating unreal ones climbing the greasy pole of politics. He arrived fully formed, rarely having had to kiss the ring of county chairmen or kowtow to party bosses.
That’s why he goes to a lot of trouble to keep an annual reunion with the Choom Gang, but has to be forced to socialize with would-be political allies. Senator Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat whose vote the president would have needed had he followed through with the nomination of Larry Summers for Federal Reserve chairman, said recently that he hadn’t heard from Obama for years. And forget about making nice with the opposition.
Obama’s to-do list is that of a man fully satisfied with the company he already keeps. He has to be reminded he should call Governor Chris Christie, play golf with House Speaker John Boehner, and invite Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid over for dinner.
For Clinton, being pulled from a late-night game of Hearts with a donor or having to close down the Lincoln Bedroom, was to be deprived of oxygen. Not needing any of that is a source of strength for Obama the man, but a weakness for Obama the politician. Success in the dark arts requires quantity, not quality, when it comes to friends.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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