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March 4, 2010

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Even Obama needs a buddy

THERE'S a long tradition of those who serve as first friends to the Oval Office occupant. Being a BFF, best first friend, to the president is an important job description, a good career move. Deanna Bellandi reports.

Even a president needs a buddy or two. Meet Chicago businessman Marty Nesbitt and hospital executive Eric Whitaker.

They are regulars at US President Barack Obama's side: tagging along when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway, buying shaved ice during the president's Hawaii vacation, shooting basketball goals in Washington, climbing a lighthouse on Martha's Vineyard off the Massachusetts coast and attending A-list White House parties.

Nesbitt and Whitaker are part of a long tradition of those who serve as first friends to the Oval Office occupant. Being a friend to the president is an important job description, a good career move.

"You need somebody to talk to - or not talk to - about what's going on," says Paul Light, a presidential historian at New York University. "You wouldn't want to vacation with (presidential chief of staff) Rahm Emanuel, for goodness sake."

President Bill Clinton had his circle of friends from Arkansas. President George W. Bush leaned on buddies from Texas, notably pal Don Evans, who moved to Washington to be commerce secretary.

"It's like when Laura is around," Bush once said, likening Evans to the first lady. "I view him as somebody who knows me well, is not afraid to give me his opinion, has my best interest at heart."

By all appearances, that is the kind of relationship Obama has with Nesbitt, who runs a parking company, and Whitaker, an executive at the University of Chicago Medical Center, where first lady Michelle Obama used to work.

The two men and their families joined the Obamas for their winter vacation in Hawaii, where cameras caught them sampling island treats and hitting the golf course. Back in Washington, Nesbitt and Obama turned up in black track suits to head for the basketball court at Fort McNair last fall for a private game of hoops. And that was Whitaker riding bikes with Obama and his family during the president's vacation at Martha's Vineyard last summer.

Nesbitt and Whitaker had seats at the table last month when the president and first lady celebrated her 46th birthday at Restaurant Nora in Washington, scored coveted invitations to the Obamas' first state dinner and mingled on the South Lawn during the Obamas' Fourth of July barbecue.

The Rev Carolyn Yeldell Staley, a friend of Clinton's since their high school days in Arkansas, fondly remembers Clinton's assistant calling to invite her to movie nights with the president at the White House theater.

Such friendships, she says, are "the link to life that's normal."

Obama's friendships with Nesbitt and Whitaker stretch back years before he rose to prominence. Stories have been written about how he and Whitaker played basketball together when they were in graduate school at Harvard and how Nesbitt, whose family lives in Obama's South Side Chicago neighborhood, met him years ago.

"There are so many connections between the two of us, it's kind of hard to pinpoint how we actually got to know each other," Nesbitt told the Los Angeles Times in 2008.

Obama spoke last year about the importance of his friendship with Nesbitt. "Having somebody who has been there when you are down as well as when you are up is invaluable," he told The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio.

Discretion is a big part of a presidential friendship, Staley says.

"That's what friends are in everyday life, and nothing changes just because a person's president," she says.

In that spirit, although Nesbitt and Whitaker are routinely photographed in Obama's company, both refused comment for this story. So did the White House.

Obama aides did confirm that the two friends had flown for free on Air Force One as guests of the president on official trips, including the trip to Oslo, Norway, to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. The two made their own arrangements to travel to Hawaii.

Despite their best efforts to keep a low profile, Nesbitt and Whitaker attract plenty of attention for the presence at the president's side.

"If you read the papers, you wouldn't know that I actually have a day job," Whitaker said when he appeared before a sold-out crowd at the City Club of Chicago last April.

Unlike some other Chicago pals, including Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, both top advisers to the president, Obama is not Nesbitt's or Whitaker's boss.

Light says a president needs some people like that around him. "You need somebody who doesn't have an agenda, and that's part of getting away from this impossible job and getting recharged," Light says.

Staley says that when she moved to Washington after Clinton was elected, she went to work as deputy director at the National Institute for Literacy, which was not a presidential appointment.

"I wanted to be able to be with him and in his company and not have him as my boss," she says. "I wanted to keep it that friendship."

Staley says Clinton got a boost from having his Arkansas friends around.

"He could look across a room and see some friends and just be happy at that warm glow level," she says.


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