- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 23, 2010

CHICAGO | Even a president needs to have a “BFF” or two.

Meet Chicago businessman Marty Nesbitt and hospital executive Eric Whitaker. There’s a good chance you may have seen them already.

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

Mr. Nesbitt and Mr. Whitaker are part of a long tradition of those who serve as first friends to the man in the Oval Office. Being a friend to the president is an important job description.

“You need somebody to talk to - or not talk to - about what’s going on,” said Paul Light, a presidential historian at New York University. “You wouldn’t want to vacation with (White House Chief of Staff) Rahm Emanuel, for goodness’ sake.”

President Clinton had his circle of friends from Arkansas. Mr. Obama’s predecessor, President Bush, leaned on buddies from Texas, notably pal Donald Evans, who moved to Washington to be commerce secretary.

“It’s like when Laura is around,” Mr. Bush once said, likening Mr. 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’s the kind of relationship Mr. Obama has with Mr. Nesbitt, who runs a parking company, and Mr. 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, Mr. Nesbitt and Mr. 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 Mr. Whitaker riding bikes with Mr. Obama and his family during the president’s vacation on Martha’s Vineyard last summer.

Mr. Nesbitt and Mr. 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.

Mr. Obama’s friendships with the two men stretch back years before he rose to prominence. Stories have been written about how he and Mr. Whitaker played basketball together when they were in graduate school at Harvard and how Mr. Nesbitt, whose family lives in Mr. Obama’s South Side neighborhood in Chicago, 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,” Mr. Nesbitt told the Los Angeles Times in 2008.

Mr. Obama spoke last summer about the importance of his friendship with Mr. Nesbitt.

“Having somebody who has been there when you are down as well as when you are up is invaluable,” he told the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch newspaper.

Discretion is a big part of a presidential friendship.

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

Unlike some other Chicago pals, including Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, who are both top advisers to the president, Mr. Obama isn’t Mr. Nesbitt’s or Mr. Whitaker’s boss.

Mr. Light said 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,” Mr. Light said.

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