White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters

How John F. Kennedy’s most illustrious speeches were constructed.

John F. Kennedy delivering his inaugural address.

John F. Kennedy delivering his inaugural address.

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Sorensen joined Kennedy in Florida on January 16 before flying back with him the following day. Once in the air, Kennedy summoned Time magazine correspondent Hugh Sidey to his private compartment and started scratching out an apparent first draft of the inaugural. At one point Kennedy tossed the pad into the reporter's lap and asked his opinion. Sidey was stunned that only three days before his swearing-in, Kennedy was still working on a first draft of his speech. But the truth was that the speech was in almost final form: The performance was designed to illustrate to a leading reporter that the new president was his own writer.

The ploy was undoubtedly motivated by a desire to establish authorship both for the contemporary audience and for posterity. JFK was also driven by questions about what he had written himself. Rumors and accusations had circulated in Washington ever since the publication of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage, angering Kennedy no end.

Shortly before 1 p.m. on Jan. 20, 1961, as applause echoed against the marble pillars and walls of the Capitol, Kennedy opened the binder that contained his address and waited for the cheers to fade:

We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom, symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change.

Moving into the White House, Kennedy and Sorensen continued the pattern that they had developed over the previous seven years. They would begin by discussing how Kennedy wanted to approach a topic and what conclusions he wished to reach. Speeches were not to exceed 20 or 30 minutes.

Short words and clauses were the order, with simplicity and clarity the goal. A self-described "idealist without illusions," JFK preferred a cool, cerebral approach and had little use for florid expression and complex prose. He liked alliteration, "not solely for reasons of rhetoric but to reinforce the audience's recollection of his reasoning." His taste for contrapuntal phrasing—never negotiating out of fear but never fearing to negotiate—illustrated his dislike of extreme opinions and options.

On Tuesday, Oct. 16, 1962, McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, started Kennedy's morning with news that the Soviets had secretly set up nuclear missile bases in Cuba, a mere 90 miles from Florida.

Cuba had become an annoying theme for the administration. While JFK had hammered Nixon and the Republicans for "losing" the island nation, all he had accomplished thus far was the Bay of Pigs disaster. At the Justice Department, Robert F. Kennedy was overseeing Operation Mongoose, the CIA's largest covert program, designed to use a variety of different schemes ranging from espionage to low-grade terrorism to counterfeiting to rid Cuba of dictator Fidel Castro.

Cuba was also a public focus of both the United States and the U.S.S.R. On September 11, the Soviet government had stated that its nuclear arsenal had such reach and power that there would be no reason for arms to be based in any other countries, "for instance, Cuba." The statement had added that shipments of arms to Cuba—recently increased—were "designed exclusively for defensive purposes."

For his part, Kennedy had drawn a strategic line. If Cuba were to "become an offensive military base of significant capacity for the Soviet Union," he warned at a September 13 press conference, "then this country will do whatever must be done to protect its own security and that of its allies."

All the while missiles moved onto the island. And now U.S. spy planes had discovered them, presenting Kennedy with both a problem and an opportunity. On one hand, this was a dangerous and provocative act on the part of the Soviets. While the missiles made little practical strategic difference in the global balance of power, once unveiled they would be a potent challenge to U.S. prestige.

Options. But the Soviet secrecy gave Kennedy room to maneuver. Hours after learning of the missiles, he convened in the Cabinet Room what came to be known as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or simply the Ex Comm. The group consisted mainly of predictable persons—in addition to Bundy, Kennedy, and Vice President Lyndon Johnson were Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and their aides; Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Maxwell Taylor; representatives of the CIA; and the U.S. attorney general, Robert Kennedy.