Remembering JFK Aide Ted Sorensen

Presidential speechwriters come and go. The great exception was Theodore C. Sorensen.

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Ever since President George Washington asked James Madison and Alexander Hamilton’s help in drafting addresses to Congress, most chief executives have sought out help from some of the best minds available to express their thoughts and in persuasive ways. Only recently did pundits find a term to describe the process. They call it “message control.”

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Thomas Jefferson himself, one of the three best writers ever to occupy the White House (Lincoln and Wilson being the other two), wrote first drafts of his speeches and messages. He then sent them to the dexterous Madison for polishing. Lincoln followed a similar practice, with Secretary of State William Seward acting as a latter day Madison. While he delegated routine correspondence to two young aides from Illinois, John Hay and John Nicolay, Lincoln never completely released control of the reins. Wilson held them so tightly that he seldom shared his thoughts or words with anyone. One participant observer of his presidency said that Wilson met with his inner circle each morning, while shaving in front of a mirror.

As the presidency has become more bureaucratized and presidential speechmaking routinized (with presidents appearing in public more often, but with less to say and with fewer people paying attention), speechwriters (increasingly more in number) regularly come and go. Most stay for two or three years before moving on to become pundits, columnists, and lobbyists. While all helped their boss find his voice, few were said to have wielded considerable influence as makers of public policy. The great exception, of course, was Theodore C. Sorensen. Some of us knew him merely as “Ted.”

Sorensen worked with John F. Kennedy for the eight years Kennedy served in the U.S. Senate and the two years, 10 months, and 22 days of his presidency. It is difficult to conceive of his leaving Kennedy’s employ to have taken a different job. That was because he did not look upon what he did as a job, but as an adventure.

I say that Sorensen “worked with,” rather than “for” Kennedy because they functioned less as employer and employee than as partners in a common enterprise. The synergy that existed between the two was evident in discussions they had in private and in presidential speeches that live on through eternity. And while history has all but removed the veil of secrecy over which man actually wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, Sorensen--who advised all inquirers to “ask not”--was on solid ground when he suggested that he knew the kind of book JFK wanted written.

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Contrary to common belief, JFK was perfectly capable of delivering eloquent speeches and writing more than passable prose before Sorensen came into his orbit. Kennedy’s appearances on Meet the Press, while still a congressman, and early drafts in his own hand of his senior thesis (later published in the book Why England Slept) and of diaries he wrote of his sojourn through pre-World War II Europe show that. But they lacked “that special grace.” And, while Sorensen produced a heavy compendium of well-received works after Kennedy’s death, none rose to the rhetorical and stylistic heights the two achieved while working together. The synergy that came to exist between the two was unique in the annals of the American presidency.

Referring to Ted Sorensen as a “speechwriter” would be doing both him and history a disservice. He was so much more. Sorensen’s official title was “special counsel.” Among his many responsibilities was to give force to decisions Kennedy made. Through the trust he established with the president and his capacity to read Kennedy’s instincts and to sense what he wanted done allowed him to help shape some of the very decisions he would then explain in speeches he prepared for, and often with, the president.

So that Sorensen might do a better job in finding language to describe policies that were taking shape, Kennedy saw to it that his trusted adviser was in the room, often as a participant as well as an observer, when major decisions were made. The perspective Sorensen acquired in the process helped him render his most valuable contribution to his nation: his drafting of Kennedy’s response to Nikita Khrushchev’s letter at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. (The White House actually received two letters from the soviet premier. One conveyed a willingness to negotiate, while the other threatened war. Kennedy’s team opted to ignore the second and have Sorensen prepare a reply to the first.) Their gamble paid off and tensions eased.

Kennedy and Sorensen followed with two speeches Sorensen considered Kennedy’s and his best. The first was the 1963 commencement address Kennedy delivered at American University in which he pressed for a nuclear test ban treaty. (Some see in it the origins of both Nixon’s détente politics and Reagan’s successful negotiation of the end of the cold war.) The second, delivered the next day, in which Sorensen had but two hours notice, concerned civil rights. The occasion marked the first time an American president would describe civil rights as a “moral issue” (“as old as the Scriptures” and “as clear as the Constitution”). The speech at the Berlin Wall would follow later that summer.

After the Kennedy administration came to its abrupt end, Sorensen took on his longest lasting role, that of defender of the Kennedy legacy. As the passing decades brought new rumors, revelations, and revisionisms, Sorensen never flinched. To the end of his days he continued to defend his chief who was no longer present to defend himself, whether in memoirs, post-presidential interviews, or as an ex-president.

As his life drew to a close, Sorensen took on the additional task of explaining to generations yet unborn what it was like to work for a president who had summoned previous generations of Americans to service in causes bigger than themselves and at a time when all seemed fresh and anything seemed possible. Several commentators have long taken issue with Jacqueline Kennedy’s post-Dallas likening of her husband’s administration to the mythical Camelot. “Too tacky,” they said. Perhaps. The musical ends with King Arthur, his kingdom about to perish, encountering and knighting a young boy, whom he sends back to England to explain the meaning of Camelot to another generation.

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This I have seen Sorensen do many times and before multiple students I have taught. People still talk about the wintry night in 2006 when 300 students crowded into Harvard’s Dunster House to ask Ted Sorensen questions. (He began by asking them whether they had better things to do on a Saturday night.) He did a repeat performance the following fall at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. (There, he lambasted the Atlantic Monthly for leaving JFK off its list of influential figures of the 20th century.) And just last year, Sorensen told a standing room only crowd at the Penn Store (University of Pennsylvania) that, while visually impaired, he thought his vision extended far beyond some recent presidents of the United States.

Ted Sorensen died 48 hours before the congressional elections of 2010 and a week before the 50th anniversary of the election of John F. Kennedy as the nation’s 35th president. He served his president and his country well.

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