Overlooked during the hype of the midterm elections was the loss of a great American. Theodore C. Sorensen, a clear-minded and eloquent speechwriter, lawyer, thinker, and speaker, died this past weekend. He was 82 years old. The substance behind John F. Kennedy, Sorensen was the single most important source of JFK’s words and actions during the final eleven years of Kennedy’s life. Unlike his friend and intellectual soul mate, who died at the hands of an assassin’s bullet nearly 47 years ago when the country still possessed an innocence of spirit, Sorensen lived a full and engaging life. Yet by his own account, the world came to a standstill on that dreadful November day, his grief surpassed perhaps only by Kennedy’s closest family members, a grief that would be re-lived five years later in the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968. The Age of Innocence lost, America matured into a more complex, more divisive, more cynical country, which has only grown angrier through the years.
Kennedy called Sorensen his “intellectual blood bank” and, for the nearly half century following that tragic November day, Sorensen remained a loyal advocate of the Kennedy legacy and a vibrant link to the aura of Camelot that defined Kennedy’s term in office. He believed in good government, but not necessarily big government; a government that helps people and serves the national interest. He rejected the politics of pork and the pursuit of narrowly focused special interests. A product of the Great Depression with modest Midwestern roots, Sorensen believed in a compassionate society that embraces enlightened change and rejects the status quo where human ills and injustice go untreated. A proud liberal, Sorensen saw many of JFK’s best attributes in Barack Obama and he remained optimistic to the end that progressive ideals would ultimately triumph in America.
Like Kennedy, Sorensen believed that America must stand firm in its quest for freedom and democracy. But he did not believe that America should go it alone and he was dismayed with the unilateralism of the Bush administration and conservative calls for abolishing the United Nations, an admittedly imperfect institution, but one that remains our best hope for promoting peace and for addressing humanitarian crises in the world’s most troubled regions.
I never met Ted Sorensen, and a letter I wrote to him two years ago, after I read his memoirs, Counselor: Life at the Edge of History (Harper Collins, 2008), went unanswered. But I have always admired that Sorensen’s sharp wit and keen intellect accompanied a poetic embrace of language, and that he was a serious and unassuming man, with none of the Ivy League pedigree enjoyed by most of the Kennedy entourage. A bit of an outsider, he lacked Kennedy’s glamour and sense of style and was excluded from the Kennedy social set, where everyone seemed rich and fashionable. He maintained a permanently bookish air that almost single-handedly fed Kennedy’s appetite for policy memos, speeches, and legislative initiatives. Kennedy and Sorensen made an odd pair – the glamorous, wealthy politician from Massachusetts and the socially reclusive bookworm from Nebraska. But as Sorensen noted in Counselor, their lifestyle differences were offset by the closeness of their minds, for each possessed a lively sense of humor, a love of books, and a high-minded sense of the public interest.
The quintessential counselor, advisor, and confidante, Sorensen helped a young Kennedy develop into the mature leader he would become. From when he joined the new senator’s staff in 1953 as a 24 year-old University of Nebraska law school graduate, until Kennedy’s death in 1963, Sorensen was at the center of it all. The poet of Camelot, he helped write the most inspirational of Kennedy’s speeches. In July 1960, Sorensen drafted Kennedy’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, at which Kennedy declared that the United States was at “a turning point in history” involving a “New Frontier” of “uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.” Six months later, Sorensen and Kennedy collaborated on one of the best inaugural addresses in American history, a masterful, fourteen-minute speech that contained these memorable phrases:
• “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
• “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
• “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
• “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”
Sorensen’s greatest contribution to history may have been the calm guidance and counsel he provided during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when for thirteen days, the world stood on the brink of nuclear destruction. At Kennedy’s request, Sorensen drafted the famous letter to Nikita Khrushchev credited with persuading the Soviet Union to withdraw its missiles from Cuba and with averting war between the superpowers. The Khrushchev letter guaranteed, in exchange for immediate withdrawal of all Soviet missiles from Cuba, an end to the U.S. blockade and the withdrawal of American nuclear missiles from Turkey (aimed at the USSR). As Sorensen later explained, “Never had this country, this world, faced such great danger.” Helping to formulate a peaceful resolution was among his proudest lifetime achievements.
For students of speechwriting, however, it was Sorensen’s high-minded, inspirational prose from which Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric was born, and which helped make his presidency a lasting symbol of hope and idealism. Sorensen’s imprint was evident on Kennedy’s calls for self-sacrifice, civic engagement, and international peace. His eternal hope for a better world, his belief that the human race, however flawed, had the capacity to survive and even thrive amidst adversity, are themes that can be discerned from Kennedy’s speeches and statements in the early 1960’s.
My favorite Kennedy speech, for which Sorensen once again deserves much credit, was his commencement address at American University, which remains among the great foreign policy speeches of an American president. On that clear, sunny day in June 1963, Kennedy addressed “the most important topic on earth: peace.” At the height of the Cold War, this anti-Communist president called on Americans to see the humanity of the Soviet people, however repugnant may be the communist system. For only by recognizing that Soviet citizens were, like Americans, also people of substance, virtue, and accomplishment (in science, literature, and technology), could we find common interests and seek true peace.
. . . What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children -- not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time. . . .
. . . Today the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need them is essential to the keeping of peace. But surely the acquisition of such idle stockpiles -- which can only destroy and never create -- is not the only . . . means of assuring peace. I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary, rational end of rational men. I realize the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war, and frequently the words of the pursuers fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task. . . .
. . . So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal.
Kennedy’s address laid the groundwork for the Soviet Union to begin talks, six weeks later, on the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a major milestone in U.S.-Soviet relations and in the movement for disarmament. Forty years later, Sorensen was invited to Rome to speak to a local foreign policy group. He asked on what subject and was told, “Tell us about the good America, when Kennedy was president.” Thinking back on the American University speech, Sorensen reflected upon “an America admired for its values, respected for its principles, not feared for its might or resented for its success; an America that led by listening, worked with the rest of the world, and respected international law; an America that stood for peace, not one that started wars. That was America when Kennedy was president.”
Sorensen was a master at his craft. Today, presidents and candidates utilize entire teams of speechwriters, and most speeches are a hodgepodge of policy proposals and appeals to varying demographics and interests. When Sorensen worked for JFK, the effort was more intimate and collaborative, the results unmatched in modern political rhetoric. A speech should inspire, teach, and lead. Kennedy was masterful at this, and he could not have done it without Sorensen, who remained loyal and devoted to his friend and colleague until his dying day. Ted Sorensen having been laid to rest, it is fair to say that they don’t make speechwriters like they used to.
Looking back on Kennedy’s speeches and reflecting upon Sorensen’s life, it is hard not to be pained at what might have been had Kennedy lived to serve a second term. Sorensen lived a distinguished life and continued to provide advice to Kennedy’s younger brothers. He became an accomplished international lawyer, counseling the likes of Nelson Mandela and Anwar Sadat, and he remained always an advocate for peace and progressive ideals. But the pain of November 1963 never healed. “I do not know whether I have ever fully recovered from John F. Kennedy’s death,” he wrote in his memoirs. “Time passed. Love and laughter helped. But the deep sadness of that time remained, only to be reinforced five years later by the murder of his brother Robert. Those two senseless tragedies robbed me of my future.” Decades later, on the twilight of his life, the pain remained. “Deep in my soul, I have not stopped weeping, whenever those events are recalled.”
America lost its soul with the deaths of John and Robert Kennedy. With the death of Ted Sorensen, we have lost part of our idealism. We live now in a less poetic, less graceful time.