JFK’s Right Hand Man

I’ve just finished reading Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, the memoir of Ted Sorensen, one of JFK’s closest advisors. It’s a superb book, beautifully written offering an insight into the mind of a truly brilliant man who Kennedy described as his “intellectual blood bank”. Here are a few thoughts on Sorensen, JFK, and a quite superb political autobiography.

On the morning of Friday 20th January 1961, after a night of heavy snowfall and in the shadow of a close-run election, John F Kennedy stepped on to the inaugural platform and spoke words that both defined and inspired a generation. “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” This was more than rhetoric. His words ushered in a new era of optimism and a new generation of political awareness. Kennedy’s inaugural address is perhaps the most famous, most replayed, most quoted piece of political rhetoric from the past 60 years. Reading it afresh today, more than half a century later, it hasn’t lost an ounce of its impact.

JFK’s inaugural address might be the closest thing you’ll find to political poetry. “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” is the best known line but the speech includes other gems such as “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate” and “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich”. These words, although spoken by JFK on that cold January morning, almost certainly originated from the pen of Ted Sorensen.

Counselor CoverAlthough Ted Sorensen is often credited as JFK’s “speechwriter”, he was a lot more than that. Finding the appropriate description of Sorensen’s role in Kennedy’s life is difficult, such was the closeness of the two. His job title in the White House was the rather generic “Special Counsel to the President” which can mean anything and everything. Kennedy’s brother Bobby, who served as JFK’s Attorney General, says simply: “If it was difficult, Ted Sorensen was brought in”, while the New York Times obituary of his life describes Sorensen as JFK’s “political strategist and a trusted adviser on everything from election tactics to foreign policy”.

Counselor is the story of Sorensen’s life rather than JFK’s presidency, although the years spent campaigning for and then serving in the White House certainly dominate the pages. The book breezes through Sorensen’s early life providing some detail about his somewhat sheltered upbringing in Nebraska, including earning his bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska, and then graduating first in his class at law school. By the time he first made the journey to Washington in 1951, at the age of 23, Sorensen says of himself: “I had never drunk a cup of coffee, set foot in a bar, written a check, or owned a car.” Less than 10 years later he was, the Wall Street Journal notes, “the third most powerful man in the American government.”

Sorensen and JFK first met in 1953 when, eighteen months after making the journey to Washington DC from his home town of Lincoln Nebraska, Sorensen was hired as a researcher by the newly elected senator from Massachusetts.

Sorensen pic

Ted Sorensen

Although the book is a little light on Sorensen’s early life, it provides more detail about his post-Washington years in which he spent four decades as a successful international lawyer for New York firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. This work took him all over the world and included encounters with an eclectic cast of charismatic and inspiring world leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, Charles de Gaulle, former President of the DRC, Mobutu Sese Seko,  Egypt’s former President Anwar Sadat (whom Sorensen describes as the “most intriguing” person he’s ever met), and Israel’s former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (whom he described as the “most visionary”.)

Counselor also documents Sorensen’s own experience as a political candidate in 1970 when he ran as a democrat in the New York Senate seat previously held by Robert Kennedy. But Sorensen admits this was “a mistake”, describing how he believed (naively, it turns out) that by seeking public office he could simply continue the JFK legacy. “Frankly, it was an act of hubris on my part”, concedes Sorensen.

The pages of Counselor are soaked with loyalty and admiration towards JFK (it’s even been described as a “love story” by one reviewer). Sorensen’s loyalty remained undiminished long after JFK’s presidency was brought to a tragically premature end in Texas in 1963. In one candid section towards the end of the book Sorensen asserts that none of the nine people who have held the office of the Presidency since 1963 come close to his former boss.

In another example of both loyalty to JFK and ambivalence to those who followed, Sorensen admits for the rest of his life whenever he referred to “The President” in writing, in conversation, or otherwise, there was only one person he meant.

Ever since JFK delivered his inaugural address in 1961, questions over its true authorship have been raised. It has been suggested on more than one occasion that Sorensen is the source and inspiration behind all of Kennedy’s finest rhetoric. Sorensen addresses those questions head-on in Counselor and, perhaps unsurprisingly, remains loyal to his former boss referring to the speech “a collaboration” and even insisting Kennedy was the “true author”.

Sorensen remained active and intellectually alert into old age although his latter years were dominated by health issues following a massive stroke in 2001 that took away most of his sight – and could have been worse. Writing Counselor seems to have been a cathartic exercise for Sorensen who admits that it helped keep him alive for the six years it took to write following the stroke (he died two years after publication). It seems to have also brought closure: in the final pages of the book, Sorensen says that he believes the writing of the book signifies the conclusion of his service to JFK.

Ted Sorensen has been described as the speechwriter’s patron saint. This is an appropriate epithet. It’s certainly true that for aspiring writers, Sorensen’s name towers above others. But even a cursory look at his professional life shows that he was far more than a speechwriter. Counselor is a fine account of his distinguished life. Moreover, it offers an authoritative behind-the-scenes assessment of a presidency that electrified the nation. I have no doubt that Counselor will stand through the ages as one of the definitive accounts of JFK’s presidency, written by someone who lived and breathed every minute.

One of the endorsements on the back cover is from Barack Obama who states that “Sorensen has written a book that will be cherished for generations.” I happen to think he’s right. I hope he is.

Sorensen’s life of service, idealism, and loyalty provides a shining example for aspiring politicians and political advisors. I can’t help thinking that US politics – characterised as it is by gridlock, partisanship, and short-sightedness – would be a far better place if there were a few more Ted Sorensens around today.

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