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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RFK on Moral Courage

rfk capetownAfter his election as Senator of New York in 1965, Robert Kennedy began campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president. In June of 1966 he travelled to Cape Town where he received a hero’s welcome, being greeted by a crowd of 18,000.

In his speech, RFK positioned the South African struggle for freedom in the context of the worldwide struggle to break down barriers of nationality, race and class. It has been argued that in this speech RFK laid out his core political philosophy.

The speech was delivered to the National Union of South African Student’s Day of Affirmation, an annual protest in support of human liberty and academic freedom in the face of government oppression. It has become known for the section in which Kennedy talked of ‘tiny ripples of hope’ that can ‘build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.’

The speech is superb from start to finish, packed full of wonderful prose. However, the section that stood out for me was the section in which he lists the dangers that can prevent people from achieving their dreams. After listing two dangers (futility and practicality), he moves on to the third:

A third danger is timidity. Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.

This is so true – and just as relevant today as it was when Kennedy first said it. The world is full of people who are strong, brave, or intelligent. But the people who change history are those who have the courage to risk their own reputation in order to stand up for what is right.

“Where you live should no longer determine whether you live.”

Bono-GWBushIn February 2006, Bono addressed the 51st National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC. What he said – and how he said it – was quite remarkable.

Somehow, I’d not come across this until now (h/t to Matt Ellis who quoted a section of it in a recent sermon). Bono masterfully weaves together religious, political, and historical themes to make his point that the developed West (specifically America) should give a lot more to help the world’s poorest people.

Please do read the whole piece. Regardless of whether you like Bono or you agree with his argument, it’s an excellent speech.

A few notable extracts…

…I remember how my mother would bring us to chapel on Sundays… and my father used to wait outside. One of the things that I picked up from my father and my mother was the sense that religion often gets in the way of God…”

…God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.”

…But justice is a higher standard. Africa makes a fool of our idea of justice; it makes a farce of our idea of equality. It mocks our pieties, it doubts our concern, it questions our commitment.

Sixty-five hundred Africans are still dying every day of a preventable, treatable disease, for lack of drugs we can buy at any drug store. This is not about charity, this is about justice and equality.”

…Look at what happened in South East Asia with the tsunami. 150,000 lives lost to that misnomer of all misnomers, “mother nature.” In Africa, 150,000 lives are lost every month. A tsunami every month. And it’s a completely avoidable catastrophe.

…So on we go with our journey of equality. On we go in the pursuit of justice… united in the belief that where you live should no longer determine whether you live.”

…Preventing the poorest of the poor from selling their products while we sing the virtues of the free market…that’s a justice issue. Holding children to ransom for the debts of their grandparents…that’s a justice issue…And while the law is what we say it is, God is not silent on the subject.”

…I truly believe that when the history books are written, our age will be remembered for three things: the war on terror, the digital revolution, and what we did – or did not to – to put the fire out in Africa.

History, like God, is watching what we do.”

The Ten Cannots

  • You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.
  • You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
  • You cannot help little men by tearing down big men.
  • You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.
  • You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich.
  • You cannot establish sound security on borrowed money.
  • You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred.
  • You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than you earn.
  • You cannot build character and courage by destroying men’s initiative and independence.
  • And you cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they can and should do for themselves.

This is a list of “Cannots”, originally authored by William J. H. Boetcker, an American Presbyterian minister. The list is often misattributed to Abraham Lincoln (due to a printing mistake in a pamphlet published in 1942). I’d not previously seen these – but I immediately like them.