Ted Sorensen, speechwriter and adviser to President John F. Kennedy, died at 82 Sunday in New York. He had suffered a stroke several years ago and had lost most of his sight. But, until the end, he remained an active and engaged citizen.
Sorensen, a progressive Nebraskan, worked for Sen. John F. Kennedy and, after Kennedy's election as president, became his principal speechwriter and a close adviser. He drafted many JFK speeches — including his notable "Ask not what your country can do for you" 1961 inaugural speech. After Kennedy's 1963 assassination, Sorensen wrote the definitive JFK biography, "Kennedy."
I first met Ted Sorensen during his White House years. He once told me, "We entered the presidency thinking we knew everything and soon found we knew little." He was referring specifically to the Bay of Pigs fiasco, planned in the previous Eisenhower administration, and the situation in Vietnam, where the U.S. had not yet committed to full-scale involvement when Kennedy took office.
As many other former staff types, Sorensen was unsuccessful in seeking elective office for himself. He was defeated in a New York Democratic primary for a U.S. Senate seat. But he remained an active adviser to Democratic presidential aspirants. We both pitched in to help Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, who entered his 1976 general-election campaign against President Gerald Ford almost totally unschooled in foreign and domestic issues. I put together briefing books to give Carter a policy and political framework. Sorensen worked closely with the Carter transition team in helping to plan for the post-election period. When I remarked, in Atlanta, that I had doubts about Carter's capacity to be president, Sorensen said we had no option but to help him. He was going to be president with or without us.
Sorensen had endorsed Carter during the New York Democratic primary contest and was expected to serve in a Carter administration. But Carter abruptly dropped him when questions arose about his confirmation as CIA director. (I always thought the CIA had sabotaged the nomination, fearing Sorensen's appointment). Sorensen would have been confirmed by the Senate, but Carter did not know that and found it expedient to abandon him.
Many thought Sorensen withdrawn and aloof. Over many years, I found him otherwise. He was not a backslapping hail fellow and did not suffer fools. But he always took his work more seriously than he took himself and had a gallows sense of humor.
On one occasion, some 20 years ago, he related a tragicomic episode in which, during a routine physical, his doctor mistakenly thought he (Sorensen) was suffering a heart attack and had him sent by ambulance to a New York City emergency room. There, Sorensen said, he found himself placed next to gunshot victims in a curtained area. His wife, Gillian, could not be reached. So this, he thought, is where it ends —without my wife or a friend in an impersonal emergency room. As it turned out, though, it was entirely a false alarm and later that day Sorensen took a cab home from the hospital.
I have fond personal memories of Sorensen. We sat together at President Lyndon Johnson's funeral service in Washington, D.C. He frequently referred his New York law clients to me for counsel and assistance in Washington, D.C. We both were part of a late-1980s venture to secure the U.S. rights to RU-486, the French morning-after pill, but failed not only to secure the rights (which went to Planned Parenthood) but managed to lose money. I always regarded him as a good man who was in public life for the right reasons.
Sorensen's death, shortly after Sen. Ted Kennedy's death, places us more greatly distant from the late 1950s, early 1960s era when big ideas and a big agenda were at the center of political life. There are not many Sorensens around these days — lots of political operators and a few good speechwriters but few who are as dedicated, talented, and serious as Sorensen was. He deserves the fulsome obituaries he is receiving in the national media.
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