Remembering JFK: A close adviser's view late in life

Ted Sorensen talked before his own death about the assassinated president, national security and Barack Obama.
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John F. Kennedy and Soviet Union boss Nikita Khrushchev in 1961. Kennedy was a Cold Warrior but worked on disarmament with the Soviets.

Ted Sorensen talked before his own death about the assassinated president, national security and Barack Obama.

Ted Sorensen is best known as the closest advisor to President John F. Kennedy — and was seen by many commentators as the greatest American presidential speechwriter. 

Kennedy called Sorensen his “intellectual blood bank.”  And Sorensen was so close to JFK that some dubbed him the “Deputy President.”  In "A Thousand Days," historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., reported that both men “shared so much — the same quick tempo, detached intelligence, deflationary wit, realistic judgment, candor in speech, coolness in crisis — that, when it came to policy and speeches, they operated nearly as one.”

In June 2008, I had the opportunity to conduct an extensive interview with Ted Sorensen on his acclaimed autobiography, "Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History" (Harper Collins). Then 80, and with the residuals of a stroke that damaged his vision, Sorensen was still active in his law practice and international affairs. He also was advising presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama — a bright, young and hopeful politician who Sorensen saw as JFK’s heir, and the person who Sorensen believed could end what he called the Bush Administration’s “hideous, dangerous, reckless chapter in our foreign policy.” 

In "Counselor," Sorensen recounted his childhood nurtured by a progressive and idealistic family in Lincoln, Nebraska; his JFK years as a senatorial aide and then as special counsel to president with challenges such as the cold war, the civil rights struggle, and the space race. He also dealt with his own subsequent law career advising governments, multinational organizations and corporations, and meeting with world leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Anwar Sadat and Fidel Castro.  

Sorensen also wrote "Kennedy," his bestselling 1965 biography of JFK, as well as several other books and numerous articles on law and politics. 

Ted Sorensen died on Oct. 31, 2010 at age 82.

Robin Lindley: Is your autobiography in part a response to the belligerent policies of the Bush-Cheney administration?

Ted Sorensen: Very much so. I state in the preface I was spurred to write this book by the dismal state of affairs in Washington and the fact that the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld administration had repudiated and acted contrary to everything John F. Kennedy stood for and tried to do in foreign policy. 

John Kennedy believed in international law, international organizations like the United Nations, international alliances and therefore multi-lateral diplomacy. He did not think that in a world as ugly and complicated as this one that the United States could go it alone.  He never would have dreamed of a unilateral, pre-emptive invasion of another country, particularly one that was not posing any specific threat to the security and survival of the United States, the way Bush and Cheney did with respect to Iraq.

You point out that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrongly compared the pre-emptive war against Iraq with JFK’s approach to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

He was totally wrong in using that analogy, and he or Bush or Condi Rice quoted language that Kennedy said, “in the age of modern weapons, you didn’t need to wait until you got hit.” Kennedy said that not to justify a pre-emptive strike, but the opposite. He was saying that to justify the fact that he had opted against bombing the Soviet missiles in Cuba, and instead opted for the quarantine or blockade, which struck some people as being too passive, but which, under international law, was an act of war. He therefore wanted to point out that the United States was taking that action because it didn’t make sense to wait until being struck by a modern weapon — they are so destructive and quickly used — but that certainly was not an excuse for a pre-emptive strike.

You obviously share Sen. Obama’s view that we must talk to our enemies as well as our friends.

Yes. Kennedy resolved the Cuban missile crisis — the most dangerous 13 days in the history of mankind, as historians call it, by his willingness to communicate with Soviet Chairman Khrushchev, and through those communications, to negotiate with him.

Some say Sen. Barack Obama is merely providing hope and words.

People who say that are permitting partisanship to blind them to what the world and the American presidency are all about.  It was words that enabled Kennedy to respond to the missiles in Cuba, first with the quarantine, and then with communications with Khrushchev that persuaded him he could take those missiles out of Cuba without the United States firing a shot.

What parallels do you see between Sen. Obama and Pres. Kennedy?

One of the reasons I became interested some time ago in Sen. Obama was that people were saying he had no chance of being elected president because he was born black in white America. Forty-eight years ago they said Kennedy had no chance of being elected president because he’d been baptized Catholic in Protestant America. And then people would say Obama is a young, first-term senator. When Kennedy started out, he was an even younger first-term senator.

But Kennedy showed that it’s possible to transcend those ethnic and demographic limitations by reaching out to all kinds of voters, including Independents and Republicans as well as Democrats, and including minority and young voters who hadn’t turned out in large numbers in the past, and that’s exactly what Obama has been doing.  He’s been appealing to younger voters, ethnic voters, as well as every other kind of voter, and he too, I believe, will transcend race and religion and region in building a new political coalition in this country.

You went to law school in Nebraska, then traveled to Washington. What sparked your journey to Washington, DC, after law school?  It seems you could have had the pick of jobs in Nebraska. 

I probably could have, but I was interested in something Nebraska was less likely to offer: a) public service at a level where I could help make this a better country; and b) public law which interested me more in law school than private law.   By public law, I mean administrative law, trade regulation, legislation, international law, the kind of law that goes on in government in the nation’s capitol.  So it made sense for me to try to find a job in Washington.

Both legendary Sen. Henry M. Jackson of Washington state and Sen. John F. Kennedy offered you jobs at about the same time in 1952. How did you decide to serve with Sen. Kennedy rather than Sen. Jackson, whose office later became a breeding ground for neoconservatives?

At the time, I knew nothing of Jackson’s hawkish inclinations or even that he would later be known as “The Senator from Boeing.”  Instead, I chose Kennedy because [he asked me] to work on a legislative program to revive the sagging New England economy where unemployment was high and new investment was low. Sen. Jackson said I had a good reputation as a lawyer and he needed somebody like that to get his name in the papers. He also said he liked my Scandinavian name because that would go over big back in Seattle.  And I chose Kennedy without much difficulty.

It must have been reassuring to find a job with a humane senator who read books and knew a lot about history.

That’s Jack Kennedy. That’s exactly right. Despite all our surface differences — he was a millionaire’s son, a Roman Catholic, a war hero, a Harvard graduate — and I was at the opposite end of almost all of those. Nevertheless, we found that we wanted this to be a better country, we both believed in public service, we both were interested in public policy, and we both wanted to see a peaceful world.

Did you have training as a speechwriter, or did that skill grow as you worked and wrote with Sen. Kennedy?

It was natural because I came from a family that cared about words and policy, and my siblings and I were all on the debate team in high school and college, so I knew something about writing speeches.

Could you talk about your writing process with John F. Kennedy?  It seems that you both worked on his Pulitzer Prize winning book Profiles in Courage and many of his speeches, and there’s no certainty about who created specific phrases or sections.

Yes, it was a collaborative process, and I never forgot who was making decisions, who was in charge of policy, whose values and beliefs those speeches and writings like Profiles in Courage were to be represented on the page. Even though I helped with the words, the true author of all of Jack Kennedy’s speeches and writings was Jack Kennedy.

In your view, Kennedy would not have escalated the US military involvement in Vietnam?

That is definitely my view. In fact, in his last month he was talking about taking out most of the advisors we had there by the end of the year [1963].

Lessons from the Bay of Pigs fiasco [a U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba by opponents of Fidel Castro] came to play in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Exactly. In some ways, the Bay of Pigs for all of its hurt and harm was a blessing because it caused Kennedy to change his personnel, change his policies, change his procedure by which decisions were made. And when the Soviet Union secretly rushed nuclear missiles into Cuba, Kennedy wanted to know all his options, not like George W. Bush being handed one option to invade Iraq and he stuck with it. 

Kennedy also wanted to know the pros and cons of every option. Not just unilateral military, but multilateral diplomatic and military, and combinations of diplomatic and military.  He even wanted to hear the pros and cons of doing nothing at all. As a result, we came up with a very different answer to Khrushchev’s missiles, and ultimately, that persuaded Khrushchev to withdraw his missiles without firing a shot.

Kennedy gave a powerful speech on foreign relations at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1961 that showed a change after the Bay of Pigs disaster.

That may have been the least reported speech he made, and the best foreign policy speech he made. He said, among other things, that we’re not going to be appeasers or warmongers; we’re going to be Americans.  And we are 6 percent of the world and we have neither the right nor ability to impose our will on or our system on the other 94 percent.

Critics charge that the Kennedy administration was silent on civil rights issues for the first two years.

TAs far as that silence goes, when Kennedy was elected, the Democrats lost over 20 members of the House of Representatives, which in 1959 and 1960, had refused to pass any civil rights legislations. And if the House with 20 more Democrats wouldn’t pass it, it was very clear that the House in 1961 and ’62 wouldn’t pass it. The House majority leader warned Kennedy that if he even sent legislation of that kind up to Capitol Hill, he would lose the support he had among the so-called “Dixiecrats” who, with the Republicans, controlled both the House and the Senate. And they would therefore defeat his legislative program aimed at helping those at the bottom of the economic ladder: minimum wage, strengthening Social Security, help for economically distressed areas, increased help for public housing. So Kennedy could have sent up symbolic legislation that would go nowhere just as a political gesture, but instead of helping black citizens, that would simply have hurt them by defeating the Kennedy legislative measures that were going to pass.

Then the Democrats gained seats in Congress in the 1962 midterm elections.

And that’s what made it more possible for Kennedy to act on civil rights in his final year in office, 1963. But it was also an issue he could no longer ignore as protests and demonstrations in favor of civil rights and against unjust discrimination and segregation were raging throughout the country, north and south, and becoming what President Kennedy called “a moral issue as well as a constitutional issue” nationally.

Do agree with the conclusion of the Warren Commission that a lone assassin killed President Kennedy?

I examine that question for the first time in my new book, and I conclude that as flawed as the Warren Commission might have been to get a report out in time to calm and quiet the country, there has never been any worthy, credible evidence that would stand up for me as a lawyer in court proving that there was any conspiracy or anyone else behind the lone gunman who turned out to be a lucky sharpshooter.

What’s your next project?

I just spent six years writing this book, and I need a break in both senses of the word.  The next project is to get Obama elected president.

He’s very fortunate to have your expertise and advice.

We’ll see. Don’t forget: A torch has been passed to a new generation.

This story originally appeared in considerably more detailed form on the History News Network in 2008.

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