Saturday, April 13, 2013

Meeting Ted Sorensen


     It would not have pleased either men if I called Theodore C. Sorensen “JFK’s speechwriter.”  Neither would it have been a fair and accurate description of the working relationship between the two.

     The word “speechwriter” conjures, for a lot of people, the image of someone (usually anonymous and unacknowledged) who writes a speech for some public figure who merely delivers what the former has written.  Sorensen has always asserted that that was not how it was between him and John F. Kennedy.  Neither men denied that they worked together on JFK’s speeches.  But, as Sorensen himself clarified, Kennedy “would never blindly accept or blandly deliver a text he had not seen and edited.  We always discussed the topic, the approach and the conclusion in advance.  He always had quotations or historical allusions to include.  Sometimes he would review an outline.  And he always, upon receiving my draft, altered, deleted or added phrases, paragraphs or pages.  Some drafts he rejected entirely.”1 

   Hired by Kennedy, on a trial basis, as his number two legislative assistant when he was still a freshman Senator from Massachusetts, Sorensen (then twenty-four) gradually rose to become Kennedy’s most trusted and most influential aide.  He had been called Kennedy’s “intellectual blood-bank,” “top policy aide” and “alter ego.”2  So significant was Sorensen’s role in the crafting of Kennedy’s speeches and writings that, soon after JFK won a Pulitzer prize for his second book, Profiles in Courage, rumors began to circulate in some circles that it was Sorensen, not Kennedy, who actually wrote the book, or at least, the bulk of it.  A columnist, Drew Pearson, soon made a public claim to that effect on ABC television’s Mike Wallace Show.   “Of all the abuse he would receive throughout his life,” Sorensen would later write, “ none would make him more angry than the charge a few months later that he had not written his own book…  On Sunday afternoon the Senator called me in an unusual state of high agitation and anger.  He talked, as he had never done before, of lawyers and lawsuits.  ‘We might as well quit if we let this stand,’ he said when I counseled caution.  ‘This challenges my ability to write the book, my honesty in signing it and my integrity in accepting the Pulitzer Prize.’”3   Throughout the controversy, Sorensen maintained that the charge was utterly false.  He did not deny the important role he played in the book’s making – a fact that Kennedy himself admitted in his book’s Preface.4 But he strongly defended Kennedy’s authorship of the book, going so far as to issue a sworn statement that he himself was not the author and that he had never claimed authorship of the book.  After a series of cross-examinations and arguments between the Kennedy camp and ABC executives, ABC television later made a complete statement of retraction and apology for airing Pearson’s false allegation.5

     I first learned about Theodore Sorensen through an English composition textbook which I stumbled upon during my college years.  I can no longer recall the author and the exact title of the textbook.  But I remember that it contained an excerpt from Sorensen’s best-selling book on Kennedy.  The excerpt was on the way JFK’s speeches were written.6 

   Until then, I never considered speech-writing an art form, much less a literary form in its own right.  But reading Sorensen’s description of how he and JFK wrote the latter’s speeches made me realize that speech-writing can indeed be considered a literary form.  It requires imagination, creativity, skill and dedication, as much as any other literary form.  It is a testament to JFK’s singular talent as a speaker that the speeches he and Sorensen wrote sounded exceptionally well when he delivered them.  But it is likewise a testament to Sorensen’s unusual gift as a speech-writer that, even when they are merely read as words on a page, the texts of JFK’s speeches have a beauty and worth of their own.   My continuing appreciation of speech-writing as a literary art owes its conception to that excerpt from Sorensen’s book.  

     I, therefore, considered it a genuine privilege to finally meet Sorensen in person in November 2003.  He was in Rome, along with JFK’s other former aide Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and JFK’s sisters Jean Kennedy Smith and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, to participate in the city’s commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of JFK’s demise.  One of the activities organized for the occasion was a panel discussion dubbed “Quarant’anni dopo:  le frontiere del Kennedismo” (“Forty Years After:  The Frontiers of Kennedyism”).   Members of the diplomatic corps had been invited to the affair, which was held at the Aula di Giulio Cesare in the Campidoglio (Rome’s city hall).   Sorensen was one of the panelists.

     We had to listen to several speakers before finally hearing Sorensen speak.  But the wait was well worth it.  Sorensen’s speech stood out from everyone else’s (including Schlesinger’s) on account of the warmth, the fondness, the undiminished respect and admiration with which he talked about JFK.   He began his speech by asking why we were there; what it was about JFK that continued to captivate the interest and admiration of people even forty years after his assassination.   He then spoke about what personally drew him to Kennedy and what he believed was Kennedy’s unique legacy to America and to the world at large.  It was hardly a surprise that Sorensen’s speech won the warmest applause that day.

     When the event ended and everyone rose to leave the hall, I approached Sorensen and introduced myself.  After the pleasantries, I said, “I genuinely admire your speeches, Mr. Sorensen.”   For a few seconds, I sensed that he inwardly wondered what I meant by “your speeches.”  Was I referring to the speeches he co-wrote with JFK, or to the speeches he himself wrote and delivered after JFK’s demise?  (In the years following JFK’s assassination, Sorensen distinguished himself as an international law expert, a best-selling author and a widely-sought speaker in his own right.)  Then he smiled and modestly said, “Thank you very much.”  

     In his classic work, The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli underlined the importance for a prince to choose his ministers well for, he argued,  “the first estimate of [a prince’s] intelligence will be based upon the character of the men he keeps about him.”7

     That  brief encounter with Sorensen further increased my estimate of the leader whose company he once kept.

     1Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy (New York:  Bantam Books, 1966), 66-67.
     2Ibid., p. 882.
     3Ibid., p. 76.
     4See John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage, memorial edition (New York:  Harper & Row Publishers, 1964), 17.
     5Sorensen, op. cit., 77-78.  Some JFK biographers like Thomas C. Reeves still maintain that Sorensen was the real author of the book.  Reeves argues for that position in his book A Question of Character:  A Life of John F. Kennedy (New York:  The Free Press, 1991), 127-128. 
     6Upon acquiring my own copy of Sorensen’s book Kennedy many years later,  I found that the excerpt comes from pages 66 to 72 of said book.
     7Daniel Donno, trans.  (New York:  Bantam Books, 1981), 79.