Ted Sorensen's Legacy for Writers

Ted Sorensen was a hero of mine before I knew who he was. Sorensen, who died on Sunday at the age of 82 from complications following a stroke, was the primary speechwriter for John F. Kennedy. He was also an aide, a confidant, an “intellectual blood bank” (as the president once called him)—and a lawyer, a memoirist, a failed Senate candidate, among other things, though history will not remember him for them. It will remember him because he had a hand—impossible to identify, impossible to deny—in some of the most famous speeches in American history.

I will remember him, though, because of Latin class. We were studying rhetorical devices used in Latin epics and lyric poetry. English examples were discussed: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” (chiasmus). “I speak of peace … I speak of peace … I speak of peace …” (anaphora). “We choose to go to the moon” (assonance). The words came from Kennedy—or his speechwriter, my Latin teacher offhandedly said. The word “speechwriter” itself seemed an example of a rhetorical device, a paradox. Yet the word illuminated what I loved about those lines: they were intended for the ear, not the eye. I knew then that to learn to write, I was going to have to learn to listen.

Kennedy and Sorensen, of course, weren’t thinking of anaphoras or assonance. They wanted a style that would suit the substance and that would be memorable. Over the next few years, I returned to Kennedy’s speeches often, sometimes as a student of writing, sometimes as a student of history, and sometimes simply as a citizen. At their best, the speeches were clear, short, and always intelligible. They were formal and archaic, but not usually pretentious or stilted. They were full of exhortations (let us, let us, let us), but demanded to be taken practically. They sounded good. One can hear the words, even on the page. This is strangely comforting. Even read alone—even read alone now—they invoke the sense of being part of a larger audience.

It is a community that stretches across time. This is a strange comfort, maybe a cold comfort, because the speeches sometimes promised too much idealism, put too much faith in appeals to our common humanity, even if the president who had delivered them had not been killed. Nor did the high-flown rhetoric always match the Kennedy’s actions, let alone the nation’s. But the speeches still have their power because they do not depend on the man who delivered them or the man who helped write them. They depend on who listens to themand reads them, and how that audience—now, as then—responds. They made people feel like they were in the world together, despite their deep disagreements.

It does not trivialize those speeches to say they are inspiring, and it does not trivialize Kennedy to say he had help in their crafting. Nor does it trivialize Sorensen’s contribution to say he needed Kennedy. After all, this dynamic, is, in a sense, how democracy works: we want and demand our leaders to stand on the shoulders of others. Still, it must have been hard to be half known, for a self-described “Danish Russian Jewish Unitarian” from Nebraska to defer always to the King of Camelot, and to have to deny credit constantly and genuinely. (A hint of this comes through in Sorensen’s memoir, Counselor, when he writes, even while confirming Kennedy’s authorship of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Profiles in Courage, that the charge that Sorensen had privately boasted that he had authored much of the book, “I regret to say, may have been—it was all too long ago to remember—partly true.”) Some found him arrogant, as surely he must have sometimes been, if only to tolerate the constant self-effacing.

Sorensen did more than just write speeches. He was a close adviser to the president and has said that he is proudest for his role in helping to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. He lived for more than four decades after leaving the White House. He kept working in his law practice, writing, and encouraging others. When I met him, he was nearly 80 and blind, but still thoughtful, courteous, a bit of a flirt. Over sandwiches at O’Neals, a few blocks from the apartment he shared with Gillian, his wife, he talked of his childhood in Nebraska, his becoming a conscientious objector when he was 18, of poetry, and of course, Kennedy. The discussion turned to Kennedy’s 1963 commencement address at American University, in which Kennedy described peace as “a process—a way of solving problems” and urged Americans to think of the Soviets as—and this is radical—human beings. “If we cannot end now our differences,” Kennedy said at the commencement, “at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” It seemed to Sorensen, he told me, that the moral seriousness of that speech, the recognition of the task and the responsibility, was born in part from the recognition that freedom, justice, and security begin at home.

Sorensen was an early and avid supporter of Barack Obama, though recently he had voiced frustration that the president’s speeches were too professorial. In his first inaugural, Kennedy had said that the work of securing freedom “will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet.” The work was not done in the one thousand days Kennedy lived in office, nor in Sorensen’s lifetime. We are still at war and still dealing with inequality and persistent division. To hear the degraded discourse surrounding the 2010 midterm elections is to miss Sorensen all the more.

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