May 6, 2008
A great speechwriter is a master of timing, as well as a maker of phrases.
Now in his 80th year, Ted Sorensen -- whom John F. Kennedy once referred to as his "intellectual blood bank" -- has as firm a grip on those qualities as ever, which is one of the reasons "Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History" is not only a fascinating memoir but also this election year's most important political book.
Despite the subtitle's characteristic modesty, part of what makes "Counselor" so important is that its author was at the very center of so much that was important in American history and politics during the second half of the 20th century. Thus, this book contains significant new information and insights into Kennedy's ambiguous relationship with Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the civil rights and Cuban missile crises, and the origins of the space program. What truly elevates Sorensen's account above other political memoirs, however, is not so much its candor but its spirit: "Counselor" is at bottom a love story -- the author's expression of his deep and abiding love for American ideals, for their expression in American politics, for his remarkable mother and father (and his anything-but-prosaic Nebraskan roots) and, perhaps most of all, for Jack Kennedy.
There's also a great deal about speeches and speech writing, as one would expect from an acknowledged master of that esoteric craft.
"During my 11 years with JFK, my most important national contributions -- advising him on civil rights, on the decision to go to the moon and especially on the Cuban missile crisis -- did not center on the speechwriting," Sorensen writes. "In the more than four decades that have passed since his death, neither my activities as a lawyer nor those in international affairs have made much use of my speechwriting experience. Yet I have little doubt that, when my time comes, my obituary in the New York Times (misspelling my last name once again) will be captioned: 'Theodore Sorenson, Kennedy Speechwriter.' "
Sorensen was a lawyer in his 20s when he passed up a job to go to work for Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson (D-Wash.) to work for Kennedy. He chose the Massachusetts senator because he offered the young Nebraskan a chance to develop legislative programs to revive the Northeast's failing industries. Sorensen's father was the Unitarian son of Danish immigrants and a onetime progressive state attorney general. His mother was the brilliant daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, whose later life was tragically ravaged by manic depression. It was pedigree that made him a bit of an outsider and, perhaps, prepared him to join a Kennedy circle where nearly everyone else was either Irish, Catholic, a New Englander, an Ivy Leaguer, rich, fashionable -- or some combination of those things.
Sorensen was none of those things, but he soon became Kennedy's intellectual and political soul mate. Sorensen recalls him in this book "not as a professional historian or as a detached observer, but as a friend who misses him still." The author does not claim to know everything about Kennedy, because "no one did. Different parts of his life, work and thoughts were seen by many -- but no one saw it all. He sometimes obscured his motives and almost always shielded his emotions. . . . John F. Kennedy was a natural leader. It was no act -- the secret of his magic appeal was that he had no magic at all. . . . Although he could be steely and stern when frustrated, he never lost his temper. When times were bad, he knew they would get better -- when they were good, he knew they could get worse."
When it comes to Kennedy's extramarital relationships, Sorensen is direct and discreet. Because he was not part of the president's social set, he has little firsthand information beyond the well-known fact that Kennedy enjoyed the company of charming, intelligent women: "It has never been a secret that John F. Kennedy was attracted to beautiful women and they to him." Sorensen also quotes some remarks he made at the unveiling of JFK's portrait at the National Gallery in 1980: "Not all his hours were spent at work. He liked parties . . . and lively companions. He sought fun and laughter. He made no pretense of being free from sin or imperfection. But he never permitted the pursuit of private pleasure to interfere with public duty."
From the historian's standpoint, much of what makes "Counselor" a notable contribution comes from Sorensen's liberal reference to heretofore unpublished drafts of Kennedy's important speeches and public statements, as well as the strategy memos that the special assistant wrote to the president. There's also important insight into one of the shortcomings in Kennedy's record, his failure to vote for McCarthy's censure. The Massachusetts senator's familial connections to the Wisconsin demagogue are well known. McCarthy also was wildly popular among the Boston Irish who comprised the Kennedy base. Still, Sorensen had drafted a statement endorsing censure when Kennedy was hospitalized for what turned out to be a long and serious illness. As the vote loomed, no instruction came from the sickroom and Sorensen sought no confirmation of Kennedy's wishes, and the censure went forward without his vote. The author records that moment as one of the senator's failures, as well as one of his own.
There are similar insights to be gleaned from the utterly engrossing chapters on the civil rights movement -- Kennedy shrewdly let George Wallace have his moment in the schoolhouse door because the Alabama governor secretly had promised that once he'd been photographed there, he'd get out of the way and not resist federal authority, as Mississippi officials had done. Those who think they know the history of the Cuban missile crisis will read Sorensen's true insider account -- he wrote the decisive letter to Nikita Khrushchev -- and shudder at just how close the world came to nuclear war.
Sorensen's willingness to draw lessons concerning the current political situation from his experience is one of the several things that make "Counselor" such remarkably pleasurable and instructive reading. He currently supports Sen. Barack Obama's pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination and recently was asked by an interviewer about what some deem the Illinois senator's excessive reliance on rhetoric. Sorensen replied:
"Kennedy's rhetoric when he was president turned out to be a key to his success. His mere words about Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba helped resolve the worst crisis the world has ever known without the U.S. having to fire a shot."
Counselor A Life at the Edge of History Ted Sorensen HarperCollins: 558 pp., $27.95