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Opinion: Ted Sorensen: More than a scribe

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Theodore Sorensen was not the first or the last speechwriter to make a president’s prose sing. But with apologies to Peggy Noonan (who borrowed ‘slip the surly bonds of earth’ for Ronald Reagan’s Challenger speech), Sorensen of all the presidential wordsmiths incarnated his president. The elegance of his prose perfectly matched the persona of John F. Kennedy.

It wasn’t just ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’ (which Sorensen insisted was JFK’s own coinage). Consider this appeal for peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union, cited in the Washington Post’s obit: JFK asked his countrymen ‘not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.’

It probably helped that Sorensen was a policy advisor and not just a phrasemaker. That dual role made him a role model for young writers who also wanted to shape world events. (Confession: I was one of them.) But it made him an unlikely choice for the job Jimmy Carter tried to saddle him with: director of the CIA. If Sorensen hadn’t withdrawn his name, he might have found himself turning terse cables into poetry.

-- Michael McGough


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