Theodore C. Sorensen dies at 82; JFK’s close advisor and writer-in-residence
Theodore C. Sorensen, John F. Kennedy’s close advisor and writer-in-residence in the Senate in the 1950s who became special counsel to the president and remained chief speechwriter during Kennedy’s tragically brief presidency, has died. He was 82.
Sorensen, who had a long post- White House career as a Manhattan-based international lawyer, died Sunday at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center from complications of a stroke, said his wife, Gillian.
Once referred to by Kennedy as his “intellectual blood bank,” Sorensen began his nearly 11-year relationship with the future president in 1953 when Kennedy was the newly elected senator from Massachusetts.
Hired as Kennedy’s No. 2 legislative assistant, the 24-year-old graduate of the University of Nebraska School of Law soon was enlisted to help Kennedy draft his speeches and magazine articles, and he played a key role in the research and writing of “Profiles in Courage,” Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1956 bestseller.
Sorensen also became a trusted advisor to Kennedy, traveling with him to all 50 states in the four years leading up to his 1960 election as president.
After Kennedy moved into the White House, Sorensen advised the president on issues such as civil rights, the decision to go to the moon and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which was sparked by the discovery of Soviet nuclear-missile installations under construction in Cuba.
During the crisis, Kennedy asked Sorensen to draft, with guidance from Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, the crucial letter to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that averted a nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers.
Jacqueline Kennedy once inscribed a photograph to Sorensen: “To Ted, who walked with the President so much of the way and who helped him climb to greatness.”
In his 2008 autobiography “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History,” Sorensen acknowledged that Kennedy “was my hero.”
During his early years with Kennedy, Sorensen wrote, “I learned not only loyalty but deference, reticence, becoming almost anonymous, never asserting, assuming, or bragging, for fear of antagonizing not only him, but also his father or his brother Robert, both of whom were fiercely protective of Jack’s image and career.”
His years with Kennedy “were unquestionably the cornerstone of my professional life; and the cornerstone of our relationship was mutual trust.
“JFK brought me into his inner circle, confiding in me secrets that — had I discussed them with others — might have done serious harm to his political career, his public image, or perhaps his marriage.”
President Obama said in a statement Sunday: “I know his legacy will live on in the words he wrote, the causes he advanced and the hearts of anyone who is inspired by the promise of a new frontier.”
Historian Robert Dallek, who wrote the 2003 Kennedy biography “An Unfinished Life,” told the Associated Press in 2008 that Sorensen “served Kennedy brilliantly. And he was as close as any administration figure could get to Kennedy.”
Over the years, Sorensen was often asked about his role in “Profiles In Courage,” which chronicled acts of political courage in the Senate throughout history.
In the book’s preface, Kennedy thanked Georgetown University professor Jules Davids and many others for their help but noted that the “greatest debt is owed to my research associate, Theodore C. Sorensen, for his invaluable assistance in the assembly and preparation of the material upon which this book is based.”
The success of “Profiles in Courage” significantly increased Kennedy’s national profile and stature as a politician. But it also spurred speculation that the book had been ghostwritten, in particular by Sorensen.
Responding to those charges, Sorensen stated in an affidavit at the time that the book’s author was Kennedy, “who originally conceived its theme, selected its characters, determined its contents, and wrote and rewrote each of its chapters.”
In his autobiography, Sorensen wrote that “JFK worked particularly hard and long on the first and last chapters, setting the tone and philosophy of the book. I did a first draft of most chapters, which he revised both with a pen and through dictation.”
“Like JFK’s speeches,” Sorensen wrote, “ ‘Profiles in Courage’ was a collaboration,” but the “credit ultimately lies” with Kennedy.
In examining the available evidence over the authorship of “Profiles in Courage” for his 1980 book “Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy” — and “augmented by those who were intimately associated with the project” — Herbert S. Parmet concluded that Kennedy “served principally as an overseer or, more charitably, as a sponsor and editor” of the book, while “the research, tentative drafts, and organizational planning were left to committee labor.”
But, Parmet wrote, “the burdens of time and literary craftsmanship were clearly Sorensen’s, and he gave the book both the drama and flow that made for readability.”
It’s as a speechwriter for Kennedy, however, that Sorensen is best remembered.
As such, Dallek told The Times in 2009, Sorensen was especially “influential in helping Kennedy in his reach for the presidency and using oratory to command the loyalty of millions and millions of people.”
“Although he never claimed the words were his — and, of course, the format speechwriters follow is to be pretty anonymous — Sorensen was such a master of his craft and helped Kennedy forge some of the most memorable presidential speeches of the 20th century,” Dallek said.
Discussing his role as speechwriter in his autobiography, Sorensen wrote that as “a young man raised by his parents to help improve society, I could hardly have asked for a more psychologically rewarding opportunity than to be in a position to help a dynamic leader, whose values I shared, reshape our country and planet at a time when I had no power to do so.”
Whatever success he achieved as a speechwriter for Kennedy, Sorensen wrote, “arose from knowing the man so well.”
On the morning of Nov. 21, 1963, Sorensen ran onto the South Lawn of the White House to catch up with Kennedy, who was about to board a helicopter that would take him to Andrews Air Force Base.
The president earlier that morning had requested some " Texas humor” for his trip to Texas, Sorensen later recalled, and he handed Kennedy the humorous anecdotes he had collected.
It was the last time the two men would speak to each other.
Sorensen later described the president’s assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, as “the worst day of my life.”
“Deep in my soul,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I have not stopped weeping whenever those events are recalled.”
Sorensen continued working as special counsel to President Lyndon Johnson for three months after Kennedy was killed.
When Sorensen resigned, a Washington Post editorial observed, “In the breadth of his interests and the clipped resonance of his writing, Mr. Sorensen exemplified much that was admirable in the Kennedy era in Washington.”
Hugh Sidey, writing in Life magazine, referred to Sorensen as Kennedy’s “all-purpose aide and co-author of the New Frontier.”
After leaving the White House in February 1964, Sorensen began writing “Kennedy,” the 1965 bestseller about his years with the man he considered his “best friend.”
In 1966, Sorensen joined the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in New York City. As a prominent international lawyer, he advised governments, multinational organizations and major corporations.
Sorensen helped manage Sen. Robert Kennedy’s ill-fated 1968 presidential campaign. In 1970, he ran for the U.S. Senate from New York but was defeated in the Democratic primary.
In 1977, President-elect Carter nominated Sorensen as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. But his confirmation came under attack for various reasons, including his having used classified government documents in writing his book “Kennedy.”
After defending his record — he had submitted potentially sensitive sections of his book to Johnson’s national security advisor and the passages had been cleared — Sorensen surprised members of the Senate Intelligence Committee by announcing that he had asked Carter to withdraw his name from nomination.
A self-described Danish Russian Jewish Unitarian, he was born Theodore Chaikin Sorensen on May 8, 1928, in Lincoln, Neb.
His trial lawyer father was a progressive Republican who became state attorney general, and his mother was a feminist and pacifist whose maiden name became the middle name to all five of her children.
Raised in the nonviolent philosophy of the Unitarian Church, Sorensen registered for the draft as a conscientious objector for noncombat service when he turned 18 in 1946 — an issue later raised by some who opposed his nomination as CIA director.
Sorensen graduated from the University of Nebraska and, while attending the university’s College of Law, served as editor-in-chief of the law review and was tied for first in his class.
Shortly after graduating from law school in 1951, Sorensen boarded a train and headed east in search of a job in Washington, D.C. He initially worked for what later became the Department of Health and Human Services and then was a staff researcher for the joint congressional subcommittee studying railroad pensions before joining Kennedy’s staff.
Sorensen suffered a stroke in 2001 that seriously affected his vision. But still associated at the time with the law firm he joined in 1966, he continued on an “of counsel” basis. He also continued to write, lecture and travel. He was hospitalized Oct. 22 after a second stroke, Sorensen’s wife said.
In addition to his wife, survivors include a daughter, Juliet Sorensen Jones, of Chicago; three sons from his first marriage, Eric Sorensen, Stephen Sorensen and Philip Sorensen, all of Wisconsin; seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
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