Reviewed by Ted Widmer
Sunday, May 18, 2008
A Life at the Edge of History
By Ted Sorensen
Harper. 556 pp. $27.95
There will never be another speechwriter like Ted Sorensen, if only because there will never be a relationship like the one between Sorensen and John F. Kennedy. Staffs have mushroomed along with expectations that presidents will speak more or less incessantly, on all subjects, from Earth Days to birthdays. Burnout sets in earlier, and few writers stay with a politician for anything like the length of time Sorensen worked for Kennedy, from January 1953 to Nov. 22, 1963. Arguably, he has never stopped working for him.
From the beginning they were an unlikely couple. JFK was infinitely urbane, cool before the word went mainstream. Sorensen was stress personified, a teetotaling taskmaster, admittedly unlikable in his single-minded dedication. But they shared certain qualities, ranging from impatience with the old order to respect for history and passion for words. If no other speechwriter ever had Sorensen's access, then it is probably also true that no politician ever benefited more from his wordsmith's talents than Kennedy did. Nothing in recent memory compares to the body of work that Sorensen and Kennedy authored collaboratively, from Profiles in Courage through the 1960 Democratic Convention ("We stand at the edge of a New Frontier") to the 1961 inaugural ("Ask not what your country can do for you") and the triad of memorable orations (at American University, to the nation on civil rights, and to a crowd in Berlin) from a single month, June 1963.
Sorensen was one of the youngest of the New Frontiersmen; 45 years later, he is almost the last survivor, nearly blinded by a stroke in 2001 but still bearing witness at 80. Sorensen has written on Kennedy before -- his 1965 opus, Kennedy, was one of the first to etch the legend into stone, and he has been writing ever since on subjects ranging from foreign policy to table tennis. (He even tried to take over this newspaper once, an episode recounted in Katharine Graham's memoir, Personal History.) But this book is different from his previous efforts. It is as much about Sorensen as Kennedy, more personal than anything he has written before. It is full of new information about both men, and in a world saturated with Kennedy stories both over-familiar and apocryphal, that's saying something.
Sorensen was born in 1928, already surrounded by presidents. His father named him after Theodore Roosevelt; he was born on Harry Truman's 44th birthday; and he arrived in the Nebraska city named after Abraham Lincoln. It was a provincial enough place that it called itself "the Hartford of the West." But he grew up in an idealistic home, the son of a crusading state attorney general and a Jewish mother whose family had emigrated from Russia (and whose battle with mental illness he movingly describes). Far from Harvard and all things Kennedy, Sorensen began to discover his facility with language. In one amusing scene from his teenage years, he escaped a beating by dazzling a thug with his oratory. Like Cyrano de Bergerac, he found he had a talent for the peculiar form of not quite self-expression that is speechwriting. (Indeed, he is so naturally alliterative that this sentence appears in the book without irony: "Public officials should be judged primarily not by their puritanism in private, but by their public deeds and public service, by their principles and policies.")
He arrived in Washington in 1951, never having written a check or drunk a cup of coffee. The gleaming capital quickly educated him in those sins and others, but it also handed him the opportunity of a lifetime when he joined the staff of an up-and-coming Massachusetts politician, newly elected to the Senate. From that moment until the last time he saw Kennedy (handing the president a folder on "Texas Humor" as JFK walked to a helicopter to begin his trip to Dallas), the two men were drawn together by fate and a natural symbiosis.
What a time! As Sorensen argues persuasively, the New Frontier was a triumph of literacy as well as glamour. Words and their occasional companions, facts, were essential to it. Even if the Kennedy administration was slow in some areas (such as civil rights), it took a conservative nation quite a bit down the progressive road during its 1,000 days.
This book is instantly essential for any student of the period. It fills gaps in the historical record; it vividly conveys life inside the administration; and it generously dishes anecdotes (at one point, JFK calls for help after lighting a fire in a fake fireplace in the Oval Office). Like all White Houses, Kennedy's had its animosities, and as Sorensen argues, it was no Camelot. Jackie Kennedy disliked Lyndon Johnson enough to call him "Colonel Cornpone." Political adviser Kenny O'Donnell hated Sorensen, a fact that Sorensen learned only by reading materials that came out long after the fact.
The central event of the administration and the book is the Cuban Missile Crisis. Sorensen reminds us how close we came to Armageddon after Soviet missile sites were discovered in Cuba in October 1962, and he remembers asking an underling to research plans for an evacuation of Washington. (Kennedy teased Sorensen that there probably wouldn't be room for him in the White House bomb shelter.) By Sorensen's account, it was a crisis of writing in addition to everything else, for the difficulty of composing an immediate, hard-line note from Kennedy to Khrushchev ("I have no choice but to initiate appropriate military action," Sorensen's first draft said) led the president's inner circle to search for alternatives to an airstrike and invasion that "we now know . . . would have produced a nuclear war." Writer's block may have saved the world.
The book is full of arresting observations, not all complimentary. Sorensen opines, for example, that Robert Kennedy should not have been attorney general because of the impossible predicament he would have faced in bringing any charges against his brother. Sorensen expresses regret that he and JFK were slow to censure Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and reflects candidly on the president's problems with fidelity. Sorensen is also hard on himself at moments. He admits to charges others have leveled at him -- that he was abrasive, arrogant and obsessive about his relationship with Kennedy. He clearly has not shed all of those qualities and defends his president like a Rottweiler refusing to let go of a pant leg. But time has brought perspective and an honesty that can be searing. He talks about the personal problems he endured, including his divorces and parental lapses, and the difficulty he had with underlings who resented his refusal to grant access to JFK. He recounts his fury when Robert Kennedy tackled him roughly in a touch football game, ruining his best "Senate suit." One suspects that it was a very satisfying tackle.
Like the rest of America, Sorensen eventually rebounded from the Kennedy assassination. He worked in a New York law firm that sent him around the world and padded his savings. But it is also clear that he never entirely recovered. His lament for What Might Have Been merges seamlessly with his critique of What Is, and the book is peppered with caustic asides about the current administration. Sorensen even wonders if he erred by composing words that urged Americans to defend freedom abroad, since so many presidents have abused the idea. That is a rather forlorn thought, for Americans should never tire of speaking well in defense of freedom, but all of our idealisms, right and left, have become a bit tarnished with age. Still, the armies of speechwriters that will descend on Washington in the administration-to-come will devour this book, the finest work on their craft ever written. Clearly, Ted Sorensen asked what he could do for his country. The answer was a great deal. ·
Ted Widmer directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He was a speechwriter for President Clinton from 1997-2001 and edited the two-volume set "American Speeches" for the Library of America. His next book, "Ark of the Liberties: America and the World," will be published in July.