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Ted Sorensen, JFK's speechwriter and defender, dies at 82

Ted Sorensen, the speechwriter, aide and alter ego to President John F. Kennedy, whose poetic turns of phrase helped idealize and immortalize a tragically brief administration, died Sunday.

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By Martin Weil and Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 1, 2010; 2:31 AM

Ted Sorensen, the admired longtime assistant to President John F. Kennedy who provided his chief with many of the words and thoughts that still resonate through American life, died Sunday at New York Presbyterian Hospital of complications from a recent stroke. He was 82.

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Of those before and since who have served any American president, none has been given greater credit for their contributions to an administration or its legacy than Mr. Sorensen. No aide in recent times has had more influence on a president's message or on how it was expressed, said Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz.

Amply endowed with the qualities required for an intimate adviser at the highest levels, Mr. Sorensen was regarded as a man of ideas and ideals, keen intellect and a passion for public service.

From Mr. Sorensen - or from his close and fruitful collaboration with his president - came the words by which Kennedy called on the nation to achieve such goals as placing a man on the moon and providing civil rights to all Americans.

"Sorensen," historian Douglas Brinkley wrote two years ago, "was the administration's indispensable man."

The image of the Kennedy administration as an American Camelot, presided over by the wise, graceful and just, can be traced in considerable degree to Mr. Sorensen's alluring language, through which the administration presented itself.

A master of the craft of transforming sweeping vision into strong verbs and nouns, Mr. Sorensen also was the soul of discretion, always loyal to his president and ever ready to deflect credit from himself.

Mr. Sorensen went on to a long and productive career after Kennedy was assassinated. He served as a speechwriter to President Lyndon B. Johnson and aided in the campaigns of several prominent Democrats, including Sens. Robert F. Kennedy and Gary Hart. Mr. Sorensen made a reputation as an international lawyer and spoke out on behalf of liberal causes.

He was an early endorser of the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, and the president issued a statement Sunday praising Mr. Sorensen for his quick wit, seriousness of purpose and determination to "keep America true to our highest ideals." Mr. Sorensen, Obama said, led an "extraordinary life" that inspired many and helped make America and the world "more equal, more just and more secure."

Although he became identified with the rhetoric with which Kennedy defined himself and his policies, the studious Mr. Sorensen, seemed satisfied to be behind the scenes, working under the title of Special Counsel and Adviser and accepting whatever reflected glory came to him.

"It isn't all that important who wrote which word or which phrase in Kennedy's inaugural," he once told an interviewer. "What's important are the themes and the principles he laid out."

Many memorable speeches during the thousand days of the administration showed Mr. Sorensen's handiwork. Recruited to join the small group that advised the president during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, he helped craft the president's correspondence with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The meticulous wording was viewed as vital in bringing about a satisfactory resolution.

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