The recently released 1964 interviews of Jacqueline Kennedy by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. make for fascinating reading. But if the one subject on which I have some detailed knowledge is any indication, historians will need to be careful about putting too much stock in what Mrs. Kennedy said.
The subject is President John F. Kennedy’s writing partnership with Theodore Sorensen, his close aide and White House special counsel, once referred to by JFK as his “intellectual blood bank.” Mrs. Kennedy portrays her husband as the principal author of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Profiles in Courage,” as well as his inaugural address. Sorensen is depicted as having untruthfully claimed credit for the book, and then having greedily and ungratefully accepted all the proceeds it generated.
But the facts on these matters are known — and vary strikingly from what Mrs. Kennedy concluded. As historian Herbert Parmet demonstrated more than 30 years ago, Sorensen was the principal author of most of “Profiles in Courage.” There is no question that then-Sen. Kennedy read widely for the book as he recovered in Florida from a back operation. He also wrote first drafts of some portions of the book in longhand on legal pads, which accounts for Mrs. Kennedy’s recollections.
Sorensen said in his 2008 memoir that John Kennedy wrote the first draft of the book’s first and last chapters. But as Parmet established, there is no evidence that the senator drafted the case-study chapters that comprise the bulk of the book — and plenty of evidence that Sorensen did so. The book’s preface refers to Sorensen as Kennedy’s “research associate” who provided “assistance in the assembly and preparation of the material upon which [the] book is based.”
Mrs. Kennedy’s interviews add an unpleasant twist by raising the issue of money. Unbeknown to almost everyone (including, presumably, Mrs. Kennedy), JFK and Sorensen agreed in 1953 that Sorensen would receive half of all proceeds of material he wrote in his boss’s name. This agreement, not unusual in Washington at the time, was followed by the two men for four years.
But then came “Profiles in Courage” and the Pulitzer Prize it was awarded in May 1957. That same month, 16 months after the book’s publication, apparently acting on instructions from JFK’s father, Joseph Kennedy, the senator’s lawyers drafted a formal agreement giving Sorensen a larger share of the book royalties for a period of years. Mrs. Kennedy recalls this as “Jack gave him all the money . . . because he felt Ted worked so hard.” Sorensen’s account of this deal in his memoir is uncharacteristically elliptical, and the share may have been 100 percent, as Mrs. Kennedy recalls.
Moreover, Sorensen also conceded late in life that he might have boasted in private, before this settlement, that he had written the book. This would have understandably sparked Mrs. Kennedy’s resentment if she believed the boast to be false. Such boasts may have been what led columnist Drew Pearson to claim on ABC, in late 1957, that Sorensen had written “Profiles in Courage.” Both Kennedy and Sorensen denied this, Sorensen in a carefully crafted affidavit, and ABC and Pearson issued a retraction.
All of this comes up again in the question of who wrote Kennedy’s inaugural address. Again, the record is clear. There can be little doubt that Mrs. Kennedy saw her husband composing parts of the speech in longhand. But the documentary record also establishes that many of the most famous phrases were crafted by Sorensen — while others came from John Kenneth Galbraith and Adlai Stevenson. The surest indication that Mrs. Kennedy had a strong sense of this being the case was her request, not long after her oral-history interviews were concluded, that Sorensen destroy his own, handwritten first draft of the inaugural address — a request with which Sorensen complied.
On Jan. 17, 1961, President-elect Kennedy, seeking to impress (and perhaps mislead) Time magazine reporter Hugh Sidey, staged a scene aboard his airplane in which he purported to be drafting his inaugural address on a legal pad, reading three pages aloud to the reporter, according to Sidey’s account. In fact, JFK was almost certainly copying the material from the typescript of a dictation session held a few days earlier, in which he had been working from a Sorensen draft. The speech had been nearly completed before Kennedy and Sidey got on the plane (Mrs. Kennedy was not aboard).
That handwritten “draft,” however, has long been presented as Kennedy’s “first draft” of his immortal speech. Mrs. Kennedy ensured that it went on public display a few weeks after her interviews with Schlesinger. She whispered to reporters that it was hardest for her, in looking over the preview of what would become the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, to see “his inaugural address in his own handwriting.” Whether or not she believed this, how ironic to read now her oral account of how she pitied Stevenson because “he’d carefully take something typewritten and copy it in longhand because he was so proud of everyone saying he wrote all his speeches — I don’t know, poor man. It’s sort of sad.”
John Kennedy need not be pitied. He gave voice to the aspirations of a generation — in some respects to America’s enduring aspirations. He had help in doing that, as nearly everyone in politics does. But we were reminded this month that he was reluctant to acknowledge that help, perhaps even to his wife.
Richard J. Tofel is the author of “Sounding the Trumpet: The Making of John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address.”