Rest In Peace Ted Sorensen

Ted Sorensen died today, a week after suffering a stroke. He was 82. Sorensen served for many years as John Kennedy’s chief staff assistant, beginning as a research aide to the newly elected Senator in 1953 and culminating with his role in Kennedy’s White House as Special Counsel.  Sorensen’s obituary as reported in various media outlets will undoubtedly cite his work drafting some of Kennedy’s most memorable speeches, including JFK’s celebrated 1961 inaugural address (“we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty”), as well as his assistance (how much assistance remains a matter of some controversy) in the writing of Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage.

But Sorensen was much more than Kennedy’s wordsmith. As JFK’s Special Counsel (a title originally given to FDR’s Samuel Rosenman, who created the position Sorensen inherited) Sorensen sat astride a key decision, or action forcing, process in Kennedy’s White House.  In contrast to the modern White House, in which aides are organized according to specialized functions (economic or national security adviser, speechwriter, liaison to interest groups, chief of staff, etc.)  Kennedy’s White House was modeled after Franklin Roosevelt’s. That meant aides were generalists who were organized not by functional specialty, but by the daily decisions that flowed into the Oval Office. Sorensen sat astride the most important of these “action forcing” processes: the drafting of all public documents by which JFK developed and “sold” his legislative program and related policies.  In addition to crafting speeches, this meant drafting legislation and related messages to Congress, issuing statements on enrolled legislation, and reviewing executive orders, to cite only the most important duties entrusted to Sorensen.  Because Kennedy – as did FDR – preferred to manage his own staff, there was no chief of staff in his White House.  This meant that Sorensen reported directly to JFK, and that his role as Special Counsel largely mimicked JFK’s perspective as president.  Sorensen’s duties stand in distinct contrast to those of modern White House aides, whose narrower jurisdiction means that they are unable to fully appreciate the President’s more holistic and broader perspective on decisionmaking. What the modern White House staff disaggregates due to functional specialization, the chief of staff must reassemble for the President’s understanding.  Kennedy, in contrast, dealt with a few senior aides, including Sorensen, whose duties more nearly aligned with his job as President; there was no chief of staff to manage the White House on JFK’s behalf.  The FDR-Kennedy model began to break down during Johnson’s presidency, when Sorensen’s successor Joe Califano shed the speechwriting role, and it was completely lost to history when Richard Nixon became president and installed the prototype, including a chief of staff, for what has become the modern White House staff.  In later years Sorensen would be highly critical of the proliferation of White House positions, particularly within the speech writing staff.

By his own admission, a part of Sorensen died with Kennedy’s assassination in November, 1963. For a decade, his life had been defined by his service to Kennedy – almost every waking moment was devoted to serving this one man. In a particularly poignant section of his memoirs, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History (which I strongly recommend), Sorensen describes how helpless he felt because he was not there – as he had been for 10 years – to answer the questions – What will happen to my country? Who will take care of Jackie and my children? – that he imagined the President asked himself after the first assassin’s bullet hit him, but before the second (or third) fatal shot occurred.  Sorensen, looking back at JFK’s assassination after almost half a century, writes, “I do not know whether I have ever fully recovered from John. F. Kennedy’s death. Time passed. Love and laughter helped. But the deep sadness of that time remained, only to be reinforced five years later by the murder of his brother Robert. Those two senseless tragedies robbed me of my future.”  Although Sorensen briefly flirted with a return to public service – running unsuccessfully for the Senate in New York, and agreeing to head the CIA under Carter only to see his nomination blocked – he spent his remaining years working primarily in a New York-based law firm while protecting the Kennedy legacy, beginning with his memoirs of the Kennedy years in his book Kennedy.

I met Sorensen late in his life, when a stroke had robbed him of most of his vision. Although he was hard at work on his own memoirs, he graciously agreed to write a short piece for a book I was co-editing honoring the life of Richard Neustadt.  Sorensen and Neustadt had worked closely during Kennedy’s presidency, and Neustadt had been poised to join the White House staff when Kennedy was assassinated.  In my brief dealings with Sorensen, he was extremely cordial, and demonstrated no sense of entitlement or superiority that I have sometimes detected in other former White House aides.

When I heard of Sorensen’s death, I thought of the sacrifice that those who work for presidents often make.  In his memoirs, he admits that his first marriage fell apart largely because his life was primarily devoted to serving John F. Kennedy.  In the late summer, 1963, shortly before Kennedy’s assassination, his wife – who had already been separated from Sorensen for three years – moved back with their three sons from Washington to her previous home in Wisconsin.  In one particularly moving remembrance, Sorensen describes how he tried desperately to carve time out of his busy schedule to throw a baseball with one of his sons on the Washington mall.  After Kennedy’s death, with his family gone, Sorensen eventually decided to dedicate his life to keeping Kennedy’s legacy and ideals alive.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Sorensen.  I hope you found some comfort in your later years.

5 comments

  1. I met Mr. Sorensen at a meeting at The Century Foundation, a Manhattan progressive nonprofit, in 2005, held to strategize getting the US to exit Iraq. From the moment he was assisted into the room (lamenting to people accompanying him that he’d lost too much of his eyesight) the bigwigs who’d come to the meeting held him in far more reverence than he seemed prepared to respond to. He had the sort of intellect that allowed him to listen from the sidelines while the conversation unfolded, then make the most exceptionally trenchant and lucid comments at key points. I think that’s the moment it sunk in that he was not your ordinary Beltway operative, and that the phrase “the best and the brightest” that described the Kennedy White House was far from self-congratulation.

  2. Martin,

    As I’m sure you know, Sorensen was an early booster of Obama’s presidential candidacy – viewing him in some respects as a young JFK. He later admitted that he was disappointed in Obama’s decision to escalate the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, viewing it as a potential “Vietnam”, but he nonetheless remained a strong supporter of Obama’s presidency.

  3. I saw him briefly this summer at our Hyde Park Summit at the FDR estate – he’d come to be present for the 75th anniversary of social security. He asked if he could speak the group of students from the Roosevelt Campus Network for a bit – and listening to him describe what it was like to be there during the Cuban Missile Crisis – and work alongside JFK – even for those fifteen minutes, was an amazing experience. It’s hard to believe that was two months ago. We were all seated on the floor in a semi-circle around him, he had a great sense of humor and eager to share his life experiences and encourage us to make the most of our own time that we had for the greater good.

  4. Thanks for the post Matt. I did not know the extent of Sorensen’s service, and it is amazing. And JFK’s line: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” is an all-timer as well.

  5. How does it feel to dedicate one’s life to another person? Everybody is equal under life, since we all only have one life. But some of us will be remembered by history and most others will be lost. One person’s “somebody” status is established by millions of “nobodies”. So how does it feel to live as a “nobody” for one’s whole life? There’s only one life for each of us, and it is gone before we realize. For what do we live for, if we are “nobodies”?

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