Feature

Theodore Sorensen, 1928–2010

The JFK aide who shaped words and history

When critics of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign dismissed Obama’s speeches as “just words,” Theodore Sorensen expressed disbelief. “‘Just words’ is how a president manages to operate,” Sorensen told a reporter. “‘Just words’ is how he engages the country.” Soren­sen’s own words had helped to make John F. Kennedy president, to rally the country behind him, and to steer JFK through his worse crises. Sorensen worked on Kennedy’s famed inaugural address and was a key advisor in the Kennedy White House. It was Sorensen’s hastily drafted letter to the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, in October 1962 that helped end the Cuban missile crisis and avert a nuclear war.

Born in Lincoln, Neb., to a lawyer father and a social worker, pacifist mother, Sorensen described himself as “a Danish Russian Jewish Unitarian.” His father served as Nebraska attorney general when Sorensen was an infant, and as a child Sorensen read “over and over” the words of the Gettysburg Address inscribed on a slab near the Nebraska Statehouse, said The New York Times. After earning undergraduate and law degrees at the University of Nebraska, he left for Washington, D.C. “He had never had a cup of coffee or written a check.” But 18 months later, after a stint as a government lawyer, he was hired by the new Democratic senator from Massachusetts, JFK. Sorensen said that Kennedy was everything he was not—“good-looking, glamorous, rich, a war hero, a Harvard graduate.”

“We traveled together to all 50 states,” Sorensen wrote in his 2008 memoir, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History. As the senator’s most trusted aide, Sorensen devoted himself to making Kennedy president, collaborating closely on Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Profiles in Courage, drafting most of the chapters. “Although different in many ways, the two men bonded,” said The Washington Post. Reporters joked that Sorensen knew Kennedy so well that he finished his sentences. Robert Dallek, a historian and Kennedy biographer, called Sorensen “one of the principal architects of the Kennedy presidency.” Of the many Kennedy speeches he helped compose, said the Asso­ciated Press, the “inaugural address shone brightest,” including its “unforgettable exhortation”: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Always quick to shine a light on his boss, Sorensen called speechwriting in the Kennedy White House “highly collaborative.”

Sorensen was devastated by Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. “I do not know whether I have ever fully recovered from John F. Kennedy’s death,” he wrote in his memoir. That, along with the murder five years later of Kennedy’s brother Robert, “robbed me of my future,” Sorensen wrote. Sorensen stayed in the White House until 1964, eventually joining the New York law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, “where he advised world leaders such as Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Anwar Sadat of Egypt,” said The Boston Globe. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter nominated Sorensen to be CIA director, but conservatives protested that 31 years before, Sorensen had registered with his draft board as a conscientious objector. “I didn’t know that the CIA director was supposed to kill anybody,” Sorensen said. His nomination was withdrawn.

Sorensen remained active in Democratic politics until his final days, championing a full-throated case for American liberalism. “Government must give priority to the needs of ordinary citizens, workers, consumers, students, children, the elderly, and the ill, the vulnerable and the underdog,” he wrote, “and not to the needs of those already sufficiently powerful and affluent to afford their own lobbyists.”

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