Monday, November 01, 2010

Ted Sorensen

Ted Sorensen died last week. He was the primary speechwriter for John F. Kennedy before and after he became President, and a White House advisor. His words and rhythms are in the best Inaugural Address of the 20th century. When I was a starry-eyed teenager watching every detail of the Kennedy administration, Sorensen was an exceptional example of what writing could bring to shaping the destiny of the country and the world. But his words came from conviction, as he showed in his first solo book, Decision-Making in the White House. I was in college when probably the first book review I published was of his book called simply Kennedy. There it was scholarship and succinct writing that impressed, rather than rhetoric eloquence.

He probably did not get enough credit while in the White House, but those who later maintained that JFK's eloquence was all his were equally mistaken. It wasn't just loyalty that led Sorensen himself to point this out. Though Sorensen wrote more books, he did not achieve the heights of expression or influence that he had as a partner to JFK.

Sorensen reemerged in 2008 as an early advocate for Barack Obama, and was instrumental in convincing Caroline Kennedy to endorse him. The support of much of the Kennedy clan was crucial to Obama's standing. The Obama campaign took advantage of Sorensen's own identification with the Kennedy era as well as his eloquence and speaking ability, when it sent him out campaigning.

The circle was closed when the college student he recruited to help him complete his last big book (Adam Frankel) became Barack Obama's speechwriter. Through the remaining decades of the 20th century and into the 21st, Sorensen appeared all but ageless. But in recent years he was beset by a bewildering number of illnesses--visual agnosia leading to near-blindness, a mini-stroke, prostate cancer, melanoma, a leaky heart valve and Lyme disease. Yet through all that he worked to complete his magnum opus, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History.