Monday, November 8, 2010

Sorensen's Legacy

Perhaps it isn't surprising that I haven't been able to find words on the occasion of Ted Sorensen's passing. How many writers were both inspired and intimidated by the greatness of this man? Even in death, he still inspires and intimidates me.

Theodore Sorensen passed away last Sunday, October 31st, at the age of 82.

Sorensen had suffered a stroke in 2001 that left him almost completely blind, something that didn't prevent him from publishing his memoir in 2008. His memoir, Counselor: A Life At the Edge of History, was highly praised for its clarity and historical significance. Yet, all of the praise and acclaim didn't adequately prepare me for how amazing the book actually was. I've read close to a hundred biographies and memoirs and none of them, not even Sorensen's own biography Kennedy, compared to Counselor. It was insightful, it showed the true dynamic of presidential advisors and the men they serve; It was stunning, it showed what role Sorensen played in the thirteen days collectively known as the Cuban Missile Crisis; And, it wasn't driven by ego, something almost unseen in the world of personal memoirs. We owe nearly as much to Ted Sorensen as we do Kennedy himself.

One of the greatest passages from Counselor:
"If fate somehow decreed that sooner or later some madman would succeed, better that it happened after JFK saved mankind in the Cuban missile crisis, paved the way for equal rights in this country, launched America's leadership in space, established the Peace Corps, and set a standard for leadership and eloquence that has inspired people all over the world. Better that we had his leadership--even for one brief shining moment--than not at all." (Counselor, 377)
Notice that he does not credit himself with Kennedy's eloquence? He surely could have and easily made a convincing case for it. That was never Ted Sorensen's style. For all the inspiration that stemmed from the words Ted Sorensen penned, Ted Sorensen remained inspired by Kennedy.

Unfortunately, in death he is being remembered for being a speechwriter. He was and will continue to be so much more. He shaped message in a way we haven't seen since. He offered a hand of friendship, support and counsel to President Kennedy in daylight and during the darkest moments of our history. He, like most of the country, was shattered by Kennedy's death. His grief was that of a brother, a close friend, not just a speechwriter. He was, as Caroline Kennedy said this week, a "wonderful friend" to the Kennedy family and a respected advisor. He was clearly so much more than a speechwriter.

I was once in a room with Ted Sorensen, a very large room. I never met him, but just being in the same room with him was an unforgettable moment for me. His prime in politics may have come long before I was even alive (I was born on his 57th birthday), but his words, that eloquence that he largely created for President Kennedy, the inspiration writers talk of in any sentence with his name, was evident to me in that room and has always been evident to me. His place in history is unmistakable. His words will be his legacy. For a kid from Lincoln, Nebraska, far from the Boston-based Kennedy compound, that's something.
Theodore C. Sorensen