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Awards & Honors: 2009 National Humanities Medalist

Theodore C. Sorensen

Speechwriter Samuel Rosenman helped coin Franklin Roosevelt’s phrase, “a new deal.” Speechwriter Peggy Noonan assisted Ronald Reagan in drafting his 1984 Pointe du Hoc speech and his farewell address to the nation in which he described his vision of “the shining city.” But no speechwriter and president have been more closely linked together than Theodore Sorensen and John F. Kennedy.

Sorensen began working for Kennedy when he was a senator in the 1950s, and became one of his most trusted confidants and his most talented wordsmith. On the surface, Kennedy and Sorensen were a bit of a mismatch.

Sorensen had arrived in Washington from Lincoln, Nebraska; a Unitarian with a Jewish mother, he was also a progressive activist. He had helped organize a branch of the Congress of Racial Equality in Lincoln and fought to integrate Lincoln’s municipal swimming pool and the dormitories at the University of Nebraska.

Kennedy, an Irish-Catholic Bostonian, had family money, and his father, Joe, had groomed him to run for national office. More cautious and pragmatic than Sorensen, Kennedy nonetheless embraced his young aide’s sharp mind, skilled pen, and fierce loyalty. In 1957, Sorensen emerged as what author and journalist Robert Schlesinger called JFK’s “chief political strategist and main traveling companion.”

Sorensen became a political jack-of-all-trades—building an extensive list of Kennedy’s supporters while laying the foundation for his 1960 White House run. While visiting all fifty states, the men formed an intense bond. As Sorensen later told Schlesinger, when reporters claimed that Sorensen was inside Kennedy’s mind and could finish his sentences, they weren’t completely exaggerating. Sorensen replied, “There is something to that. That’s a tremendous advantage for a speechwriter to know his boss’s mind as well as I did.”

When Kennedy won the White House, he asked Sorensen to assemble suggestions for the inaugural address. Ultimately, the speech, as author Thurston Clarke has argued, represented “a distillation of [JFK’s] experiences, philosophy, and character”; Kennedy was the speech’s chief author and its most important architect. Sorensen, however, also helped shape the address now regarded as one of the twentieth century’s most inspiring pieces of presidential oratory.

He drew ideas from John Kenneth Galbraith, Adlai Stevenson, and others—and provided Kennedy with drafts of the address. More importantly, as Schlesinger astutely says, the inaugural speech had “campaign antecedents” and reflected the influence of Sorensen, speechwriter Richard Goodwin, and their countless conversations with and observations of Kennedy on the trail.

“It isn’t all that important who wrote which word or which phrase in Kennedy’s inaugural,” Sorensen told Schlesinger. “What’s important are the themes and the principles that he laid out.”

Kennedy’s inaugural established Sorensen’s reputation as a brilliant scribe; the language and themes of that address have resonated through the decades down to our own times. Kennedy sketched a vision of America’s idealistic role in the world as the great defender of freedom—a nation eager to “pay any price, bear any burden” to stop communism from spreading across the globe.

Kennedy’s inaugural also included an eloquent call to serve America: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” was the speech’s historic, inspiring line. Kennedy declared that “a new generation of Americans” had taken the torch and would carry it in defense of “freedom in its hour of maximum danger.”

Kennedy and Sorensen’s address featured soaring optimism and a message of national unity and international strength. Sorensen’s historical importance shouldn’t be diminished or underestimated. He was then, and remains now, one of Kennedy’s most loyal defenders—the keeper of the flame. In addition to practicing international law as a senior partner at a private firm based in New York for thirty-six years, Sorensen published a 1965 bestseller, Kennedy, and seven other books, including his memoirs, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, in 2008. He recounts working with JFK on Profiles in Courage, advising him on the Cuban Missile Crisis and other challenges, and observing the president grapple with issues ranging from civil rights to arms control.

But Sorensen’s speechwriting achievements remain possibly his most crucial legacy. Early criticism of mass politics in the 1950s predicted that television would demean the importance of rhetoric in public life. Critics often fretted that politicians’ use of television would weaken the grip of reason and rationality on the body politic; television would prioritize images, artifice, and deception above all else, thereby staining America’s democracy.

Sorensen’s words clearly demonstrate that even at the dawn of the television age, language had the capacity to inspire hope, calm public concerns, frame policy choices, and rally Americans in support of a cause. Television—and other modern communication tools—have heightened instead of diminished the political impact of presidential oratory, and Sorensen’s career highlights this.

Finally, Sorensen’s role as Kennedy’s alter ego and chief speechwriter reveals White House speechwriting as an influential craft. Since at least Sorensen’s time, all presidents have benefited from having close-knit relationships with their speechwriters. Working together, presidents and their scribes have communicated to the American people about wars in Vietnam and Iraq, economic crises at home, the September 11 terrorist attacks, health care, energy, and countless other issues, crises, national challenges and opportunities. As possibly the most successful and influential speechwriter in modern times, Sorensen has inspired his successors in that office, set the bar high for them and their bosses, and provided a model of how a president and a speechwriter can use language to shape the nation’s agenda—and influence the course of history.

By Matthew Dallek
Matthew Dallek, a former speechwriter for Richard A. Gephardt, is a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center and the author of The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan’s First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics.