Theodore C. Sorensen, who was a close adviser and counselor to John F. Kennedy for 11 years, writing words and giving voice to ideas that shaped the president’s image and legacy, died Sunday in New York. He was 82 and lived in Manhattan.
He died after complications from a stroke he suffered a week ago, according to his wife, Gillian Sorensen. A previous stroke, in 2001, had taken away much of his eyesight.
Mr. Sorensen said he suspected the headline on his obituary would read: “Theodore Sorenson, Kennedy Speechwriter,” misspelling his name and misjudging his work. “I was never just a speechwriter,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 2007.
True, he was best known for working with Mr. Kennedy on passages of soaring rhetoric, including the 1961 inaugural address proclaiming that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans” and challenging citizens: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Mr. Sorensen drew on the Bible, the Gettysburg Address and the words of Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill as he helped hone and polish that speech.
But Mr. Sorensen was more than Mr. Kennedy’s ghost-writer. “You need a mind like Sorensen’s around you that’s clicking and clicking all the time,” President Kennedy’s archrival, Richard M. Nixon, said in 1962. He said Mr. Sorensen had “a rare gift:” the knack of finding phrases that penetrated the American psyche.
First hired as a researcher by Mr. Kennedy, a newly elected senator from Massachusetts who took office in 1953, Mr. Sorensen became a political strategist and a trusted adviser on everything from election tactics to foreign policy. He collaborated closely — more closely than most knew — on “Profiles in Courage,” the 1956 book that won Mr. Kennedy a Pulitzer Prize and a national audience.
After the president’s assassination, Mr. Sorensen practiced law and politics. But in the public mind his name was forever joined to the man he had served; his first task after leaving the White House was to recount the abridged administration’s story in a 783-page best-seller simply titled “Kennedy.”
He held the title of special counsel, but Washington reporters of the era labeled him the president’s “intellectual alter ago” and “a lobe of Kennedy’s mind.” Mr. Sorensen called these exaggerations, but they were rooted in some truth.
President Kennedy had plenty of yes-men. He needed a no-man from time to time. The president trusted Mr. Sorensen to play that role in crises foreign and domestic, and he played it well, in the judgment of Robert F. Kennedy, his brother’s attorney general. “If it was difficult,” Mr. Kennedy said, “Ted Sorensen was brought in.”
Mr. Sorensen was proudest of a work written in haste, under crushing pressure. In October 1962, when he was 34 years old, he drafted a letter from President Kennedy to the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, which helped end the Cuban missile crisis. After the Kennedy administration’s failed coup against Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs, the Soviets had sent nuclear weapons to Cuba. They were capable of striking most American cities, including New York and Washington.
“Time was short,” Mr. Sorensen remembered in his interview with The Times, videotaped to accompany this obituary. “The hawks were rising. Kennedy could keep control of his own government, but one never knew whether the advocates of bombing and invasion might somehow gain the upper hand.”
Mr. Sorensen said, “I knew that any mistakes in my letter — anything that angered or soured Khrushchev — could result in the end of America, maybe the end of the world.”
The letter pressed for a peaceful solution. The Soviets withdrew the missiles. The world went on.
Theodore Chaikin Sorensen was born in Lincoln, Neb., on May 8, 1928 — Harry S. Truman’s 44th birthday, as he was fond of noting. He described himself as a distinct minority: “a Danish Russian Jewish Unitarian.” He was the son of Christian A. Sorensen, a lawyer, and Annis Chaikin, a social worker, pacifist and feminist. His father, a Republican who had named him after Teddy Roosevelt, ran for public office for the first time that year; he served as Nebraska’s attorney general from 1929 to 1933.
Lincoln, the state capital, was named for the 16th president. Near the statehouse stood a statue of Abraham Lincoln and a slab with the full text of the Gettysburg Address. As a child, Mr. Sorensen read it over and over. The Capitol itself held engraved quotations; one he remembered was “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
He earned undergraduate and law degrees at the University of Nebraska and, on July 1, 1951, at the age of 23, he left Lincoln to seek his fortune in Washington. He knew no one. He had no appointments, phone numbers or contacts. Except for a hitchhiking trip to Texas, he had never left the Midwest. He had never had a cup of coffee or written a check.
Eighteen months later, after short stints as a junior government lawyer, he was hired by John F. Kennedy, the new Democratic senator from Massachusetts. Mr. Kennedy was “young, good-looking, glamorous, rich, a war hero, a Harvard graduate,” Mr. Sorensen recalled. The new hire was none of those, save young. They quickly found that they shared political ideals and values.
“When he first hired me,” Mr. Sorensen recalled, Mr. Kennedy said: “ ‘I want you to put together a legislative program for the economic revival of New England.’ ” Mr. Kennedy’s first three speeches on the Senate floor — late in the evening, when nobody was around — presented the program Mr. Sorensen proposed.
Sunday, October 31, 2010
RIP: Ted Sorensen
Ted Sorenson, a former advisor to the late President John Kennedy, has died at the age of 82. May he rest in peace.