Review of <i>Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History</i> by Ted Sorensen

June 21, 2008

I once attended a talk given by President John F Kennedy’s speechwriter, adviser and “intellectual blood bank”, Ted Sorensen. He was asked who had written the most famous line in Kennedy’s inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Was it JFK’s work, or his speechwriter’s? Sorensen’s answer was magnificent: “Ask not!”

The speechwriter’s code of silence requires that a discreet veil be drawn over the drafting process. Adherence to this code is rare these days, however. Speechwriters routinely brief friends and journalists about their authorship of some golden phrase or other. Occasionally they even scrap publicly for credit.

Sorensen is different. For more than four decades, he minimised his role in the drafting of the speeches delivered on the New Frontier. Only now, in this new memoir, with the other parties dead and the archives open, does Sorensen pull back the veil – a little.

Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History throws new light on Sorensen’s central role in both the speechwriting and policy processes in the Kennedy White House (“I was too busy ever to smell the flowers in the White House Rose Garden,” he notes). But he always recognises JFK’s primacy in both domains: “I never confused which of us was the elected leader and which was the assistant.”

The president who appears in Sorensen’s stories is rigorous, curious and aware of his own frailties – dissimilar in most respects, then, from the current incumbent. The world’s opinion of America’s leader was also strikingly different at that time. When a US emissary briefed French President Charles de Gaulle on the Soviet missile sites in Cuba in October 1962, de Gaulle brushed aside an offer to review the CIA’s aerial photography. “No,” he said, “the word of the President of the United States is good enough for me.”

Sorensen admits JFK’s flaws: his faint-heartedness in ducking a 1954 vote to censure Senator Joe McCarthy, his “blind spot on Cuba” and his “deaf ear on China”. And he acknowledges the president’s philandering: “He should have known that ultimately the inevitable disclosure of his misconduct could diminish the moral force and credibility of all the good he was doing,” Sorensen writes. On the other hand, Sorensen refuses to provide succour to Kennedy’s enemies, stating, “I know of no occasion where his private life interfered with the fulfillment of his public duties.”

In other words, Sorensen keeps faith with Kennedy. Though a conscientious objector in his youth, Sorensen is a good soldier. Here, too, there is a stark contemporary comparison in the former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan. McClellan would not, I suspect, have even become an intern in Sorensen’s day. But the real difference between the two men lies in the measure of their loyalty. Within two years of leaving the Bush administration, McClellan has a book in the stores dumping on the man who made him. Nearly half a century after JFK’s assassination, on the other hand, Sorensen still feels what he calls “the obligations of loyalty, which for me outweigh all pressures to cast prudence, privacy, discretion, and the secrets of others aside”.

Counselor is a wise and handsomely written memoir which reveals the uncommon attributes of its author. Somehow Sorensen has dodged the pomposity which attaches to so many important men in their advanced years. He recognises his failures and limitations; he cites the charges levelled by his critics, to whom he is generous; he enumerates regrets which he might easily have concealed. He has even forgotten his Secret Service code name, which others display as a badge of honour.

According to this book, John Kennedy was “a good and decent man”. My first thought was that this is too sentimental a judgment. But he must have been, to have attracted so fine an associate as Ted Sorensen.