Inside the Kennedy presidency

Sat, Nov 1, 2008, 00:00

Ted Sorensen, John F Kennedy's main aide and adviser, recalls the president's visit to Ireland in 1963 and explains why he wants Barack Obama to be president

IN JUNE, 1963, a couple of minutes after his plane landed at Dublin airport, president John F Kennedy listened for the sound of the crowd that he knew to be waiting outside. Kennedy listened, and then he listened some more, and then he turned to Ted Sorensen and said, "Did we get these trips mixed up?"

Air Force One had come direct from Berlin, where JFK had been met with an ear-splitting, rapturous welcome from the Germans he and his aides had expected to be quiet, watchful, reserved; now he was in Ireland, disembarking to an audience frozen in a wide-eyed silence, holding onto miniature American flags as though for dear life itself.

Sorensen laughs as he remembers the scene. The crowd seemed momentarily awestruck, he says, at the sight of an American president stepping onto the soil his great-grandparents had called home. "But once they got used to the idea," Sorensen says, "they became very large and very loud indeed, as we drove into town on that first afternoon."

By 1963, Sorensen had been at JFK's side for almost 11 years. He had joined him as a 24-year-old lawyer, recently moved to Washington from Nebraska, looking for a job as a legislative assistant in the office of a Democratic senator. Long before 1960, when JFK entered the White House, Sorensen had become much more than just an assistant. He was his aide, his adviser, his strategist and his speech writer. As Kennedy's special counsel, he shaped immensely more than the lines that were delivered before countless adoring crowds; he shaped plans, policy, the Kennedy years and the Kennedy legacy.

Everywhere there was impact, influence, or enduring power in a Kennedy speech or a Kennedy stance, there was the mark of a Sorensen collaboration: from "Ask not what your country can do for you" to Apollo 11, from the Khrushchev letters to the civil rights broadcast. That the two men "operated nearly as one", as White House historian Arthur M Schelesinger jnr put it, was an open secret during the Washington years. His "intellectual blood bank", Kennedy called Sorensen. Others simply called him the deputy president.

Sorensen, who now lives in New York, where he built a successful post-Kennedy career in international law, turned 80 in May. Seven years ago, a stroke ravaged his vision, leaving him almost completely blind. This did not stop him from this year publishing an acclaimed memoir, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, which throws fascinating light on his years at the coalface of an American politics, as well as on "his" president. Sorensen has written books on Kennedy before - most notably the 1967 political history Kennedy, written in something of a white heat of grief following the president's assassination - but Counselor is a true memoir, at once wide-ranging and intimate, framing the darting currents of a complex era through a deeply personal lens.

Sorensen's vantage point on the JFK era is one that political historians have long tried to plumb for all it is worth; as he writes in the memoir, he was "virtually the first member of the Kennedy administration", appointed at the president-elect's first staff meeting in Hyannis Port, and now, 48 years later, he is "almost the last".

QUESTIONS ABOUT THE real extent of his role in some of JFK's key achievements (the most celebrated speeches, the Pulitzer-prize winning book Profiles in Courage, not to mention the Cuban missile crisis and that disaster-averting telegram to the Soviet Union) have long trailed Sorensen. In Counselor he goes some way to answering them - though without ever truly compromising his loyalty.

Profiles was a "collaboration", he writes, as was the famous inaugural speech. The Cuban missile crisis, it emerges, was Sorensen's moment.He urged the form of, and wrote the words of, the White House response to Khrushchev's demands - but even that he barely takes credit for. His constancy to his commander-in-chief runs deep. Even today, he begs off discussion of the moment when he heard that Kennedy had been shot (a moment, and a hellish aftermath, that he relates in frank, moving detail in the book) because he does not, he says, "like to recall November 22nd" - does not want to revive its reality and the parting that it forced.

"When you know somebody that well, they don't need to spell out in detail what they want," Sorensen says now of the shorthand he and Kennedy developed over their 11 years. Typically, a Sorensen speech grew out of an initial conversation between the two men and progressed from an outline through at least three drafts.

"He would read whatever I gave him and mark it up, or give me instructions on what should be improved or strengthened or deleted or whatever," he says. Kennedy had an "extraordinarily objective mind", Sorensen says, "a very cool, analytical mind". Each collaboration was a back-and-forth exchange of versions and suggestions that demanded time to settle, space to breathe.

Which makes it all the more intriguing to learn from Sorensen, as he sits by the vast window of his apartment over Central Park, that the writing of Kennedy's Dáil speech in 1963 followed a different procedure, a slightly fast-tracked course. On the flight back to Dublin from Wexford, where Kennedy had visited his ancestral home, he and Sorensen worked side by side to put together a speech that set off from a tribute to Irish soldiers in the American civil war to praise Irish freedom, "peaceful revolution", and the country's destiny "as a maker and shaper of world peace", as an example to the "little five-feet-high nations" of the world, as David Lloyd George referred to them. Sorensen cited George in the original draft, but JFK, reckoning that Lloyd George was someone "not beloved in Ireland", thought they had "better not use that name", replacing it with an elusive reference to "one of the great orators of the English language". Among the many names he and Sorensen did weave into the Dáil speech, however, were Franklin, O'Connell, Parnell and Grattan; Joyce, Yeats, Shaw and the poet John Boyle O'Reilly, whose Distance was for them both a favourite poem. "And there was a lot about Irish history, too, which the president wasn't just reading from a text. He knew a lot about Irish history," says Sorensen.

Sorensen's first full-length speech for Kennedy was in fact an Irish-oriented one: for a March 17th address to the New York Friendly Sons of St Patrick in 1954. It was a baptism of fire for a young Nebraska Unitarian, son of progressive, middle-class parents, who found himself working closely with the Harvard-graduated son of conservative, enormously wealthy New England Catholics. The contrast in their backgrounds was noted frequently and forcefully by commentators, but to Kennedy and Sorensen themselves it made no odds. They had an understanding and a shorthand, a bond at once personal and utterly rooted in their shared ideals for an America they had explored together in the mid 1950s, visiting every one of the 50 states ostensibly to speak about Profiles in Courage but in fact to lay the groundwork for a presidential campaign.

WHICH BRINGS US to Barack Obama, whose candidacy for the Democratic nomination Sorensen passionately endorsed early last year, delivering as he did so on the crucial "official" Kennedy comparison. It was in 2006, on the Illinois senator's own campaign-trail masquerading as book- tour, that Sorensen first encountered Obama. He had been at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, but missed Obama's speech - and soon afterwards, Sorensen, though he had not yet officially committed to an Obama endorsement, agreed to give the opening remarks to a gathering of "politically minded people in New York" who were coming together to discuss with Obama the possibility of a presidential run. That meeting never happened - Obama's flight to New York was cancelled because of inclement weather, but Sorensen gave his remarks, a list of reasons for and against an Obama shot at the presidency, to the meeting's organiser anyway, and the next evening, Obama called him at home. "He said, 'I read your notes'," Sorensen recalls, his voice seeming to dip momentarily into the Obama intonation.

"He said 'I showed them to my wife, and I discussed them with my staff. They're very, very good, and you and I should stay in touch.' I said I would like that. And we did." In a nice piece of continuity, Sorensen's "chief assistant and collaborator on Counselor", Adam Frankel, is now Obama's second-in-command speech writer, and Sorensen's "window" to the senator's campaign.

IN 1960, IT was a "miracle" when a Catholic candidate secured the presidency, Sorensen says, "and it will be an even greater miracle if a black man wins", but Sorensen is confident that Obama will win just as Kennedy did. "And probably, he'll win bigger."

Why? Because he has looked "better, stronger, smarter" than McCain in the debates, because he has shifted from talk of policies and principles to detailed programmes, becoming, says Sorensen, "commendably concrete" in his speech. Because, in the face of the increasingly ugly atmosphere at Republican rallies ("not so much socialist as national-socialist" as the New Yorker's Steve Coll this week observed), Obama has remained "cool and calm".

Asked what Obama needs yet to do, Sorensen hesitates a moment ("I don't like giving advice to him through The Irish Times," he says, whereupon I assure him that Obama reads the features pages every day - right, Senator?) before laying out two points: firstly, that Obama needs to inflect his speeches with more autobiography, to give more illustrations of his life as an American from "a real American family", and secondly, that he needs to use more humour. Obama has "a wonderful sense of humour", Sorensen says, "but he's so often severe and intellectual in his talks on television that I don't think that humour comes through often enough".

A rumoured Saturday Night Live appearance this weekend might address the second suggestion, but the first one is likely to be harder to pull off, given that Obama's announced trip to Hawaii to visit his gravely ill grandmother was last week spun in extreme conservative circles as a mission to silence, even to exterminate, the last remaining relative who can reveal Obama's un-American credentials. In the age of a deeply anti-intellectual conservativism, the worth of intelligence and of analysis - of his own career's most central tools - has, Sorensen knows, been sorely harmed.

"We've had leaders from Nixon to Bush who've dismissed intellectualism," he says. When he listens to the speeches of Sarah Palin, he says, he finds himself unable to formulate a response, because he cannot "understand what her position is, her substantive position, apart from the nasty stuff". Palin is being fed "the nasty stuff" by a speech writer whose ideas she does not understand, Sorensen believes, and he listens aghast, and with deep disappointment in McCain.

"He used to be a decent person, a principled person, truly committed to this country, but to make such an irresponsible choice . . . " On Palin, he will waste no more words. He looks forward, instead, to election night. He hopes for the return of a president who knows the meaning of words.

At Obama fundraisers over the past year, Sorensen has often given the opening remarks, and as he does so he quotes from Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy. But, ever the wordsmith, he gives Heaney's famous lines a new draft. "I read them the line about how, once in a lifetime, hope and history can rhyme," he says. "And then I say how fortunate I am that not once, but twice in my lifetime there's been a 'longed-for tidal wave of justice' and two extraordinary individuals have come along." He smiles. "I don't want to exaggerate my literature credentials," he says, "but I think that applies."

See historic archive footage of JFK's visit on the DVD included with today's paper