JFK through Ted Sorensen’s eyes

By: Sandford BorinsBarack Obama, as presidential candidate, has been frequently compared to John F. Kennedy: young, articulate, and charismatic. It is therefore appropriate that an authoritative inside account of Kennedy's candidacy and presidency has recently appeared. Ted Sorensen, best known as JFK's speechwriter and chief of staff from 1952 to 1963, has just published his autobiography, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History.Sorensen cites four major accomplishments of the Kennedy Administration: peacefully resolving the Cuban Missile and signing the first treaty with the Soviet Union limiting nuclear testing, invigorating the U.S. space program by setting the goal of a lunar landing within a decade, supporting the civil rights movement by confronting segregationist politicians in the southern states, and creating the Peace Corps.Looking back 40 years, it is clear that each of these has had a continuing impact: ongoing nuclear arms reduction by the major powers, the international space program, the struggles first for civil rights and then against racism, and the wave of volunteerism, particularly by young adults.For an administration led by a young legislator with little managerial experience and cut short after two years and 10 months in office, the record is extraordinary.Sorensen writes that in 1960 Kennedy was perceived by Democratic Party consultants, leaders, and major donors as an unlikely choice. But Kennedy confounded the insiders by taking his campaign outside Washington to grass roots delegates and voters.The parallels with Barack Obama are obvious: another low-probability candidate who found a way to appeal beyond the party establishment to the grass roots, using a mixture of old approaches (the town hall meeting) and new (a participatory online campaign).Sorensen pays considerable attention to the Cuban Missile Crisis and his role in resolving it. He was a member of the Excomm, the group of senior officials JFK continuously consulted through the crisis.The Soviets sent two telegrams the same day with proposals to end the crisis, the first hopeful and the second belligerent. Kennedy decided to respond to the first and ignore the second, and chose his brother Attorney-General Robert Kennedy and Sorensen to draft the reply.Sorensen devoted the book's prologue to that incident, describing the immense pressure he was under preparing the draft, the nature of deal proposed, and the elation he felt when the Soviets agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba. That day, when he was just 34 years old, turned out to be the high point of his career, the afternoon when he penned the words that – literally – saved the world from nuclear war.It is rare for someone who, like many of us, makes a living by working with words to identify one episode, indeed one afternoon, which was the high point of a career. The analogies that come to mind are athletic: Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series, Joe Carter's home run that won the 1993 World Series for the Blue Jays, or Paul Henderson's winning goal in the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union.After Kennedy's assassination, Sorensen went on to a long and successful career practicing law – the calling for which he had been trained – specializing in international law and negotiation. He suffered a major stroke in 2001 and writing this book became the center-piece of his recuperation.In Sorensen's telling the Kennedy Administration emerges as one of the best in recent memory. We can all hope that, after the failures of the current administration, the next will learn from Sorensen's accumulated wisdom. While we wait, read his book.

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