A front-row view of JFK's presidency

Ted Sorensen's loving portrait of his boss, John F. Kennedy.

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Ted Sorensen notes in his resonant new memoir that he was almost the first person hired to work in John F. Kennedy’s White House – and that today he is close to the last living member of JFK’s inner circle.
What he does not say, perhaps because he does not need to, is that of Kennedy’s close associates, he always was arguably the most devoted.

Revelations about JFK’s womanizing and concealment of health problems may have tarnished his luster for some. But to his legendary right-hand man, Kennedy remains an exemplar for performance in American public life.
“It is possible to have a president who is honest, idealistic, and devoted to the best values of this country. It happened at least once – I was there,” writes Sorenson in the preface to Counselor, A Life at the Edge of History.
Ted Sorensen was born and raised in Nebraska, far from Camelot’s New England heartland. His father was a crusading lawyer who rose to serve as state attorney general; his mother a pacifist community organizer who, tragically, suffered from mental illnesses in her later years.
Decades later, at a tribute dinner for Sorensen, former Nebraska governor Frank Morrison noted that early in his career he’d been given this piece of advice: “Better stay away from those Sorensens – they are a little pinko.”
Among Sorensen’s fellow students at the University of Nebraska was Johnny Carson, famous even then for his magic and ventriloquism acts.
Like his father, Sorensen became a lawyer. Unlike his father, he moved to Washington to fulfill his ambitions for public service.
In January 1953, he took a job as a legislative assistant for the newly elected senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. With his appetite for hard work, writing skills honed by years of debating, and Midwestern self-effacement, Sorensen quickly made himself indispensable.
He listened to his boss talk, then tuned up the words, producing speeches that are still admired today for their craftsmanship.
Sorensen was the tireless advanceman for the early phase of JFK’s presidential campaign. Once the White House was won, he was speechwriter, policy adviser, and general fixer. In short, a counselor to the president.
Richard Nixon – shrewd in the practice of politics, if not its morals – said admiringly of Sorensen that his mind was “clicking and clicking all the time,” and that he was “tough, cold, not carried away by emotion.”

A gift for subliminating style
Sorensen and JFK were similarly analytical and unemotional, noted the loser of the 1960 election. “Sorensen ... has the rare gift of being an individual who can completely sublimate his style to another individual; and in his case, it’s the right combination,” Nixon said.
This book is not a history. If a serious memoir that deals with public policy can be called “breezy,” that’s what it is: a tightly written recounting of the high points of the thousand days, including the 1960 election, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, the struggle for civil rights, and the Cuban missile crisis.
Sorensen denies the old rumor that he should properly be credited as the author of “Profiles in Courage” instead of JFK. He insists that he doesn’t remember who it was that came up with the memorable “Ask not what your country can do for you ... ” line in Kennedy’s inaugural address.
Sorensen talks of knowing vaguely about JFK’s attraction to other women. At one point he (Sorensen) fielded a phone call from actress Audrey Hepburn meant for Kennedy. But he claims he knew nothing about specific infidelities.
This book partly is intended as an implicit criticism of the Bush administration, as its author makes clear. (Hmm ... the first blurb on the cover is from some guy named “Obama.”) Sorensen contrasts what he sees as the recklessness of the current president in Iraq with Kennedy’s restraint in the Cuban missile crisis.
But it makes very bold claims as to how Kennedy’s presidency would have worked out, had he lived. Would he really have resisted escalating the Vietnam War? Not all historians agree with that one. Would the cold war “not have long continued,” and the riots of the late 1960s “not have occurred,” if JFK had served out a second term?

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Where JFK lives on
After his White House service Ted Sorensen has had a long and interesting career as globe-trotting lawyer and Democratic eminence. It’s clear, though, that for him, John Kennedy remains an almost tangible presence, and his White House years the highlight of his life.
“I left Washington a long time ago. Not a single day has passed that I have not thought about JFK,” Sorensen writes.

Peter Grier is a Monitor staff writer based in Washington, D.C.

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