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A front-row view of JFK's presidency

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

By / June 9, 2008



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.

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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.”

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