On October 31 2010 The New York Times reported the death of Theodore C. Sorensen, close adviser and counselor to John F. Kennedy (JFK) for eleven years. In the scheme of things in Australia that may not mean very much to a large majority of people. However Ted Sorensen was the man who assisted JFK give form to his ideas, helped him to shape his personality and image and to forge a powerful legacy through the logic, sense and empowerment of his words. They followed a tradition started by America’s first president, Abraham Lincoln when he pledged in his Gettysburg Address that ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth’.
While it may be tempting for us today to think of Mr Sorensen as just a speech writer, that would a very wrong interpretation, or inference for us to make. And, it would also overshadow just how great his influence was. For him to have written in a style that suited what the Senator, and then President would say, he had to enter into a relationship with JFK, one that was based on mutual trust and respect because he also, over time, became JFK’s political strategist and trusted adviser on everything from election tactics to foreign policy.
For Australians of my era it was John F Kennedy who inspired us, not our own Prime Minister Robert Menzies. Although a great wit of the English school, who gave some rattling good speeches himself, for young people in the rock and roll era ‘Pig Iron Bob’ was just far too imperious. It was the young, virile American President JFK who loomed larger than life on the world stage. During our formative years as young adults Kennedy was the man who seemingly talked in a way that everyone of our generation could understand. Sorensen got inside JFK”s head to help him say “…and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier… But the New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises—it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them”.
JFK took on the western world’s enemies with his words and won. Then he took all our hearts by giving us the most dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked, the race to the moon. ‘We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too’. His words delivered that very hot late summer’s day in 1962, when he visited Rice University in Houston and, outdoors in the football stadium not in a great hall of power, emboldened the people of the world and of his generation to be as great as they could be.
While many people have written and delivered fine speeches since JFK it really felt, that five years after his untimely and terrible death with the assassination of Martin Luther King, as if the lights of an era of fine words and wonderful rhetoric had gone out for a time and that not until perhaps its current President Barack Obama stepped onto the world stage did they come on again.
Sorensen and Kennedy reputedly drew on words from the Bible, from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the intelligent words of the craftsman of the American Constitution, former President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) to craft the 1961 inspiring inaugural address for its newly elected president.
Together Kennedy and Sorensen honed and polished that speech to its state of perfection producing that passionate passage of soaring rhetoric “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Sorensen had in his lifetime said, “I still believe that the mildest and most obscure of Americans can be rescued from oblivion by good luck, sudden changes in fortune, sudden encounters with heroes,” he concluded. “I believe it because I lived it.”
So does Sorensen’s loss mean the end of a legacy of enlightened words in an era defined by fine ideas is over? Well, no it doesn’t because what all great recorded speeches have in common, from antiquity through until today, was that their protagonists were all champions of liberty, justice, freedom and civil rights for all and were able to express their thoughts and inspire others through their motivating words.
There are many famous speeches in history. The list is long and many are momentous and memorable.
In its report about the death of Theodore Sorensen the New York Times Reporter recorded…‘President Kennedy had plenty of yes-men. He needed a no-man from time to time. The president trusted Mr. Sorensen to play that role in crises foreign and domestic, and he played it well, in the judgment of Robert F. Kennedy, his brother’s attorney general. “If it was difficult,” Robert Kennedy said, “Ted Sorensen was brought in.” Mr. Sorensen was proudest of a work written in haste, under crushing pressure. In October 1962, when he was 34 years old, he drafted a letter from President Kennedy to the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, which helped end the Cuban missile crisis. After the Kennedy administration’s failed coup against Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs, the Soviets had sent nuclear weapons to Cuba. They were capable of striking most American cities, including New York and Washington. “Time was short,” Mr. Sorensen remembered in his interview with The Times, videotaped to accompany this obituary. “The hawks were rising. Kennedy could keep control of his own government, but one never knew whether the advocates of bombing and invasion might somehow gain the upper hand.” Mr. Sorensen said, “I knew that any mistakes in my letter — anything that angered or soured Khrushchev — could result in the end of America, maybe the end of the world.” The letter pressed for a peaceful solution. The Soviets withdrew the missiles. The world went on’.
That we ‘can do’ anything is a powerful idea but we all need to be motivated to take action. Inspiration, passion and purpose move us all forward towards fulfillment and through the art, or science of rhetoric, which includes speech. It is people like Theodore C Sorensen and JFK who help us all to succeed. During his journey in the public spotlight JFK must certainly have been pleased to have Sorensen by his side. His was a talent and contribution to the advancement of humankind that deserves to be applauded.
‘We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people’…JFK
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2010 – 2012
Watch JFK Announce the Moon Race at Rice University in Houston