I never met Ted Sorensen, who was an all-purpose Kennedy insider but most celebrated for being JFK’s principal speechwriter. But one had a sense that with Sorensen — unlike a later generation of political aides who cultivated public selves to feed the 24-hour news cycle — what you saw was pretty much what you got: A self-made patrician, a keeper of secrets. A behind-the-scenes guy. The kind of discreet, all-but-unseen professional political operative who doesn’t exist much any more, or who has been so thoroughly eclipsed by the talking heads that he seems invisible. There’s something of a lost world seeping out from Sorensen’s obit in today’s New York Times. Listen to how Sorensen described the three years, from to 1957 to 1960, when he and JFK traveled the country laying the groundwork for Kennedy’s White House campaign:
Everything evolved during those three-plus years that we were traveling the country together. He became a much better speaker. I became much more equipped to write speeches for him. Day after day after day after day, he’s up there on the platform speaking, and I’m sitting in the audience listening, and I find out what works and what doesn’t, what fits his style.
Sorensen all but obliterates himself from the anecdote. Kennedy “became a better speaker”; Sorensen, a writer who was famous for the rigor and beauty of his parallel constructions, didn’t “become a better speechwriter.” He became “much more equipped to write speeches for him.” Kennedy spoke; Sorensen listened.
His devotion to craft was impeccable. His professional modesty was astounding. And it continued right to the end of his life. It’s impossible to believe that the guy who wrote We choose to go the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard (read it out loud to get the rhythm), who wrote this in his employer’s one and only inaugural address…
Now the trumpet summons us again – not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are – but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.
…it’s impossible to believe that a person who wrote like that didn’t know exactly what he was saying when, in his own twilight years, Jack gone, Bobby gone, almost all the old insiders dead and buried and Sorensen himself left all but alone to tell the tale, he described his role in such a circumspect fashion. Time may have made Sorensen an eminence. But it never did push him to the front. That was, once and always, for others.