Theodore Sorensen, JFK’s aide and wordsmith, dies

Theodore Sorensen tabulated potential roll call votes in 1960 at President Kennedy’s headquarters in Los Angeles. Theodore Sorensen tabulated potential roll call votes in 1960 at President Kennedy’s headquarters in Los Angeles. (Associated Press/ File)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / November 1, 2010

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Theodore Chaikin Sorensen, whose prose mingled with the thoughts and words of his close friend John F. Kennedy to create some of the most memorable presidential speeches of the 20th century, died yesterday.

Mr. Sorensen’s wife, Gillian, said he died in a New York City hospital of complications from an Oct. 22 stroke. He was 82.

Despite a stroke nine years ago that left him nearly sightless, Mr. Sorensen had continued to be a vibrant link intellectually and philosophically to the Kennedy administration and the Camelot aura that defined the clan, launching the political careers of the president’s younger brothers, Robert and Edward.

Considered by many to be the premier presidential speechwriter of his lifetime — some thought him the best ever — Mr. Sorensen played significant roles in crafting JFK’s enduring speeches, including his 1961 inaugural address, and the president’s book “Profiles in Courage,’’ awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1957.

“I think Ted became the most important adviser and, on balance, I think he was the best of the brightest and best,’’ said Harris Wofford, a former US senator from Pennsylvania who had served as an adviser to Kennedy. “He also knew what John Ken nedy thought. They had an extraordinary relationship. It would be hard to know where one person’s thoughts ended and the other began.’’

Officially, Mr. Sorensen was special counsel to the president, a role he reprised with Lyndon B. Johnson. Mr. Sorensen worked so closely with Jack Kennedy, however, that he became widely regarded as the president’s alter ego, liberal conscience, and intellectual confidant. Kennedy sought Mr. Sorensen’s counsel at every key juncture, from campaigning for the White House to guiding the country through perilous times such as the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis.

By Mr. Sorensen’s description, the two were as one as they drafted turns of phrase Kennedy made famous. Scholars in decades since have parsed sentences and scoured records while trying to deduce who wrote which words. With a grace born of his Midwestern roots, Mr. Sorensen always tipped the spotlight toward Kennedy, casting himself in the role of artist’s apprentice who assisted the master “in the execution of the final work of art.’’

Through the years, reporters routinely asked Mr. Sorensen if he wrote the line in Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address that arguably is the most famous sentence the president ever spoke: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’’

“Having no satisfactory answer, I long ago started answering the oft-repeated question as to its authorship with the smiling retort: ‘Ask not,’ ’’ Mr. Sorensen wrote in “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History,’’ his 2008 memoir.

“There was no one who was more responsible for the words President Kennedy is most remembered for than his good and trusted friend and adviser, Ted Sorensen,’’ said Joseph P. Kennedy II, a son of Robert F. Kennedy. “He was vehement in the defense of the policies that President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy pursued, and he did so not just out of loyalty, but out of a deep belief in those policies.’’

President Obama expressed condolences in a statement issued yesterday, saying he “got to know Ted after he endorsed my campaign early on. He was just as I hoped he’d be — just as quick-witted, just as serious of purpose, just as determined to keep America true to our highest ideals. From his early days desegregating a Nebraska pool to his central role electing and advising President Kennedy to his later years as an international lawyer and advocate, Ted lived an extraordinary life that made our country — and our world — more equal, more just, and more secure.’’

Not yet 25 in January 1953 when Kennedy, then a US senator, hired him as an assistant, Mr. Sorensen had arrived in Washington, D.C., a year and a half earlier, fresh from law school and a life lived almost entirely in Lincoln, Neb.

The two seemed drawn together by their differences. Mr. Sorensen was a pacifist who had registered as a conscientious objector. His father was a liberal Republican who had served as Nebraska’s attorney general.

Mr. Sorensen wrote in his 2008 memoir about his impressions of Kennedy when he interviewed for the job. “I was struck by this unpretentious, even ordinary man with his extraordinary background, a wealthy family, a Harvard education, and a heroic war record,’’ he wrote. “He did not try to impress me with his importance; he just seemed like a good guy.’’

Their friendship deepened over the next 11 years until Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. The pain of that November day was still fresh when Mr. Sorensen wrote in his memoir about the emotionally wrenching hours in Washington after he was told the president had been shot. “Deep in my soul,’’ he wrote, “I have not stopped weeping, whenever those events are recalled.’’

Mr. Sorensen stayed in the White House for the beginning of the Johnson administration. He left in 1964 and two years later joined the New York law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, where he became a senior partner and kept an office in retirement.

Never far from politics, he advised Robert Kennedy during his 1968 presidential campaign until he, too, was assassinated.

“I do not know whether I have ever fully recovered from John F. Kennedy’s death,’’ Mr. Sorensen wrote. “Time passed. Love and laughter helped. But the deep sadness of that time remained, only to be reinforced five years later by the murder of his brother Robert. Those two senseless tragedies robbed me of my future.’’

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter nominated Mr. Sorensen to be CIA director. But before the Senate could vote, Carter withdrew the nomination as foes criticized Mr. Sorensen’s long-ago conscientious objector status and raised other objections.

More recently, Mr. Sorensen was an early supporter of Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy, but surprised some by revealing a couple of weeks after the election that he initially had suggested Obama “might want to consider waiting’’ to run.

The successor to President George W. Bush “is going to inherit a country in bad shape, a presidency and a federal government in bad shape after eight years of what I call ‘shame and pain,’ ’’ Mr. Sorensen recalled telling Obama, the Associated Press reported a few days after the November 2008 election.

Drawing on his own experience, Mr. Sorensen was a sharp observer of presidents. He brought readers inside the Oval Office in a handful of books, beginning with “Kennedy,’’ a 1965 biography of JFK, and “The Kennedy Legacy,’’ published four years later.

“I realize that the office looks all-powerful from the outside,’’ he wrote in “Watchmen in the Night: Presidential Accountability After Watergate,’’ published in 1975. “But it does not appear that way from within.’’

Born in Lincoln, Neb., Mr. Sorensen was given his mother’s maiden name as a middle name. “I have always cherished the city of my birth,’’ he wrote in his memoir. “Of all the cities in which I have lived . . . the air, water, and politics were always cleaner in Lincoln.’’

He was descended from Danish immigrants on his father’s side and Russian Jews on his mother’s side, and joked that as “a Danish Russian Jewish Unitarian, I am surely a member of the smallest minority among the many small minorities that made this country great.’’

His mother, Annis Chaikin, worked as a maid to pay her way through the University of Nebraska and was editor of the University Journal when she married Christian A. Sorensen, a lawyer who went by his initials. C.A. Sorensen was elected Nebraska’s attorney general in 1928, the year Theodore was born.

In his memoir, Mr. Sorensen wrote about growing up during the Great Depression and how through reading he was “carried afar, on the wings of words,’’ despite rarely leaving the Midwest. He was president of the Lincoln High School writers’ club and editor of its literary magazine, and gave the commencement address for his class in 1945. He subsequently graduated from the University of Nebraska and its law school, both in Lincoln.

Mr. Sorensen also addressed in his memoir the pain of watching his mother slip into mental illness when he was a teenager.

Guided by his Unitarian faith, he applied in 1946 for noncombat service as a conscientious objector after he turned 18. His decision to apply for that status, rather than simply not register for the draft, was brought up by conservative writers and politicians in the early years of the Kennedy administration and during Carter’s brief attempt to make him director of the CIA.

Through his law office, Mr. Sorensen represented corporations in the United States and abroad, and advised world leaders such as Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Anwar Sadat of Egypt. In 2002, he was a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

His first marriage, to Camilla Palmer, ended in a divorce he attributed to “years of work-related absences and consequent inattention to my family.’’ His second marriage, to Sara Elbery, also ended in divorce.

In 1969, he married Gillian Martin, who has served as assistant secretary general for external relations at the United Nations and as senior adviser and national advocate for the United Nations Foundation.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Sorensen leaves their daughter, Juliet Sorensen Jones of Chicago; three sons from his first marriage, Eric, Stephen, and Philip, who all live in northern Wisconsin; a sister, Ruth Singer of Falls Church, Va.; a brother, Philip, of Columbus, Ohio; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. A memorial service will be held.

Mr. Sorensen believed he made his most significant historical contributions by advising Kennedy on decisions such as those involving civil rights or the Cuban missile crisis.

Nevertheless, he knew his work shaping Kennedy’s words would overshadow all other accomplishments. Predicting that in death his last name would be misspelled as it so often was during his life, he guessed the obituary headline in The New York Times would read: “Theodore Sorenson, Kennedy Speechwriter.’’

In that realm, Mr. Sorensen’s shining moments forever will be defined by what never can be determined. Scribes and scholars alike have long debated to whom writing credit is due for the resonant lines in Kennedy’s speeches and for “Profiles in Courage.’’

Investigative reporter Drew Pearson publicly denounced the book in 1957, saying Kennedy won a Pulitzer Prize for a book that was “ghostwritten.’’ After consulting with Kennedy, Mr. Sorensen signed an affidavit that included a denial: “I am not the author of ‘Profiles in Courage.’ ’’

He went into greater detail in his memoir about his role in the book’s preparation and attempted to put to rest questions that had lingered for a half-century.

“Is the author the person who did much of the research and helped choose the words in many of its sentences, or is the author the person who decided the substance, structure, and theme of the book; read and revised each draft; inspired, constructed, and improved the work? Like JFK’s speeches, ‘Profiles in Courage’ was a collaboration,’’ Mr. Sorensen wrote.

Because their collaborative approach “was similar to the method we used on his speeches,’’ he added, “I know exactly where the credit ultimately lies — with JFK.’’

Similar scrutiny has been lavished on the sentence, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’’ “The truth is that I simply don’t remember where the line came from,’’ Mr. Sorensen wrote in his 2008 memoir.

Two pages later, he added: “I destroyed my handwritten first draft upon completing my book ‘Kennedy,’ ’’ his 1965 biography. “If I checked that question then, I do not remember now.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at