Milton Gwirtzman, prominent adviser to Kennedys; at 78

Mr. Gwirtzman consulted with Edward M. Kennedy in 1988. Mr. Gwirtzman consulted with Edward M. Kennedy in 1988. (New York Times)
By Douglas Martin
New York Times / July 28, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

NEW YORK - Milton S. Gwirtzman, a Washington insider who advised John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy and wrote speeches for them while helping the family navigate difficult political seas and emotional traumas over the years, died Saturday at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 78.

The cause was a metastatic melanoma, said his wife, Katherine Krents.

Within the Kennedy family, Mr. Gwirtzman’s strategizing, loyalty, and oracular reputation made him a bit of a legend himself. Likening him to a wizard, a family saying had it that “you can only see him if you believe in him’’ - and the Kennedys believed.

Mr. Gwirtzman turns up repeatedly in Kennedy histories. He helped John F. Kennedy prepare for his presidential debates with Richard M. Nixon. He helped persuade Robert F. Kennedy to run for the Senate in New York, then became one of his top aides when he ran for president. He helped write some of Edward M. Kennedy’s most important speeches, including his 1968 eulogy for Robert at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York after his assassination.

Mr. Gwirtzman said he wrote an often-quoted passage toward the eulogy’s end, in which Edward Kennedy said, “My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.’’

He later helped Kennedy write a televised public statement after a young woman drowned in the senator’s car in 1969 when it plunged from a bridge at Chappaquiddick Island off Martha’s Vineyard.

Beyond the Kennedy orbit, Mr. Gwirtzman was an international lawyer, a lobbyist, and an author. But he was there when the Kennedys needed him.

After President John Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, Mr. Gwirtzman, as an aide to Edward Kennedy, drove the senator to his home in Georgetown in a frantic search for his wife, Joan, before finding her at a beauty parlor.

In 1988, when Kennedy family members thought a biographer researching the life of John Kennedy was blemishing their image in lectures, Mr. Gwirtzman delivered the message to the author, Nigel Hamilton.

Mr. Gwirtzman “asked me to ‘alter my attitude’ toward Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Kennedy,’’ the Kennedy parents, Hamilton wrote in The New York Times in 1993. Hamilton said he asked for evidence to justify revising his work but did not get any, though Mr. Gwirtzman, he added, had been “authorized to search the family’s secret holdings.’’

Milton Saul Gwirtzman was born in Rochester, N.Y. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, where he was editorial chairman of The Harvard Crimson and Edward Kennedy’s classmate. At Yale Law School, he helped edit The Yale Law Journal. He worked in Adlai E. Stevenson’s presidential campaign in 1956, and in 1958 he wrote speeches for former President Harry S. Truman.

In 1959, Mr. Gwirtzman was a young aide to Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri when Theodore C. Sorensen, John Kennedy’s lieutenant, hired him as deputy director of research for Kennedy’s presidential campaign. After a stint with Benjamin A. Smith, a US senator from Massachusetts, he joined Edward Kennedy’s successful 1962 campaign for the Senate and continued to advise the senator afterward while practicing law.

In 1964, Robert Kennedy asked him for a memorandum on whether he should run for senator from New York or governor of Massachusetts. Mr. Gwirtzman recommended the Senate race, which Kennedy chose and won. Mr. Gwirtzman was chief speechwriter in the campaign.

When Robert Kennedy ran for president in 1968, Mr. Gwirtzman directed the campaign’s public affairs. In 1972, he wrote speeches for George S. McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee, and in the 1976 campaign he advised Jimmy Carter.

Mr. Gwirtzman moved easily among politics, government, and the law. President Carter appointed him chairman of a bipartisan commission of private citizens examining the Social Security system. Some of its recommendations for change were reflected in 1983 legislation.

As a special adviser to Stuart E. Eizenstat, undersecretary of the Treasury, Mr. Gwirtzman worked on a legal settlement between Holocaust victims and German industry in which 1.6 million survivors who had worked as slaves received $8 billion in compensation. For 37 years, he was also on the senior advisory board of the Harvard University Institute of Politics, which had been established as a memorial to President Kennedy to inspire public service.

His marriage to Elisabeth Lansing ended in divorce. He leaves his wife, Katherine Krents; his sons, Matthew and Dan; his stepsons, Jamie, William, and Michael Krents; and his sisters, Marcia Wasserman and Adele Erenstone.

Mr. Gwirtzman liked to tell the story of how as a young operative in the 1960 Kennedy presidential campaign, he was asked by Sorensen to find out how many Catholics had died at the Alamo fighting for Texas. John Kennedy had just visited the site, and Sorensen thought the Texas reference would be helpful in a speech the candidate was to give in Houston to Protestant ministers who were uneasy about the prospect of a Roman Catholic president. The best Mr. Gwirtzman could come up with was a list of fighters whose names suggested they were Catholics.

Mr. Gwirtzman said Sorensen, the chief speechwriter, made lemonade out of his seeming lemons. In his address to the ministers, Kennedy said: “For side by side with Bowie and Crockett, died Fuentes and McCafferty and Bailey and Bedillo and Carey - but no one knows whether they were Catholics or not. For there was no religious test there.’’