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Theodore Sorensen

For the Australian politician, see Ted Sorensen (politician).
Theodore "Ted" Sorensen
Sorensen in May 2009
8th White House Counsel
In office
President John F. Kennedy
Preceded by David W. Kendall
Succeeded by Myer Feldman
Personal details
Born (1928-05-08)May 8, 1928
Lincoln, Nebraska
Died October 31, 2010(2010-10-31) (aged 82)
New York City
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Camilla Palmer (1949-?)
Sara Elbery (1964-?)
Gillian Martin[1]
Children Three sons; one daughter
Alma mater University of Nebraska
Occupation Political Adviser, Speechwriter, Attorney
Religion Unitarian Universalist

Theodore Chaikin "Ted" Sorensen (May 8, 1928–October 31, 2010) was an American presidential adviser, lawyer, and writer, best known as President John F. Kennedy’s special counsel, adviser, and legendary speechwriter. President Kennedy once called him his “intellectual blood bank.”[2]

Early life

Sorensen was born in Nebraska, the son of Christian A. Sorensen, a Danish American and Nebraska attorney general (1929–33),[3][4] and Annis (Chaikin) Sorensen, who was of Russian Jewish descent.[5] He graduated from Lincoln High School (1945). He earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and attended law school there, graduating first in his class.[2]

In January 1953, the 24 year-old Sorensen became the new Senator John F. Kennedy's chief legislative aide. "The most important aide [Kennedy] ever hired" became a talented mimic of the senator's writing. He authored many of Kennedy's articles and speeches.[6]:357–359

Kennedy administration

Sorensen was President Kennedy's special counsel & adviser, and primary speechwriter, the role for which he is best remembered today. He was particularly famous for having helped draft the inaugural address in which Kennedy exhorted listeners to "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." This call to service is the phrase still most closely associated with the Kennedy administration. Although Sorensen played an important part in the composition of the inaugural address, "the speech and its famous turn of phrase that everyone remembers was," Sorensen firmly states (counter to what the majority of authors, journalists, and other media sources have claimed), "written by Kennedy himself." In later years, when pressed in interviews if he wrote the phrase, Sorenson would reply tongue in cheek "Ask not."

In the early months of the administration the scope of Sorensen's responsibilities lay within the domestic agenda; however, after the Bay of Pigs debacle Kennedy asked Sorensen to take part in foreign policy discussions as well. During the Cuban Missile Crisis Sorensen served as a member of ExComm and was named by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara as one of the "true inner circle" members who advised the president, the others being Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, General Maxwell D. Taylor (chairman of the Joint Chiefs), former ambassador to the Soviet Union Llewellyn Thompson, and McNamara himself.[7] Sorensen played a critical role in drafting Kennedy's correspondence with Nikita Khrushchev and worked on Kennedy's first address to the nation about the crisis on October 22.

Sorensen was devastated by Kennedy's assassination, which he called "the most deeply traumatic experience of my life . . . I had never considered a future without him."[8] He later quoted a poem that he said summed up how he felt: "How could you leave us, how could you die? We are sheep without a shepherd when the snow shuts out the sky." He submitted a letter of resignation to President Johnson the day after the assassination but was persuaded to stay through the transition. Sorensen drafted Johnson's first address to Congress as well as the 1964 State of the Union. He officially resigned February 29, 1964, and was the first member of the Kennedy Administration to do so.

Prior to his resignation, Sorensen stated his intent to write Kennedy's biography, calling it "the book that President Kennedy had intended to write with my help after his second term." He was not the only Kennedy aide to turn to writing; historian and special assistant Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote his Pulitzer-winning memoir A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House during the same time span. Sorensen's biography Kennedy was published in 1965 and became an international bestseller.

Politics after Kennedy

Sorensen later joined the prominent U.S. law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, where he was of counsel, while still staying involved in politics. He was an important partner of Democratic campaigns and was a key adviser to Robert F. Kennedy in Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. Over the next four decades, Sorensen had a prominent career as an international lawyer, advising governments around the world, as well as major international corporations.

In 1970 Sorensen ran as the Democratic party's designee for the Democratic nomination for U.S. senator from New York, but was challenged in the primary election by Richard Ottinger, Paul O'Dwyer, and Max McCarthy, and came in third.

In 1977 Jimmy Carter nominated him as director of Central Intelligence (CIA), but the nomination was withdrawn before a Senate vote. Sorensen’s help in explaining Ted Kennedy's Chappaquiddick incident was cited as one factor in Senate opposition to his nomination as CIA director.[9] Sorensen in his autobiography attributed the loss of Senate support for his nomination for CIA director to his conscientious objector status as a youth, his two failed marriages, and his writing an affidavit in defense of releasing the Pentagon Papers.[10]

Sorensen was the national co-chairman for Gary Hart for the presidential election of 1984 and made several appearances on his behalf.[11]

In addition to his successful career as a lawyer, Sorensen was also a frequent spokesman for liberal ideals and ideas, writing op-eds and delivering speeches on both domestic and international subjects. For several years in the 1960s, he was an editor at the Saturday Review.

He was affiliated with a number of institutions, including the Council on Foreign Relations, The Century Foundation, Princeton University, and the Institute of Politics at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Sorensen was a board member of the International Center for Transitional Justice and an advisory board member of the Partnership for a Secure America, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to recreating the bipartisan center in American national security and foreign policy. He also was chairman of the advisory board to the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life at Brandeis University. Sorensen also attended meetings of the Judson Welliver Society, a bipartisan social club composed of former presidential speechwriters.

In 2007 a model Democratic presidential nomination acceptance speech written by Sorensen was published in the Washington Monthly. The magazine had solicited him to write the speech that he would most want the 2008 Democratic nominee to give at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, without regard to the identity of the nominee.[12]

On March 9, 2007, he spoke at an event with then-senator Barack Obama at New York City's Grand Hyatt Hotel and officially endorsed him for the presidential election in 2008.[13][14][15] Very active in his campaign, Sorensen spoke early on and frequently about the similarities between both Senator Barack Obama's and Senator John F. Kennedy's presidential campaigns. He also provided some assistance with President Obama's 2009 Inaugural Address.[16]

Sorensen served on the advisory board of the National Security Network.

Personal life

He was married to Gillian Sorensen of the United Nations Foundation, with whom he had a daughter, Juliet Sorensen. He had three sons by a previous marriage: Eric, Stephen, and Philip. His younger brother Philip C. Sorensen was a lieutenant governor of Nebraska.

On February 25, 2010, he received the National Humanities Medal for 2009 in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. He was awarded the medal for "Advancing our understanding of modern American politics. As a speechwriter and adviser to President Kennedy, he helped craft messages and policies, and later gave us a window into the people and events that made history."[17]

Sorensen died on October 31, 2010, following a stroke.[18]


In other media

See also

Biography portal


Further reading

  • online, 2008-02-08. Passing the Torch: Kennedy's Touch on Obama's Words
  • Clarke, Thurston. 2005. Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America. Macmillan, 304 pp. (Originally published 2004 by Henry Holt and Co., 272 pp.)
  • Marcus, Jacob Rader. 1981. The American Jewish Woman, 1654-1980. KTAV Publishing House. 231 pp
  • , 1983-04-21. NEW YORK DAY BY DAY; Gary Hart Opens Campaign Headquarters
  • The New York Times, Sunday Book Review, 18 May 2008, review of Ted Sorensen's Counselor.
  • , July/August 2007.
  • (London, UK)
  • Sorensen, Ted. Ted Sorensen on Barack Obama. Video posted on YouTube.
  • .

External links

  • John F. Kennedy Library and Museum: Inventory of personal papers
  • PBS interview with Sorensen, 29 August 1996
  • As a ghostwriter for Kennedy
  • Webcast of speech at the 2005 Nuclear Non Proliferation Conference (RealPlayer)
  • Lincoln High School Distinguished Alumni Profile
  • Sorensen's Acceptance Address Prepared for the 2008 Democratic Presidential Nominee
  • Sorensen speaks at MIT Symposium
  • with Ted Sorensen in Stockholm on Obama and Kennedy
  • , July 14, 1996.
Legal offices
Preceded by
David W. Kendall
White House Counsel
Succeeded by
Myer Feldman

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