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Ted Sorensen

Ted Sorensen

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Theodore Chaikin "Ted" Sorensen (May 8, 1928October 31, 2010) was an American presidential advisor, lawyer and writer, best known as President John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy
John Fitzgerald "Jack" Kennedy , often referred to by his initials JFK, was the 35th President of the United States, serving from 1961 until his assassination in 1963....

’s special counsel, adviser and legendary speechwriter
A speechwriter is a person who is hired to prepare and write speeches that will be delivered by another person. Speechwriters are used by many senior-level elected officials and executives in the government and private sectors.-Skills and training:...

. President Kennedy once called him his “intellectual blood bank.”

Early life

Sorensen was born in Nebraska, the son of Christian A. Sorensen, a Danish American and Nebraska Attorney General
Nebraska Attorney General
The Nebraska Attorney General is the chief law enforcement officer and lawyer for the U.S. state of Nebraska.-List of Attorneys General:-Notes:Term began February 21, 1867.Joint Populist-Democratic ticket.Resigned....

 (1929–33), and Annis (Chaikin) Sorensen, who was of Russian Jewish descent. He graduated from Lincoln High School (1945). He earned a Bachelor's degree at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
The University of Nebraska–Lincoln is a public research university located in the city of Lincoln in the U.S. state of Nebraska...

, and attended law school there, graduating first in his class.

In January 1953, the 24 years-old Sorensen became the new United States Senator John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy
John Fitzgerald "Jack" Kennedy , often referred to by his initials JFK, was the 35th President of the United States, serving from 1961 until his assassination in 1963....

'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, and was the ghostwriter
A ghostwriter is a professional writer who is paid to write books, articles, stories, reports, or other texts that are officially credited to another person. Celebrities, executives, and political leaders often hire ghostwriters to draft or edit autobiographies, magazine articles, or other written...

 for the bulk of his Pulitzer Prize
Pulitzer Prize
The Pulitzer Prize is a U.S. award for achievements in newspaper and online journalism, literature and musical composition. It was established by American publisher Joseph Pulitzer and is administered by Columbia University in New York City...

-winning 1956 book Profiles in Courage
Profiles in Courage
Profiles in Courage is a 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography describing acts of bravery and integrity by eight United States Senators throughout the Senate's history. The book profiles senators who crossed party lines and/or defied the public opinion of their constituents to do what they felt was...


Kennedy administration

Sorensen was President Kennedy's Special Counsel & Adviser, and primary speechwriter
A speechwriter is a person who is hired to prepare and write speeches that will be delivered by another person. Speechwriters are used by many senior-level elected officials and executives in the government and private sectors.-Skills and training:...

, 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
Bay of Pigs Invasion
The Bay of Pigs Invasion was an unsuccessful action by a CIA-trained force of Cuban exiles to invade southern Cuba, with support and encouragement from the US government, in an attempt to overthrow the Cuban government of Fidel Castro. The invasion was launched in April 1961, less than three months...

 Kennedy asked Sorensen to take part in foreign policy
Foreign relations of the United States
The United States has formal diplomatic relations with most nations. The United States federal statutes relating to foreign relations can be found in Title 22 of the United States Code.-Pacific:-Americas:-Caribbean:...

 discussions as well. During the Cuban Missile Crisis
Cuban Missile Crisis
The Cuban Missile Crisis was a confrontation among the Soviet Union, Cuba and the United States in October 1962, during the Cold War...

 Sorensen served as a member of ExComm
The Executive Committee of the National Security Council was a body of United States government officials that convened to advise President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962...

 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
Robert F. Kennedy
Robert Francis "Bobby" Kennedy , also referred to by his initials RFK, was an American politician, a Democratic senator from New York, and a noted civil rights activist. An icon of modern American liberalism and member of the Kennedy family, he was a younger brother of President John F...

, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy
McGeorge Bundy
McGeorge "Mac" Bundy was United States National Security Advisor to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson from 1961 through 1966, and president of the Ford Foundation from 1966 through 1979...

, Secretary of State Dean Rusk
Dean Rusk
David Dean Rusk was the United States Secretary of State from 1961 to 1969 under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Rusk is the second-longest serving U.S...

, General Maxwell D. Taylor
Maxwell D. Taylor
General Maxwell Davenport "Max" Taylor was an United States Army four star general and diplomat of the mid-20th century, who served as the fifth Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff after having been appointed by the President of the United States John F...

 (the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs), former Ambassador to the Soviet Union Llewellyn Thompson
Llewellyn Thompson
Llewellyn E. "Tommy" Thompson Jr. , was a United States diplomat. He served in Sri Lanka, Austria, and for a lengthy period in the Soviet Union where his tenure saw some of the most significant events of the Cold War....

 and McNamara himself. Sorensen played a critical role in drafting Kennedy's correspondence with Nikita Khrushchev
Nikita Khrushchev
Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev led the Soviet Union during part of the Cold War. He served as First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964, and as Chairman of the Council of Ministers, or Premier, from 1958 to 1964...

 and worked on Kennedy's first address to the nation about the crisis on October 22.

Sorensen was devastated by Kennedy's assassination
Assassination of John F. Kennedy
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the thirty-fifth President of the United States, was assassinated at 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time on Friday, November 22, 1963, in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas...

, which he called "the most deeply traumatic experience of my life...I had never considered a future without him." 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
A bestseller is a book that is identified as extremely popular by its inclusion on lists of currently top selling titles that are based on publishing industry and book trade figures and published by newspapers, magazines, or bookstore chains. Some lists are broken down into classifications and...


Politics after Kennedy

Sorensen later joined the prominent U.S. law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, where he was of counsel
Of counsel
Of counsel is often the title of an attorney who is employed by a law firm or an organization, but is not an associate or a partner. Some firms use titles like "counsel," "special counsel," and "senior counsel" for the same concept...

, while still staying involved in politics. He was an important partner of Democratic campaigns and was a key adviser to Robert F. Kennedy
Robert F. Kennedy
Robert Francis "Bobby" Kennedy , also referred to by his initials RFK, was an American politician, a Democratic senator from New York, and a noted civil rights activist. An icon of modern American liberalism and member of the Kennedy family, he was a younger brother of President John F...

 in Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. Over the past 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
Primary election
A primary election is an election in which party members or voters select candidates for a subsequent election. Primary elections are one means by which a political party nominates candidates for the next general election....

 by Richard Ottinger
Richard Ottinger
Richard Ottinger is an American politician of the Democratic Party, a former member of the United States House of Representatives, and a legal educator.-Early years:...

, Paul O'Dwyer
Paul O'Dwyer
Paul O'Dwyer was an American politician and lawyer, brother of Mayor William O'Dwyer and father to New York City lawyer Brian O'Dwyer .-Life:...

 and Max McCarthy
Richard D. McCarthy
Richard Dean McCarthy was a Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives from New York, also known as Richard Max McCarthy or Max McCarthy.-Life:He served in the United States Navy from November 1945 until August 1946, and in the United States Army from November...

, and came in third.

In 1977 Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter
James Earl "Jimmy" Carter, Jr. is an American politician who served as the 39th President of the United States and was the recipient of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, the only U.S. President to have received the Prize after leaving office...

 nominated him as Director of Central Intelligence
Director of Central Intelligence
The Office of United States Director of Central Intelligence was the head of the United States Central Intelligence Agency, the principal intelligence advisor to the President and the National Security Council, and the coordinator of intelligence activities among and between the various United...

 (CIA), but the nomination was withdrawn before a Senate vote. Sorensen’s help in explaining Ted Kennedy
Ted Kennedy
Edward Moore "Ted" Kennedy was a United States Senator from Massachusetts and a member of the Democratic Party. Serving almost 47 years, he was the second most senior member of the Senate when he died and is the fourth-longest-serving senator in United States history...

's Chappaquiddick incident was cited as one factor in Senate opposition to his nomination as CIA Director. 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.

Sorensen was the national co-chairman for Gary Hart
Gary Hart
Gary Hart is an American politician, lawyer, author, professor and commentator. He served as a Democratic Senator representing Colorado , and ran in the U.S...

 for the presidential election of 1984
United States presidential election, 1984
The United States presidential election of 1984 was a contest between the incumbent President Ronald Reagan, the Republican candidate, and former Vice President Walter Mondale, the Democratic candidate. Reagan was helped by a strong economic recovery from the deep recession of 1981–1982...

 and made several appearances on his behalf.

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
Council on Foreign Relations
The Council on Foreign Relations is an American nonprofit nonpartisan membership organization, publisher, and think tank specializing in U.S. foreign policy and international affairs...

, The Century Foundation
The Century Foundation
The Century Foundation is an US progressive think tank. It was founded as a nonprofit public policy research institution on the belief that the prosperity and security of the United States depends on a mix of effective government, open democracy, and free markets. The Foundation is headquartered...

, Princeton University
Princeton University
Princeton University is a private research university located in Princeton, New Jersey, United States. The school is one of the eight universities of the Ivy League, and is one of the nine Colonial Colleges founded before the American Revolution....

, 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
International Center for Transitional Justice
The International Center for Transitional Justice was founded in 2001 as a non-profit organization dedicated to pursuing accountability for mass atrocity and human rights abuse through transitional justice mechanisms.-Mission statement:...

 and an Advisory Board member of the Partnership for a Secure America
Partnership for a Secure America
The Partnership for a Secure America is a policy center in the United States. It describes its mission as "recreating the bipartisan center in American national security and foreign policy."...

, 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
Judson Welliver Society
The Judson Welliver Society is a bipartisan social club composed exclusively of former presidential speechwriters in the United States. The group is named after Judson C. Welliver, the "literary clerk" to President Warren Harding, usually credited as being the first presidential speechwriter...

, 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.

On March 9, 2007, he spoke at an event with then-Senator Barack Obama
Barack Obama
Barack Hussein Obama II is the 44th and current President of the United States. He is the first African American to hold the office. Obama previously served as a United States Senator from Illinois, from January 2005 until he resigned following his victory in the 2008 presidential election.Born in...

 at New York City's Grand Hyatt Hotel and officially endorsed him for the presidential election in 2008
United States presidential election, 2008
The United States presidential election of 2008 was the 56th quadrennial presidential election. It was held on November 4, 2008. Democrat Barack Obama, then the junior United States Senator from Illinois, defeated Republican John McCain, the senior U.S. Senator from Arizona. Obama received 365...

. 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.

Sorensen served on the Advisory Board of the National Security Network
National Security Network
The National Security Network is a non-profit foreign policy organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. that focuses on international relations, global affairs and national security...


Personal life

He was married to Gillian Sorensen
Gillian Sorensen
Gillian Martin Sorensen is a Senior Advisor at the United Nations Foundation, and is a national advocate on matters related to the United Nations and the United States-United Nations relationship, addressing audiences as diverse as Rotary International and the United States Air Force Academy;...

 of the United Nations Foundation
United Nations Foundation
The United Nations Foundation started up in 1998 with a $1 billion grant from Ted Turner in order to support the United Nations in executing its programs worldwide. The creation of the Foundation was intended to encourage other donors to also support the UN in its activities...

. He had had three sons by a previous marriage – Eric, Stephen, and Philip - and a daughter with Gillian, Juliet Sorensen
Juliet Sorensen
Juliet Sorensen is an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Chicago. She has prosecuted City of Chicago inspectors as part of Operation Crooked Code, a bribery investigation into Chicago’s Building and Zoning departments....


On February 25, 2010, he received the National Humanities Medal
National Humanities Medal
The National Humanities Medal honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities, broadened citizens’ engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to important resources in the humanities.The award, given by the...

 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 advisor to President Kennedy, he helped craft messages and policies, and later gave us a window into the people and events that made history."

Sorensen died on October 31, 2010, following a stroke.

Books by Ted Sorensen

  • Profiles in Courage (1955)
  • Decision-making in the White House (1963)
  • Kennedy (1965)
  • The Kennedy Legacy (1969)
  • Watchmen in the Night: Presidential Accountability After Watergate (1975)
  • A Different Kind of Presidency: A Proposal for Breaking the Political Deadlock (1984)
  • Let the Word Go Forth: The Speeches, Statements and Writings of John F. Kennedy, 1947-1963 (1988)
  • Why I Am a Democrat (1996)
  • Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History (2008)

In other media

  • Sorensen was portrayed by actor Clifford David
    Clifford David
    Clifford David is an American actor born in Toledo, Ohio on June 30, 1938. He is recognized for his many Broadway, film and television performances.-Career:...

     in the 1974, made-for-TV film, The Missiles of October
    The Missiles of October
    The Missiles of October is a 1974 docudrama made-for-television play about the Cuban missile crisis. The title evokes the book The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman about the missteps among the great powers and the failed chances to give an opponent a graceful way out, which led to the First...

  • In the 1998 mini-series From the Earth to the Moon, Sorensen was played by Jack Gilpin
    Jack Gilpin
    Jack Gilpin is an American actor.Gilpin had a recurring role on the TV series Kate & Allie, and is a frequent Law & Order guest star, having appeared in all three series – Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent...

  • In the 2000 film Thirteen Days
    Thirteen Days (film)
    Thirteen Days is a 2000 docudrama directed by Roger Donaldson about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, seen from the perspective of the US political leadership. Kevin Costner stars, with Bruce Greenwood featured as John F. Kennedy....

    , although he was played by Tim Kelleher
    Tim Kelleher
    Tim Kelleher is an American writer, actor and director.Born in The Bronx, Tim grew up across the five boroughs of New York City, and played football with an elite corps of young men at perennial powerhouse Msgr. Farrell on Staten Island...

    , it is widely believed that the lead role played by Kevin Costner was modeled after Sorensen himself: in an interview Robert McNamara claimed the duties performed by Kenneth O'Donnell
    Kenneth O'Donnell
    Kenneth Patrick O'Donnell , known as Kenny, was a top aide to U.S. President John F. Kennedy and part of the group of Kennedys' close advisors called the "Irish Mafia"...

     in the film are closer to the role Sorensen played during the actual crisis: "It was not Kenny O'Donnell who pulled us all together—it was Ted Sorensen."

Further reading

External links