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The Reflections of JFK’s Closest Advisor, Ted Sorensen (Interview)

For the past four decades, Ted Sorensen has led a distinguished career in international law.  Despite his many achievements as an attorney, however, he is best known as the closest advisor to Pres. John F. Kennedy—and is seen by many commentators as the greatest American presidential speechwriter. 

Kennedy called Sorensen his “intellectual blood bank.”  And Sorensen was so close to JFK that some dubbed him the “Deputy President.”  In A Thousand Days, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., reported that both men “shared so much—the same quick tempo, detached intelligence, deflationary wit, realistic judgment, candor in speech, coolness in crisis—that, when it came to policy and speeches, they operated nearly as one.”

Now 80, and with the residuals of a stroke that damaged his vision, Sorensen remains active in law and international affairs.  He also advises presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama—a bright, young and hopeful politician whom Sorensen sees as JFK’s heir, and the person who can end the present “hideous, dangerous, reckless chapter in our foreign policy.” 

Sorensen’s acclaimed new autobiography, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History (Harper Collins, 2008), the product of six years of writing, reflects his idealism and hope for the future.  The book recounts Sorensen’s childhood nurtured by a progressive and idealistic family in Lincoln, Nebraska; his historic JFK years as a senatorial aide and then as special counsel to president with challenges such as the cold war, the civil rights struggle, and the space race; and his subsequent law career advising governments, multinational organizations, and corporations, and meeting with world leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Anwar Sadat, and Fidel Castro.  

Sorensen also wrote Kennedy, his bestselling 1965 biography of JFK, as well as several other books and numerous articles on law and politics.  He lives in New York City with his wife, Gillian.

In a recent interview by telephone, Sorensen discussed his new book, the coming election, his background, his relationship with President Kennedy, and more.

 Robin Lindley:  Is your autobiography in part a response to the belligerent policies of the Bush-Cheney administration?

Ted Sorensen:  Very much so.  I state in the preface I was spurred to write this book by the dismal state of affairs in Washington and the fact that the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld administration had repudiated and acted contrary to everything John F. Kennedy stood for and tried to do in foreign policy. 

John Kennedy believed in international law, international organizations like the United Nations, international alliances, and therefore multi-lateral diplomacy.  He did not think that in a world as ugly and complicated as this one that the United States could go it alone.  He never would have dreamed of a unilateral, pre-emptive invasion of another country, particularly one that was not posing any specific threat to the security and survival of the United States, the way Bush and Cheney did with respect to Iraq.

RL:  You point out that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrongly compared the pre-emptive war against Iraq with JFK’s approach to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

TS:  He was totally wrong in using that analogy, and he or Bush or Condi Rice quoted language that Kennedy said, “in the age of modern weapons, you didn’t need to wait until you got hit.”  Kennedy said that not to justify a pre-emptive strike, but the opposite.  He was saying that to justify the fact that he had opted against bombing the Soviet missiles in Cuba, and instead opted for the quarantine or blockade, which struck some people as being too passive, but which, under international law, was an act of war. He therefore wanted to point out that the United States was taking that action because it didn’t make sense to wait until being struck by a modern weapon—they are so destructive and quickly used—but that certainly was not an excuse for a pre-emptive strike.

RL:  The Republicans now stress their national security credentials even though they’ve arguably left the world less safe than it was on September 10, 2001.

TS:  Sounds like you’re quoting me.  I’ve been saying exactly that.  The Bush-Cheney administration has persuaded 1.3 billion adherents of the Muslim faith that we are hostile toward them, and even hostile toward the practice of their religion.  That is a foolish and dangerous posture for an American government because no matter how much we spend on homeland security and make people take their shoes off at airports, we have in an open society no certain defense against those who think suicide bombing is a legitimate tactic in war. 

So yes, we are more threatened now, and we need a new team in Washington that will close this hideous, dangerous, reckless chapter in our foreign policy, and a new administration that believes not only in international law, but in communicating with those leaders of other countries who are hostile toward us.

RL:  You obviously share Sen. Obama’s view that we must talk to our enemies as well as our friends.

TS:  Yes.  Kennedy resolved the Cuban missile crisis—the most dangerous 13 days in the history of mankind, as historians call it, by his willingness to communicate with Soviet Chairman Khrushchev, and through those communications, to negotiate with him. 

RL:  You’ve endorsed Sen. Barack Obama.  Do you have a role in his campaign?

TS:  Not officially.  Last year, and earlier this year, they sent me out to be a surrogate to speak for him in seven or eight states.  I haven’t done that lately, but I’m in touch with them, and I hope they call on me some more. 

RL:  Some say Sen. Obama is merely providing hope and words.

TS:  People who say that are permitting partisanship to blind them to what the world and the American presidency are all about.  It was words that enabled Kennedy to respond to the missiles in Cuba, first with the quarantine, and then with communications with Khrushchev that persuaded him he could take those missiles out of Cuba without the United States firing a shot.

RL:  What parallels do you see between Sen. Obama and Pres. Kennedy?

TS:  One of the reasons I became interested some time ago in Sen. Obama was that people were saying he had no chance of being elected president because he was born black in white America.  Forty-eight years ago they said Kennedy had no chance of being elected president because he’d been baptized Catholic in Protestant America.  And then people would say Obama is a young, first-term senator.  When Kennedy started out, he was an even younger first-term senator.  But Kennedy showed that it’s possible to transcend those ethnic and demographic limitations by reaching out to all kinds of voters, including Independents and Republicans as well as Democrats, and including minority and young voters who hadn’t turned out in large numbers in the past, and that’s exactly what Obama has been doing.  He’s been appealing to younger voters, ethnic voters, as well as every other kind of voter, and he too, I believe, will transcend race and religion and region in building a new political coalition in this country.

RL:  It must be exciting for you to see the enthusiasm of his supporters, and it’s probably reminiscent of the 1960 campaign.

TS:  Yes, very much so.  I just had my eightieth birthday, and I’m familiar with the words of [Irish poet] Seamus Heaney about hope being questioned on this side of the grave, “but once in a lifetime,” he said, there is a mighty surge of justice, and “hope and history rhyme.” 

I’m only 80, but twice in my lifetime I’ve seen that mighty surge of justice, first with Kennedy, now with Obama, and once again, “hope and history rhyme.”

RL:  You said recently that Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican from your home state of Nebraska, may be a good choice for Sen. Obama’s vice-presidential running mate—but wouldn’t that upset mainstream Democrats?

TS:  It would probably upset a lot of Republicans.  And Abraham Lincoln [a Republican] chose a Democrat as his running mate in 1864.  I don’t think it would be a strike against a presidential candidate who has promised a new kind of politics and reaches out to everybody in the country.  No one will be too upset if Obama selects a Republican.  I advised presidential candidates on more than one occasion to select a running mate who is strong among whatever group in the American electorate that the [presidential candidate] is weakest among.  Clearly, for Obama, that is white male Republicans.  I would think Chuck Hagel with his war record and his understanding of international politics, would be a good running mate for Obama, even though [with] his views on domestic policy, he might have to gulp a bit to run on the Democratic ticket.

RL:  Do you have other favorites for a vice-presidential running mate?

TS:  No.  I hear good things about the lady senator from Missouri [Claire McCaskill], and about Sen. James Webb [of Virginia] with his military record.  I’m not expressing any favorite at this time, but if the time comes that I express a favorite, I’ll do it in confidence to Sen. Obama if he asks for it. 

RL:  You grew up in Nebraska in a progressive family, yet Nebraska seems very conservative.  You write that your dad was on Henry Ford’s Peace Ship, a failed effort to stop World War I.

TS:  He even wanted to stop [the war] before it started.  It was a noble, idealistic effort, and my father was a noble idealist.  Yes, we lived in a conservative state but it’s become much more conservative since my father started out as an activist and in political office.   Ironically, in part it’s become conservative because all of the farmers were bailed out of the Depression by New Deal farm programs that made them all happy with the subsidies they received for their crops—sometimes for not growing crops.  Once they were prosperous, they decided to be Republicans for the sake of the status quo.

RL:  Did you feel alienated as an idealist and a progressive in Lincoln, Nebraska as you grew up?

TS:  No.  I didn’t feel alienated.  I had plenty of people in my family—both my parents and my four siblings who felt as I did.  My brothers and I even organized an Americans for Democratic Action branch in Lincoln, probably the only one between Chicago and Los Angeles.  I had other friends at school at the university and otherwise who felt as I did.  As a lifetime member of the Unitarian Church, there were certainly religious liberals as well as political liberals in the church.

RL:  You went to law school in Nebraska, then traveled to Washington.  What sparked your journey to Washington, DC, after law school?  It seems you could have had the pick of jobs in Nebraska. 

TS:  I probably could have, but I was interested in something Nebraska was less likely to offer: a) public service at a level where I could help make this a better country; and b) public law which interested me more in law school than private law.   By public law, I mean administrative law, trade regulation, legislation, international law, the kind of law that goes on in government in the nation’s capitol.  So it made sense for me to try to find a job in Washington. 

RL:  Both legendary Sen. Henry M. Jackson of Washington State and Sen. John F. Kennedy offered you jobs at about the same time in 1952.  How did you decide to serve with Sen. Kennedy rather than Sen. Jackson, whose office later became a breeding ground for neoconservatives?

TS:  At the time, I knew nothing of Jackson’s hawkish inclinations or even that he would later be known as “The Senator from Boeing.”  Instead, I chose Kennedy because [he asked me] to work on a legislative program to revive the sagging New England economy where unemployment was high and new investment was low.  Sen. Jackson said I had a good reputation as a lawyer and he needed somebody like that to get his name in the papers.  He also said he liked my Scandinavian name because that would go over big back in Seattle.  And I chose Kennedy without much difficulty.

RL:  It must have been reassuring to find a job with a humane senator who read books and knew a lot about history.

TS:  That’s Jack Kennedy.  That’s exactly right.  Despite all our surface differences—he was a millionaire’s son, a Roman Catholic, a war hero, a Harvard graduate—and I was at the opposite end of almost all of those.  Nevertheless, we found that we wanted this to be a better country, we both believed in public service, we both were interested in public policy, and we both wanted to see a peaceful world.

RL:  Did you have training as a speechwriter, or did that skill grow as you worked and wrote with Sen. Kennedy?

TS:  It was natural because I came from a family that cared about words and policy, and my siblings and I were all on the debate team in high school and college, so I knew something about writing speeches.

RL:  Your book includes an excellent brief guide to writing speeches, and it seems your rules could improve any writing.

TS:  Thank you.

RL:  Could you talk about your writing process with John F. Kennedy?  It seems that you both worked on his Pulitzer Prize winning book Profiles in Courage and many of his speeches, and there’s no certainty about who created specific phrases or sections.

TS:  Yes, it was a collaborative process, and I never forgot who was making decisions, who was in charge of policy, whose values and beliefs those speeches and writings like Profiles in Courage were to be represented on the page.  Even though I helped with the words, the true author of all of Jack Kennedy’s speeches and writings was Jack Kennedy.

RL:  And he created the structure of the writings.

TS:  Exactly.  I had some influence, which became larger over the years as he depended on me more, as he trusted me more and found he could rely on my own views, values and opinions, so he and I influenced each other.

RL:  The failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro forces in 1961 was an early blow to the administration.  Were you involved in the planning of that action?

TS:  Not at all.  I’m reluctant to say that because anybody who said that after the Bay of Pigs fiasco was not in high favor with the Kennedy brothers because they didn’t like people who pretended to be friends and supporters when things were good, but backed away when things went bad and said, “I had nothing to do with that.”  But the truth is my original assignment in the White House was domestic policy and I had more than enough to do during those first hundred days when Kennedy was sending dozens of messages to the Congress about domestic policy.  I simply did not have enough waking hours to know about much less be consulted on the Bay of Pigs. 

After is it was over, and failed, Kennedy asked me and his brother Bob thereafter to sit in on national security council meetings not because we became overnight experts after the Bay of Pigs, but because he knew we thought about policy and government the way he did, through his eyes and with his interests, and not simply representing the interests of a particular agency or department.  We could ask tough questions. 

RL:  And that was a lesson Pres. Kennedy learned from the Bay of Pigs.

TS:  Indeed, he learned a lot of valuable lessons from the Bay of Pigs.  The authors of the plan had assured him it would succeed and that the US role would not be known, and that the invading army if it failed could fall back into the mountains—all of that was false.  All the assurances that caused him to give a green light were false.  And he kicked himself for paying too much attention to those holdovers from the military and intelligence communities—they had experience and medals and ribbons, yes, but they didn’t have the same kind of common sense that he thought Bobby and I might bring to that table.  So, he didn’t make it worse when they asked him to.  They asked him, when it failed, to send in US bombers.  He wasn’t going to do that and precipitate World War III. 

And he also became more skeptical about using military might to solve political problems.  As a result, when the joint chiefs gave him recommendations about sending troops to Indochina—not merely advisors and instructors as Eisenhower had done before him, but combat troop divisions—he never did it even though they urged him to throughout his administration.  They also urged him to bomb North Vietnam, and he never did that either.  All that started under his successor.

RL:  In your view, Kennedy would not have escalated the US military involvement in Vietnam?

TS:  That is definitely my view.  In fact, in his last month he was talking about taking out most of the advisors we had there by the end of the year [1963].

RL:  And these lessons from the Bay of Pigs fiasco came to play in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

TS:  Exactly.  In some ways, the Bay of Pigs for all of its hurt and harm was a blessing because it caused Kennedy to change his personnel, change his policies, change his procedure by which decisions were made.  And when the Soviet Union secretly rushed nuclear missiles into Cuba, Kennedy wanted to know all his options, not like George W. Bush being handed one option to invade Iraq and he stuck with it. 

Kennedy also wanted to know the pros and cons of every option.  Not just unilateral military, but multilateral diplomatic and military, and combinations of diplomatic and military.  He even wanted to hear the pros and cons of doing nothing at all.  As a result, we came up with a very different answer to Khrushchev’s missiles, and ultimately, that persuaded Khrushchev to withdraw his missiles without firing a shot.

RL:  He gave a powerful speech on foreign relations at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1961 that showed a change after the Bay of Pigs disaster.

TS:  That may have been the least reported speech he made, and the best foreign policy speech he made.  He said, among other things, that we’re not going to be appeasers or warmongers; we’re going to be Americans.  And we are six percent of the world and we have neither the right nor ability to impose our will on or our system on the other 94 percent.

RL:  And his June 1963 American University speech also reflected that view.

TS:  Very much so.  It was the first speech any president had made calling for a re-examination of the cold war, a re-examination of our relations with the Soviet Union, and a re-examination of what we meant by peace.  He went on to prove it and put it into practice by proposing in that speech a unilateral initiative for a moratorium on nuclear testing because of the harm that did to our nation’s health and environment.

RL:  That speech stands with Pres. Eisenhower’s prescient warning in his speech on the military-industrial complex. 

TS:  Yes, Eisenhower was correct in his analysis of the military-industrial complex, but Eisenhower unfortunately did not do any of the things that Kennedy did, and the nuclear testing under Eisenhower was not curbed at all.  And the treaty that resulted from Kennedy’s speech was the first step toward arms control in the nuclear age.

RL:  Kennedy also began work on civil rights issues.  Didn’t he prompt the release of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from jail during the 1960 campaign?

TS:  Maybe.  He called Dr. King’s wife to express his concern and sympathy.  Rumor has it that Bobby Kennedy may have called the judge, which is less regular.  In any event, King had been sent to prison at hard labor for a traffic technicality.  He had been unjustly imprisoned, and by calling attention to that unjust imprisonment, I have no doubt that the Kennedys did speed Dr. King’s release. 

RL:  Critics charge that the Kennedy administration was silent on civil rights issues for the first two years.

TS:  As far as that silence goes, when Kennedy was elected, the Democrats lost over 20 members of the House of Representatives, which in 1959 and 1960, had refused to pass any civil rights legislations.  And if the House with 20 more Democrats wouldn’t pass it, it was very clear that the House in 1961 and ’62 wouldn’t pass it.  The House majority leader warned Kennedy that if he even sent legislation of that kind up to Capitol Hill, he would lose the support he had among the so-called “Dixiecrats” who, with the Republicans, controlled both the House and the Senate, and they would therefore defeat his legislative program aimed at helping those at the bottom of the economic ladder: minimum wage, strengthening Social Security, help for economically distressed areas, increased help for public housing.  So Kennedy could have sent up symbolic legislation that would go nowhere just as a political gesture, but instead of helping black citizens, that would simply have hurt them by defeating the Kennedy legislative measures that were going to pass, and that would not be a victory even though it would be a nice symbolic gesture. 

RL:  Then the Democrats gained seats in Congress in the 1962 midterm elections.

TS:  And that’s what made it more possible for Kennedy to act on civil rights in his final year in office, 1963.  But it was also an issue he could no longer ignore as protests and demonstrations in favor of civil rights and against unjust discrimination and segregation were raging throughout the country, north and south, and becoming what Pres. Kennedy called “a moral issue as well as a constitutional issue” nationally.

RL:  Was there ever consideration of replacing J. Edgar Hoover as director of the FBI?

TS:  I’m not that knowledgeable on that—but there were at least three considerations.  First, neutral political scientists said that the head of CIA and the head of FBI should be non-political positions that continued year after year, presidential term after presidential term, instead of changing them every time the party in the White House changed.  Second, I have no doubt that the president, who disagreed with his conservative father on so many recommendations, felt that maybe there was a case for agreeing with his father—and he didn’t want to disagree with his father all the time— when his father urged that Hoover be retained.  Third, was JFK’s own quip that “you don’t fire God.”  Hoover thought he was God.

RL:  In the touching epilogue of your JFK biography, Kennedy, you reflect on what might have been if Kennedy had not been assassinated.  You mention also that he talked with you about how he could be shot by a sniper, and he was very aware of that.

TS:  How true.

RL:  Do agree with the conclusion of the Warren Commission that a lone assassin killed Pres. Kennedy?

TS:  I examine that question for the first time in my new book, and I conclude that as flawed as the Warren Commission might have been to get a report out in time to calm and quiet the country, there has never been any worthy, credible evidence that would stand up for me as a lawyer in court proving that there was any conspiracy or anyone else behind the lone gunman who turned out to be a lucky sharpshooter.

RL:  You’re best known for your work as Pres. Kennedy's closest advisor, but you have an enviable record in law and politics since then.  Can you talk about your work with Robert Kennedy and your role in his 1968 presidential campaign?

TS:  Yes.  Robert Kennedy and I became much closer after his brother’s death because we each recognized that it was a terrible loss to the other.  He became my client when I practiced law.  I became an informal advisor as he ventured more and more into national politics, and I ultimately joined his brother Ted and his brother-in-law Steve Smith in directing his campaign for the presidency.  He would have been a great president had he not been killed.

RL:  And you were at the hotel in Los Angeles when he was shot?

TS:  Yes.  Actually I was in his room because he and I had been discussing the campaign before he went down to speak.

RL: Could you talk about some high points in your international law work?

TS:  I worked with Nelson Mandela of South Africa, and helped with something we called the South African Free Election Fund, SAFE, to finance voter education in South Africa because blacks in South Africa had never voted and didn’t know the first thing—even about how to mark a ballot.  That had a little to do, I believe, with the enormous demonstration of democracy when election day came and voters of all colors turned out for a peaceful, free, fair election that saw Nelson Mandela become president.

That was certainly one of the high points of my international law practice.

RL:  Were you involved in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

TS:  No, but I know everyone who was.  In fact, I’m now on the board of an organization based in this country called the International Commission on Transitional Justice, founded by the people who were the founders and leaders of the commission in South Africa.  Transitional justice [concerns] how, after terrible, traumatic conflicts, justice can be restored not only through trials, but also through reconciliation, through open admission that deals with the truth and gets people on both sides of former divisions to accept the truth.

RL:  What’s your next project?

TS:  I just spent six years writing this book, and I need a break in both senses of the word.  The next project is to get Obama elected president.

RL:  He’s very fortunate to have your expertise and advice.

TS:  We’ll see.   Don’t forget a torch has been passed to a new generation.