Ted Sorensen Saw a Lot of JFK in BHO

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Photo: Patrick McMullan

The cadences raised goose bumps. Ted Sorensen was on the phone; it was February, 2008, he was 80 years old and nearly blind, but the rhythm of his sentences was as thrilling and singular as it had been on Inaugural Day, 1961, back when Sorensen and America’s spirit were so much younger. “They said Obama, born black in America, really didn’t have a chance to be president, he should run for vice-president, wait a few years. They said Kennedy, baptized a Catholic in America, didn’t have any real chance to be president, and he should run for vice-president and wait a few years. They said Obama’s too young, a senator in his first term; when Kennedy started out, they said he was too young, a senator in his first term. That got me more interested.”

From the piqued interest of JFK’s intellectual soul mate and brilliant speechwriter came a pivotal moment in the 2008 presidential campaign. Knowing that Barack Obama was planning to appear at a fund-raiser on Martha’s Vineyard, Sorensen sat down with Caroline Kennedy, who had always resisted bestowing her father’s mantle on candidates. “She told me that Ted called her to lunch the week before to tell her that this was her father’s man, and she should support Obama,” says Harris Wofford, another New Frontier insider. “Caroline respected Ted a lot.”

Sorensen, characteristically, was much more modest about his part in the making of another Democratic president. “I had a small role in that,” he told me regarding Caroline’s decision to endorse and campaign for Obama. “I encouraged her. Now that she’s in, she’s loving it. Of course she was just a teeny baby in 1960, but she said to me, ‘So, 1960 must have really been something!’”

It was indeed, and Sorensen was at the center of it all, as he had been since joining Kennedy’s Senate staff in 1953. Sorensen was no nostalgist, but it took little prompting for him to share generous, fascinating anecdotes ranging from the Bay of Pigs crisis to how the old generation had tried to prevent the torch from being passed. “Charlie Buckley was one of the old-time political bosses in New York,” Sorensen remembered, “and he said to Kennedy’s father, ‘Tell Jack he shouldn’t depend on these kids like Sorensen. Get some experienced political consultants!’ To which old Joe replied, ‘Hell, they’re only experienced in losing.’”

Sorensen began advising Obama in 2006, and one of his researchers went on to become a senior Obama speechwriter, but he was frustrated by the first two years of the current administration, particularly the president’s foreign-policy decisions. Sorensen knew, better than almost anyone, the distance between inspiring campaign rhetoric and the brutal slog of governance, yet he retained a belief that the true power of the White House came as much from stirring emotion as from passing legislation. “There were articles and books written that JFK could not realistically deliver all the hopes he raised,” he said as he watched Obama rise along a similar path. “But I responded to that by paraphrasing Browning: A president’s hopes must exceed his reach, or what’s the presidency for?” Ted Sorensen’s death Sunday is yet another reminder that we’re living in far less poetic times.