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Sorensen Speaks

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#78 - 01/01/2006

"If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."

John F. Kennedy

(Speechwriter Dana Rubin, founder and force behind the New York Speechwriters' Roundtable, scored a coup last September by persuading Theodore C. Sorensen to be our lunchtime speaker. This article was published in the January, 2006 issue of The Speechwriter's Newsletter.)

For 11 years, Mr. Sorensen was a policy advisor, legal counsel and speechwriter for Senator and then President John F. Kennedy. The Kennedy administration brought many changes to Washington, D.C. In January 1961, JFK was 43 years old and the first president born in the 20th century. He surrounded himself with the "best and brightest" young aides and associates the country had to offer, chief among them Theodore C. "Ted" Sorensen, a lawyer from Lincoln, Neb.

Kennedy's energetic diction, his tone of voice, the simple, measured language of his speeches snapped overhead like a banner in a fresh breeze. It was Sorensen's job to create that banner. He first joined the staff of the newly elected Sen. Kennedy in 1953, and quickly earned a position of trust and responsibility that lasted for the rest of JFK's life. Much of Kennedy's legacy flowed through Sorensen's pen and into the hearts of all Americans.

In private conversation Ted Sorensen is modest and soft-spoken. Listeners around his lunch table lean forward to catch his words as he banters about the current political scene. At the lectern, he stands tall, still trim at 77, and his hair still dark. Though his eyesight is failing and his voice is quiet, it carries vigorously and with a barbed political point.

"Don't worry about the fact that I can't see … I have more vision than the President of the United States"

He greets us as colleagues and proceeds to entertain us with stories from his true peers, the presidential speechwriters of prior administrations. Under the leadership of William Safire, they have formed the Judson T. Welliver society, named for President "Silent Cal" Coolidge's speechwriter, the first of his trade. This group meets periodically at Safire's house to commiserate and wrangle, aiming jibes at one another across the aisle. A few years ago, Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for the Reagan administration, did not show up for a meeting. It seems she had a new book out, Sorensen said.

"So when it came my turn I told them I was sorry Peggy was not there, that rumors that I had helped ghostwrite her book were untrue … and then I shook my finger at them and said 'Listen to me carefully. I did not have contextual relations with that woman!"

He spoke with pride of being a speechwriter and urged us not to permit anyone to refer to us as "just a speechwriter. "Bear in mind that Alexander Hamilton was a speechwriter for George Washington; Seneca was a speechwriter for Nero; Winston Churchill wrote at least one speech for the King of England. At least he was King until the speech was over."

"Now, if you'll all promise not to violate my copyright, I'll share with you the secrets of speechwriting," Sorensen continued. (Readers are hereby cautioned that the future use of any of his remarks must be accompanied by attribution to Theodore C. Sorensen.) "Speechwriting really comes down to four words and five lines. The four words: brevity, levity, charity and clarity.

Then the five lines are: Outline absolutely indispensable, always the best place to start. No. 2: headline what do you want the headline to be? Third: Frontline what's the most important point, what do you move up to the front? Fourth "Sideline" put in a quotation from a poem, an allusion to history, a bit of eloquence or precedence from the past. Finally, the "Bottom line" what is your conclusion?"

Everyone at my table took notes. Sorensen moved on. "Humor is extremely valuable to warm up an audience, and sometimes to make a point, but it's not totally without risk. In my very first year, working for Senator John F. Kennedy, I gave him a line which he used. One of our fellow Senators was a very rich Rhode Island nonagenarian, Theodore Francis Green … and Kennedy, late for a speech at one of the hotels in Washington, began, at my suggestion, saying to the audience "Well, I'm sorry to be late but fortunately I had a very good cab driver, he got me here in a hurry. I was going to give him a big tip and tell him to vote Democratic, but then I remembered a good idea that Senator Green gave me. I gave him a small tip and told him to vote Republican." It got a good laugh. Unfortunately, the AP reported the joke as though it was actual fact, and Kennedy heard from every cab driver in Massachusetts."

Sorensen's last tip on speechwriting before opening the floor for questions was to "Keep the speech and the speaker together." He then told of an incident when Senator Kennedy was scheduled to speak in Knoxville on the topic of the TVA. Arriving at the airport, the Senator was whisked away in a limousine while Sorensen rode in another car with the staff. "The driver turned on the radio," said Sorensen, "and we hear 'Now from TVA, our speaker for today, John F. Kennedy.' And I've got the speech in my pocket. I said, 'We'll probably want to stay tuned here …' It was amazing what that man knew about TVA … after that, he kept the speech in his pocket."

In answer to a question from the floor on writing a great speech, he replied: "A speech is made great, not from the words used, but from the ideas conveyed. If the ideas, principles and values and substance of the speech are great, then it's going to be a great speech, even if the words are pedestrian. The words can be soaring, beautiful and eloquent but if the ideas are flat, empty or mean, it's not a great speech."

Asked about the famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech"when did he discover that the local German idiom translated the phrase to mean "I am a jelly donut?" Sorensen responded that his office quickly received that news. "My only recovery was when, two . . . no three years later when the USIA sent me on a speaking tour to Germany. I went to the University of Hamburg and explained to them why the President couldn't possibly come there and say "Ich bin ein Hamburger." At which point some wag in the group chimed in "or Frankfurt!"

There were questions about working with JFK, of course, but Sorensen joked about the need for security clearances and declined to answer with a simple, "Ask not."

The phrase speechwriters use when they are asked to inspire an audience is "reaching for the marble." It is a rare and gratifying experience to be in the room and hear the thoughts of one whose words achieved a place on marble walls across America. Ted Sorensen is best remembered for his role in carving these words into the history of America: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask rather, what you can do for your country."

© 2005 Mike Landrum


A Thought to Ponder

John F. Kennedy has been dead for nearly as long as he was alive. His most famous words are easily remembered - here is a random selection of other quotes from the years when Ted Sorensen served as his speechwriter and policy advisor.

Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men.

I just received the following wire from my generous Daddy - "Dear Jack, Don't buy a single vote more than is necessary. I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide."

I'm an idealist without illusions.

If I had to live my life over again, I would have a different father, a different wife and a different religion.

The basic problems facing the world today are not susceptible to a military solution.

The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie: deliberate, contrived, and dishonest; but the myth: persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.

We have the power to make this the best generation of mankind in the history of the world or to make it the last.

The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were.

The new frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises - it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not their pocketbook - it holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.

When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.

When we got into office, the thing that surprised me most was to find that things were just as bad as we'd been saying they were.

You never know what's hit you. A gunshot is the perfect way.

John Fitzgerlad Kennedy

©2005 Michael F. Landrum