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12.10.10

A Very Funny Man

In a memorial service this week Caroline Kennedy, Bob Kerrey, Kofi Annan, and others gathered to celebrate the remarkable life of JFK speechwriter and adviser Theodore Sorensen. Here Bill Moyers, Adam Frankel, and Peter G. Peterson share their memories of the man—and his best jokes. Plus, read The Daily Beast's Mark Katz remembrance written just after his death last month.

I was privileged to be Ted’s friend for many years, especially in our years at the Council on Foreign Relations. He loved that organization and Gillian and I wondered if I might recount some of our experiences at the Council.

Ted was a man who took part. He didn’t just show up. He made a difference. Ted attended over 1,000 Council meetings. No one else I know comes close.

Ted was also the featured speaker at an astonishing 18 meetings. The extraordinary range of subjects he spoke about is a metaphor of the unique breadth and depth of Ted’s interests in foreign policy, public policy, politics and the nexus therein.

Ted also presided over another 28 Council meetings. I paid a heavy personal price for these on more than one such occasion. Ted loved to roast, and the more you loved him, the more he roasted you. Council members knew how brilliant he was and what a good man he was, and they all loved his wit.

He once presided at a Council meeting on a book I had written on global demographics. He introduced the meeting with the following, “We are here tonight to anoint Peterson into literary sainthood. And when I think of him, I think of St. Paul, the most boring city in America.”

Once he did a riff on a fictional Council trip we took together to the Mideast. He said, “Just before we landed, two terrorists stood up with machine guns and said ‘We are going to assassinate these two former public officials, Sorensen and Peterson, on a bipartisan basis. However, first, we are going to give them their last wish. Peterson said, ‘I have one last speech I want to give on our unsustainable federal deficits.’ Sorensen responded, ‘I’ve heard Peterson make that speech and my last wish is to be shot first.’

The Council audience loved it, and loved Ted. Ted had that wonderful sardonic smile, particularly after one of his wry and wicked jokes struck home. I shall forever cherish that smile.

At all those Council board meetings, Ted saw problems in special ways, with special solutions, and defined them with special words. Even when he couldn’t see very well, he saw all too well.

He was a triple rarity. He was not only one of the greats of his age, he was great fun. And, yes, a great and beloved friend.

When I stepped down from the Council board, Ted did a farewell. “Peterson,” he said, “is the ultimate self-made man. And oh, how he worships his creator.” My granddaughter was there, and she was puzzled. “Papa,” she said, “I don’t understand. Mr. Sorensen says rather awful things about you. He strikes me as kind of a wise guy. Yet, you like him.”

“I don’t just like him” I said, “I adore him.” “And, he isn’t a wise guy. He is a very wise man.”

Ted advised presidents. He encouraged young people on the way up. He counseled those who might benefit from his hard-won wisdom. And in the end, that turned out to be just about everyone he met.

What a beautiful mind. What a good man. What an irreplaceable friend.

Peter G. Peterson is chairman emeritus and cofounder of The Blackstone Group, chairman emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, founding chairman of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, founding president of The Concord Coalition, and retired chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He is also the founding chairman of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. His most recent book, Running on Empty , was a national bestseller.