Ted Sorensen Memorial Service: Bill Moyers, Pete Peterson, and Other Eulogies
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.
Gillian’s guidelines for us were exact: No more than four minutes, or 500 words. Ted had a similar compact with John Kennedy: Be direct, and to the point; use short words and clauses; aim for clarity.
So: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. So: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” So: “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
You couldn’t do better, then or now.
Ted was 24 when he went to work for Senator Kennedy in 1953; Kennedy was 35. Over the next seven years, leading up to the 1960 presidential election, they traveled the country together, and learned to read each other’s minds as only kindred spirits can.
We met in that campaign of 1960. Ted was at Kennedy’s side: His alter ego, political strategist, policy adviser, confidant, and companion. I was on the plane with LBJ, liaison to the Kennedy entourage. I developed a strong affection for the Irish around JFK—the O’Donnells, O’Briens, and Powers; but for Sorensen there was awe. Unflappable, a stranger to sleep, wise beyond his 30 years, he appeared to me—26 and still wet behind the ears—to be Kennedy’s indispensable man.
Two months after the election, standing in the bitter cold of Inauguration Day, beside my wife Judith, our breath white with frost, I felt my heart warm as I heard the summons: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Shakespeare anticipated such moments: “Runs not this speech like iron through your blood!” Yes, it did, proving the power of the word to spring the listener’s imagination, arouse an inner vision, and increase one’s awareness of the world beyond the self. The two of them invoked the poetry of speech to make of politics a calling to public service.
We rarely saw each other after the campaign, except in passing; I finagled my way to the Peace Corps, and Ted of course moved to the White House as the president’s counselor. My awe increased. Words are how a president operates, how a president engages the country. Not just any words, but the right word, one after another. The two of them regarded words as “tools of precision to be chosen and applied with a craftsman’s care to whatever the situation required.”
Presidents do not succeed who fail to explain their actions to the American people and the world. No political pair in our history did it better. After the Bay of Pigs, both were skeptical of conventional wisdom. Ted arrived at a critical meeting during the Cuban missile crisis not with the draft of a speech but with a series of questions, and turned the meeting away from the rattling of nuclear sabers toward peace. At the height of the Cold War, he wrote the breathtaking speech at American University in which Kennedy—and Ted—urged Americans “not to see the conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.”
Outsiders cannot fathom so powerful and intimate a bond, nor can we measure the suffering when it is severed. Even now I cannot describe the grief in Ted’s eyes the first time we met after the agony in Dallas. Arriving at the White House, I turned a corner and there he was, standing alone, as still as a stone, staring through the shutters, his face shadowed by sadness. All I could say was, “I’m so sorry.” His eyes looked far away into what must have seemed some endless dark passage. He shook my hand and said, “Good luck.”
President Johnson implored him to stay, and he did, for awhile. The funeral was barely over, the country still in shock and mourning, when LBJ asked Ted to draft his first address to a joint session of Congress. Most of that speech was Ted’s, including the inspiration for the somber confession of its first sentence: “All I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today.” Once again he had helped a president say what he was thinking, and what needed to be said.
Then, having worked over a draft for the 1964 State of the Union, he took his leave.
I did not know how he could put his life together again with a heart shattered by such loss at the pinnacle of their power and promise. The 22nd of November never comes round that I don’t imagine him, and all those in John Kennedy’s inner circle, haunted by the lament: “Winter is come and gone. But grief returns with the revolving year.” I know now how he did it. A few hours after his own death, a reporter asked Gillian how Ted had come back from the stroke nine years ago that left him mostly blind. She said, simply: “He managed to get back up…. and get going.” He had done it once before, leaving us his own profile in courage.