Monday, May 10, 2004

Ted Sorensen

This past Friday, I was lucky enough to remember that Ted Sorensen, Kennedy's speechwriter, was giving a talk on campus (and I am eminently disappointed in the Daily Northwestern for not covering this and thus failing to give me some sort of crutch as I try to remember back to Friday to write about it). I honestly wasn't sure what to expect since I don't remember a whole lot about the Kennedy administration, but I do know the whole 'ask not what your country can do for you' bit (which I learned was called a chiasmus--yay for learning Greek!--which Sorensen himself didn't know and thought it was kind of funny that he was still learning new things about his own speeches), and figured that, if nothing else, I could inspire envy in a certain aspiring speechwriter I know (for the record, Sorensen was speaking and Lee Huebner, Nixon's former speechwriter, was moderating). But one thing I should have remembered going into this was that good writers are usually interesting people, and they are always intelligent, so it wasn't going to be a waste of time.

One of the first issues brought up was that of speechwriters claiming the speeches or parts of speeches they'd written, and it was something against which Sorensen was pretty adamant. He noted that few speechwriters ever rushed to claim their part in speeches that were miserable failures, and he himself was unwilling to admit who, between he and Kennedy, wrote the 'ask not what your country can do for you' line (his response, when asked, was "ask not"). What was interesting to note later, however, was that he had no problem with identifying certain lines he wrote for Johnson, most notably for the speech he gave when he had to step up and finish Kennedy's term. And the line Sorensen said he wrote for that, which Johnson subsequently cut (understandably) was something like, "I never wanted to be in his shoes, and am now reluctant to fill his shoes." 'Reluctant' may have been 'unable' or 'unwilling,' I can't remember. Anyway, another chiasmus, though that doesn't really point to who wrote that first one as, given its success, it's no surprise that that figure of speech would be used again. He also noted that was part of a much larger contribution of his that was cut from the speech, to the point where the proportion of his contribution to that of Johnson's speechwriter was 25-75 when it began as 50-50.

Another interesting thing I'd like to mention, because he said he'd never told anyone this before (in public, at least), was how he got his start as Kennedy's speechwriter. He started out working for him when he was first elected senator of Massachusetts in some sort of administrative or legal capacity, I think, and after he'd been working there some months Kennedy recruited him to write three speeches that he had to give at various engagements on St. Patrick's Day. Kennedy liked his work, and so Sorensen continued to write for him for the next ten years. Their relationship was a close one, which he noted is not the norm now. It aided him in responding appropriately to various goings-on (little things like the Cuban Missile Crisis) to be constantly involved; his office was down the hall from the Oval Office and his relationship with Kennedy was such that he was often present or at least nearby when important decisions were made.

One thing this talk made me appreciate was the value of asking good questions (an entire speechwriting class, taught by Huebner, was in attendance); I learned the above when a girl asked Sorensen how he coped with including confidential material and where that line was drawn; another part of that example was his choice of the word 'quarantine' over 'blockade' with respect to Cuba because the latter was an act of war and would be perceived as such. It was really amazing to hear about, because it's public relations on the grandest scale possible. He said, "When you write, you're not just writing for the people that will be in the room, but for members of your party, members of the other party, allies, enemies..." He mentioned that part of the speech given where the U.S. announced it's plans for dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis was also broadcast in Cuba, translated.

A final note on Ted Sorensen: one question was with respect to how he would be remembered. He said he was resigned to the fact that he was going to be remembered as Kennedy's speechwriter, but that he hoped that would come after something like: "Ted Sorensen, age 103, died today, killed by jealous husband."

Update:
I found this interview with Sorensen from this past November, which is short but kind of captures what he was like to listen to. I was fortunate that the talk I attended was far more conversational.

Here's another link to a much more in-depth interview with Sorensen regarding a number of key events in the Kennedy administration, which sounds more like him.

One last link that I just thought was interesting that discusses Sorensen's near-appointment to be head of the CIA, included partly because it mentions what happened with Robert Bork (the fact that I know who he is is astounding all by itself) and partly because it's a peek into the world of three years ago, when John Ashcroft's appointment had not yet been secured.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, Peggy's the first high profile speechwriter to come out from behind the curtain--not that we haven't known they've existed since Pres. Coolidge's John Welliver. I respect Sorensen for being so cagey about accepting authorship, especially since it's so easy to claim all the credit when all your former bosses are dead. When you're trying to get work, however, is when it's weird. How do you get hired if you can't show off your wares? But then you risk showing just how much your last boss didn't write if you include your portfolio. It's a tough call, and speechwriters are still divided. What I do is write "draft speeches" for the potential employer with my resume--the risk is that you may write worse there than you're capable of. A very difficult balance.

    But seriously, Sorensen is the absolute god of speechwriters (I know, 'cause I prayed to the shrine every day for 8 months.), and his book "Kennedy" is amazing.

    From what I recall, Sorensen was a lawyer who was actually from conservative Nebraskan parents. He started as legal counsel and dabbled in speechwriting (which is how most politics was done back in the day). While we all think of Kennedy's team as being the best (Sorensen and Schlesinger--and Press Secretary Pierre Salinger), it was actually Nixon's speechwriting crew that was the all star team. Bill Safire, Ben Stein, Pat Buchanan, to name a few. Good stuff.

    And again, I'm so very, very jealous. :)

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