Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History

In the early 1950s, Ted Sorensen began work in Washington in the bowels of the bureaucracy, and wound up with two job offers on Capitol Hill: one from Senator Henry Jackson and the other from Senator John Kennedy. For a self-described policy wonk, the logical choice would have been Jackson, but Kennedy dazzled Sorensen, and the rest, as they say, is not only history but also a series of books about that history. Sorensen penned Decision-Making in the White House near the end of the Kennedy presidency and a full-length biography of JFK a few years after the assassination. What more is there for him to write about the Kennedy presidency?

Plenty, as it turns out, although in Counselor Sorensen cautions at the outset that this is not a book for historians or presidency scholars: it contains no footnotes and does not purport to be a full narrative of events. But contributing to the scholarly literature is not what Sorensen has in mind: he wants to come to terms with Kennedy?s legacy and his own.

Sorensen offers 100 pages on his early life in Lincoln, Nebraska. His father was Danish and Protestant, a political progressive and workaholic lawyer who nevertheless forged close ties with his five children. His mother was Russian-Jewish (the “C” that is Sorensen?s middle initial stands for Chaikin), a wonderfully caring woman — until her midlife depression turned the family upside down. Yet they all held on, supporting each other and taking advantage of the heady midwestern cultural mix: high school debate team, Unitarian fellowship, summer camp, and campaigns for progressive candidates. Sorensen narrates his youth with understated middle-American wit, which includes one harrowing tale of the near drowning of a camper in his charge and another about talking his way (he was a champion debater) out of a thrashing by the jealous boyfriend of a girl he had just kissed — on the front porch, of course.

When Mr. Sorensen goes to Washington, he winds up as Kennedy?s speechwriter and go-to staffer. Sorensen does not go over most of the ground he covered expertly in prior works, though there are interesting chapters on civil rights, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Kennedy?s foreign policy. What he does instead, and to great effect, is write about his relationships with Kennedy and the Kennedys, Lyndon Johnson, cabinet secretaries, White House staffers, and the media. He shares his surprises with us (such as learning after he left the administration that key administration operative Kenny O?Donnell had it in for him), his triumphs (writing key speeches for JFK and settling significant issues), and his failures. He quotes at length from a memo written by White House aide Ralph Dungan that refers to “Ted?s oppressive personality…his sharpness of manner, his brusqueness, impolite, not the warmest human being…” Sorensen?s response: “Hopefully I?ve learned my lesson. I schmooze more now with my friends and I like it. I regret that I did not discover it in my youth, when my abruptness appeared antisocial, offending some and unnecessarily earning enemies.”

Each chapter offers something to delight, amuse, or instruct. The best instruction comes in the pages on speechwriting. Sorensen was one of the best of the White House wordsmiths, and he offers us six basic rules (along with examples from his own and others’ speech drafts). He comes from the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) school yet appreciates a finely crafted sentence. In the current primary season, Clinton and Obama have sparred about the importance of rhetoric: Sorensen offers a balanced perspective. “Saying so doesn?t make it so,” he cautions. And yet, “the right speech on the right topic delivered by the right speaker,” he observes, “can ignite a fire, change men?s minds, open their eyes, alter their votes, bring hope to their lives, and, in all these ways, change the world. I know. I saw it happen.” In another insightful section Sorensen describes the advantages of “less is more” when it comes to the size of the White House staff: because he was a counselor, speechwriter, liaison, and Jack?s jack of all trades, he could see the big picture and act without going through bureaucratic layers. FDR?s staff was small, had a “passion for anonymity,” and also got things done. Sorensen approvingly quotes Roosevelt?s observation about his aide Harry Hopkins: of all the men who came through the Oval Office, FDR felt, Hopkins was the only one who wanted nothing but to serve the president.

There is one caution to note here: Sorensen omits some important points when he writes about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Did Kennedy make a deal with Khrushchev involving a trade of American missiles in Turkey for Russian missiles in Cuba? The standard accounts, written shortly after the crisis, focused on a visit Bobby Kennedy made to Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. Bobby supposedly “assured” Dobrynin that once the crisis ended, the U.S. would remove its missiles, but the early accounts insisted that there was no explicit trade or “deal,” leaving the American people with the impression, in Secretary of State Dean Rusk?s phrase, that the crisis had been “eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow blinked.” Subsequent scholarship indicates that there was an explicit arrangement about removal of American missiles (whether or not to call it a “deal” is just semantics). Moreover, the Soviets and Americans agreed that this arrangement would not be made public, as Sorensen himself has previously revealed in connection with his editing of Bobby Kennedy?s Thirteen Days, an account of the Cuban Missile Crisis published after RFK?s death. “I was the editor of Robert Kennedy’s book,” he later explained to scholars, “and his diary was very explicit that this was part of the deal; but at that time it was still a secret even on the American side, except for the six of us who had been present at meeting. So I took it upon myself to edit that out of his diaries…” In Counselor, Sorensen says, “There was no deal,” and he barely mentions his editorial decisions.

Sorensen, an intensely private man, has given us more than glimpses of his personal life; he?s shown the great personal cost that serving at the seat of power demanded. But don?t cry for the author, who in recent years has had a stroke and a bout with prostate cancer: read the final, lyrical chapters, in which a man makes sense of his life and ours, coming to “a kind of closure after all this time” about the Kennedys while continuing “to keep on surviving, coping, laughing, writing, speaking, serving — maybe another six years, maybe sixteen — watching my grandchildren and their children grow.”