November 1, 2010.As John F Kennedy finished his inaugural address to a frozen Washington and a watching world on January 1961, the characteristically grumpy outgoing Vice-President and defeated candidate is reputed to have to said to the speechwriter: “Mr Sorensen, I would have given a great deal to say some of those words.” “The part about ‘ask not what you can do for your country?’” No, the part that went “I do solemnly swear…”
Whether the story about Richard Nixon is true or not, it provides an apocryphal insight into the status of Ted Sorensen. He was a man widely – and rightly – credited with some of the defining oratory of the twentieth century.
Few speechwriters before or since have captured and honed the voice of a president. Those who have come the closest include Peggy Noonan, who matched Ronald Reagan’s superb delivery with the words that captured America’s grief and optimism in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster. John Favreau, still in his twenties, is a supremely talented writer who gives giving rigour and life to the fine cadences of President Obama in the bully pulpit of the presidency. But neither claims to be a shaping influence on the President’s political direction, as Sorensen was.
Ted Sorensen was a man of rare gifts and unique perspective. As a confidante of President Kennedy, he was a key member of an inner circle that brooked few entrants. Kennedy himself described him not simply as a writer, but as “an astute and sensitive collaborator in the presidential enterprise.”
As a wordsmith Ted Sorensen captured the optimism of a new generation, giving a leader at a nation’s crossroads the voice to inspire and reason with a divided nation in times of upheaval and threat. His scribbled-upon drafts of the great presidential addresses on Civil Rights, the Peace Corps, the Cuban Missile Crisis remain among the most prized possessions of the Kennedy Library.Technically, he was superb.
His rules of speechwriting hold good today.