Passing the Torch: Kennedy's Touch on Obama's Words

Ted Sorensen, Legendary Speechwriter, Lends Support, Eloquence to Democratic Contender


Feb. 8, 2008—

It's no accident the Kennedy magic has infused itself into the campaign of Barack Obama.

Theodore "Ted" Sorensen, the adviser whom John F. Kennedy once called his "intellectual blood bank," is lending his unabashed support -- and eloquence -- to the Obama campaign.

The Kennedy Connection

Oprah, another gushing Obama supporter, may have star power, but Sorensen has brain power.

At the age of 24, he joined the staff of the newly elected Sen. John F. Kennedy and later helped him win the presidency, calling on Americans to pass the torch to a new generation.

The legendary speechwriter helped Kennedy craft the now-famous 1961 Inaugural address in which the new president proclaimed, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis -- when Sorensen was 34 -- he penned the letter to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that historians say saved the world from nuclear destruction.

Today, at 79 years old and blind, Sorensen has a new mission: to resurrect Camelot. And it seems the Obama campaign is listening.

"I've given them a phrase or suggestion or two," Sorensen admits.

As for all the comparisons that have been drawn between Obama and Kennedy, "I probably started it," he told

Torch Passed to Obama's Speechwriters

Sorensen has not only given his support and advice to the Obama camp, he's grown close to the senator's young speechwriters as well.

The candidate's deputy writer -- Adam Frankel -- assisted Sorensen with his memoirs, which Harper Collins will publish in time for his 80th birthday in May.

"We've become close friends," Sorensen said of Frankel, 26, one of Obama's wordsmiths.

"He knows me and my style and JFK's style and his speeches. It's surprising the little touches that creep in to whatever he writes for Obama."

Even Obama's Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., has acknowledged Obama's rhetorical skills.

"You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose," Clinton said in a bit of a backhanded compliment delivered before Super Tuesday.

Youth vs. Experience

Sorensen said he was impressed with Obama when he met the senator in 2006. But all he heard was Obama was too young and inexperienced.

"That's what they said about Kennedy," he said. "Everyone said Kennedy had no chance because he was baptized a Roman Catholic. They say it about Obama because he's black."

Clinton captured the endorsements of several of Robert F. Kennedy's kin, including Kennedy's son Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental lawyer, and daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland.

But Obama is largely ahead in the Kennedy endorsement race, earning a seal of approval from Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., Ethel Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy's widow, and Caroline Kennedy,


"Kennedy, like Obama, was one of those extraordinary individuals who was completely authentic, at home with himself and in his skin," said Sorensen. "He knew who he was, unlike so many in politics who are putting on an act all the time."

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Seemingly frail, Sorensen suffered a stroke seven years ago that took his sight, but he still remains active and agreed to talk about the Cuban Missile Crisis -- a topic he re-examines in his new book -- to students at the Peddie School in New Jersey this week.

Sorensen confides he's never heard of IM or Facebook, and as he shuffled to the podium on a student's arm, it seemed unlikely he would connect with the teenagers, whose parents were being born as Kennedy arrived at the White House.

But that impression soon dissipated.

"I don't see much, but I have more vision than the president of the United States," Sorensen joked to loud applause.

He had plenty more to say about President Bush, including his "lack of judgment" and diplomacy in handling the threats after 9/11.

Speech writers wield untold power among voters, and Sorensen is considered one of the modern day best.

George Washington got help from Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. Franklin Roosevelt often turned to playwright Robert Sherwood, and Dwight Eisenhower used journalist Emmet Hughes.

But Sorensen was more than a speechwriter, and his closeness and access to Kennedy was "unique" in U.S. history, say presidential scholars.

Graduating first in his class at University of Nebraska Law School, Sorensen -- at the advice of his college adviser -- took one year off his age to get a job as a legal aide in Kennedy's Senate office.

"The rest is history," he said.

He helped Kennedy draft the Pulitzer-Prize winning "Profiles in Courage," though he consistently denied charges that he had been its author.

After Kennedy's assassination, he wrote Lyndon B. Johnson's State of the Union, before publishing "Kennedy," the 1965 biography.

He stayed active in politics, campaigning for Robert F. Kennedy, then later joining the New York law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, where he still works today.

"I think the television era has been hard on eloquence," said Sorensen. "Most politicians think that talking like JFK sounds old-fashioned today. And we have a president who doesn't round out the "ings" at the end of his words."

Like Kennedy, Sorensen retains a keen wit.

Bill Clinton was a great communicator, he said, but the one sentence best remembered is, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."

"His mind is as sharp as ever," said Russell Riley, presidential scholar at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs. "I think it's an understatement to call him a mere speechwriter."

Indeed, Sorensen helped guide foreign policy.

He was part of the inner circle of advisers who for six days agonized over how to respond to the threat when U2 planes spotted Soviet missiles 90 miles off the Florida coast in Cuba.

Kennedy even entrusted Sorensen to deliver a "back door" message to Khrushchev, meeting a KGB courier on a Washington, D.C., street corner and exchanging a newspaper that contained an important message for the president.

But it is Sorensen's role as a writer -- reflected in the Kennedy speeches -- that still resonates.

"It's such a change from the current president who has only of late indicated that he has an interest in books," said Riley. "[Bush's] 2000 campaign practically made a virtue out of the fact he was uninterested in the written word."

As for Obama, "It's not just the words," said Riley, "but the person saying the words, with his youthful vigor and enthusiasm and his ability to impart that to the crowds."

Still, Riley struggles to understand how Obama has catapulted himself to the national stage.

In 2004, when Obama gave the convention speech, Riley was overseas and missed what he called the candidate's "coming out party."

"It's been difficult for me to grasp how he managed to do what he has done," said Riley. "But the power of his rhetoric has largely captured people's attentions -- that's not an uncommon occurrence in politics, going back to the Greeks."

At nearly 80, Sorensen managed to work his charismatic magic with a new generation. At a dinner before his speech, he fielded questions from students, such as 16-year-old Jackie Wang.

"I wasn't prepared to meet such an extraordinary man," said Wang. "Mr. Sorensen never had the opportunity to thank or part ways with former President Kennedy. The emotions I imagined he experienced when hearing about his death moved me to tears."