CounselorA Life at the Edge of History
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2008 Ted Sorensen
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780060798710
I was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, on the morning of May 8, 1928, Harry Truman's forty-fourth birthday. Harry took no notice of my arrival, being a busy county judge in Missouri at the time. More than twenty years later, I would make my way to Washington, D.C., where my first employer was the federal government over which he presided.
I was born in a Catholic hospital, where my Jewish mother, Annis Chaikin Sorensen, valued the loving care of the nuns on the hospital staff. My father, Christian A. Sorensen ("C.A."), an insurgent Republican making his first run for public office that year, wrote to the head of America's "Hoover Booster Clubs": "Our family was increased this morning by another son. I am going to have a Republican club of my own." A journalist friend, referring to my birth as well as my father's campaign, wrote him from Ohio: "That, properly press-agented, ought to be good for a few thousand extra votes."
There was no christening or baptism rite in the Unitarian Church which my parents attended. I was named at birth Theodore Chaikin Sorensen. Theodore Roosevelt, decades earlier, had led the progressive wing of the Republican Party to which my father belonged. When I was three years old I received a letter from Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the result of a chance encounter between him and my father; it noted that he and I had both been named for the same great man. "From the commotion that the letter caused in the Sorensen household," C.A. wrote back, "[little Ted] knew that something unusual had happened which some way or other involved him."
My mother, a pacifist who did not approve of Teddy Roosevelt's resort to military means for semi-imperialist objectives, always insisted that I was named not for the hero of San Juan Hill, but for the Greek words meaning "gift from God." An early feminist, she also insisted that her children receive her maiden name in addition to our father's last name—and the five of us were Chaikin Sorensen ever since; two names sufficiently unusual that we all became accustomed to misspellings. Books, newspapers, and magazines continue to do so; the New York Times has misspelled my name more than a hundred times in headlines and articles over the past fifty years. My mother's successor as editor of the University Journal, noting upon her departure that "Annis Chaiken resigned to become Mrs. C. A. Sorenson," misspelled both her maiden and her married name in the same sentence.
Throughout my life, I have reflected on my good luck; but never was I more fortunate than on the day of my birth. Among the hundreds of thousands of babies born that day, I won what my fellow Nebraskan Warren Buffett has called the "great genetic lottery." My friend Khododad Farmanfarmaian was born that same day on the opposite side of the world, in Persia. He was ultimately forced to flee for his life from his native country, hidden in a Kurdish hay wagon. I was born into a country protected by the rule of law.
I was raised by parents who were healthy, intelligent, college educated—and determined to see their children be the same. I was also fortunate to have been born in Nebraska. The city of Lincoln in my youth was small, lovely, and quaint; full of parks, stone churches, low buildings, small shops, and shaded streets. Although I heard rumors in grade school from older boys about an establishment called "Ma Kelly's," Lincoln was a wholesome place in which to grow up, the kind of small-town environment now seemingly gone forever. It was a city "in the middle of everywhere," as one Nebraska roadside sign proclaims. That message was confirmed for me as a small boy on a drive through central Nebraska with my parents, when we came upon a sign with two arrows, one pointing east, reading "New York World's Fair, 1,454 miles," and the other pointing west, reading "San Francisco World's Fair, 1,454 miles."
Even after I moved to Washington, D.C., and thereafter traveled the world over, from Fujairah to Bujumbura, from Skopje to Singapore, I always cherished the city of my birth—the safe, peaceful, predictable environment that nurtured my childhood and laid the foundation of my life and career. Of all the cities in which I have lived—Lincoln, Washington, Boston, and New York—the air, water, and politics were always cleaner in Lincoln.
I have occasionally wondered: Can a political career be affected by the name of one's hometown? Hope? Independence? What I do know is that growing up in a city named for Abraham Lincoln, whose stately statue stood by the state capitol in front of a wall on which his Gettysburg Address was inscribed, intensified my interest in the man, his life, and his speeches—speeches I have been quoting ever since.
Nebraska remains in my heart the wonderful home that shaped so much of my youthful outlook. In those halcyon days, Nebraskans spoke plainly, dressed plainly, and opposed elites and sophisticates of any kind. They were mostly middle class with middle-of-the-road views, isolationists increasingly interested in stable overseas markets for Nebraska crops, churchgoers who supported traditional church-state separation (except for school prayer), community-minded pragmatists and businessmen who were skeptical of the far right as well as the far left, and opposed to big spending by politicians. They did not like politicians of either party who showed too little concern about truly big issues but hypocritically expressed too much concern over trivial issues.
Yet Nebraska produced a host of political leaders with the courage to challenge conventional thinking—from the fiery political iconoclast and religious conservative William Jennings Bryan, to the civil rights leader Malcolm X, to Herbert Brownell and J. Lee Rankin of the Eisenhower Justice Department, who helped put courageous procivil rights judges on federal courts in the South.
But the best known Nebraskan of all was not in politics—the late Johnny Carson. Johnny and I attended the University of Nebraska in the 1940s, where he was known campus-wide for his magic and ventriloquism acts. My brother Tom thought Johnny the brightest prospect in the Beginning Journalism class Tom taught. As graduation neared, Tom suggested that Johnny come work for him at the local radio station where Tom was news director. "Gee thanks, Mr. Sorensen," Johnny replied, "but I thought I would try Hollywood." "Hollywood?" Tom retorted in disbelief. "I'm talking about $55 a week!"