Kennedy Aide Ted Sorensen Dies At 82

Ted Sorensen, adviser and speechwriter to President John Kennedy, died over the weekend. He was 82.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

A counselor and speechwriter for President John F. Kennedy has died in New York City from complications of a stroke. Theodore Sorensen was 82 years old. Sorensen was the co-author of many of President Kennedy's addresses and, in a sense, of the abbreviated Kennedy administration itself.

NPR's David Folkenflik has this remembrance.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: The language is alliterative, the cadence contrapuntal. A half century later, whatever your politics, President John F. Kennedy's speeches remains stirring.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Let the word go forth from this time and place to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.

FOLKENFLIK: That's the Inaugural Address from 1961. Sitting high in the stands that day was Ted Sorensen, watching Kennedy read the words he helped to write.

Pres. KENNEDY: And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

(Soundbite of cheering)

FOLKENFLIK: Theodore Chaikin Sorensen was born in 1928 in Lincoln, Nebraska, a self-described Danish, Russian, Jewish Unitarian. And after earning his college and law degrees there, he set out for Washington, D.C. with little more than a healthy ambition and an abiding sense of American history.

He was soon hired by Senator Kennedy and helped him to write "Profiles in Courage," the Pulitzer Prize-winning book that introduced Kennedy to the larger American public. The two men worked together seamlessly. During the 1960 Democratic presidential primaries, Sorensen delivered a speech for Kennedy, who was hoarse from campaigning.

A Wall Street Journal reporter later disclosed Sorensen had been reading from completely blank sheets of paper.

Mr. TED SORENSEN (Former Speech Writer and Adviser, Kennedy Administration): My work over the 11-year period with John F. Kennedy was a collaborative process.

FOLKENFLIK: Sorensen spoke to NPR's Scott Simon last year.

Mr. SORENSEN: John F. Kennedy was the author of his inaugural address because he's the man who made the decisions on what policies and values to enunciate.

FOLKENFLIK: But Sorensen wasn't simply a wordsmith. He participated in high level debates during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and helped to draft the letter to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that aided in diffusing it.

Mr. SORENSEN: The president thought the time had come to reexamine the Cold War, reexamine the meaning of peace and reexamine our relationship with the Soviet Union. No one had ever given that kind of speech.

FOLKENFLIK: Here Sorensen was speaking of a 1963 address at American University, where Kennedy decried the repugnance and evil of the Soviet system but held out an olive branch in calling for a nuclear test ban treaty.

Pres. KENNEDY: Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war.

FOLKENFLIK: His speeches directly influenced future Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and also the Republican president, Ronald Reagan.

After Kennedy's assassination, a heartbroken Sorensen largely withdrew from politics, reemerging for a short-lived run for U.S. Senate and an abortive nomination to be director of the CIA under President Carter.

Sorensen practiced law in New York City in the ensuing decades. But as the historian Robert Dallek says, he will always be remembered for the words he crafted for a young vital president.

Mr. ROBERT DALLEK (Historian): Sorensen was very much a reflector of Kennedy's ideas and mood, attitude. And he was a masterful speechwriter in that regard. And they were sort of joined at the hip when it came to creating these speeches.

FOLKENFLIK: David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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