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D.C. confidential

A memoir from JFK's closest adviser reveals the intimacy, drama, and tragedy of his years in Camelot

John F. Kennedy (left) and Ted Sorensen in the late 1950s. Sorensen began working for Kennedy as a research assistant in 1953. John F. Kennedy (left) and Ted Sorensen in the late 1950s. Sorensen began working for Kennedy as a research assistant in 1953. (PAUL SCHUTZER)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Douglas Brinkley
May 11, 2008

Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History
By Ted Sorensen
Harper, 556 pp., illustrated, $27.95

When Ted Sorensen first heard the news on Nov. 22, 1963, that President John F. Kennedy had been shot, he fell into a state of zombie-like mourning. Struggling to control his emotions, he rushed to the Fish Room - the lounge across from the Oval Office - to watch CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite grimly report on the tragedy. Earlier that morning Sorensen had chatted with JFK near the White House helipad just before the president left for Dallas. Now, watching TV in a sullen trance, Sorensen doubted whether he would ever laugh again. The assassination had hit the 35-year-old special counsel harder than even his father's death. "The news kept showing clips of the president delivering a speech earlier that day at a breakfast in Texas," Sorensen recalled, "the same speech I had gone over with him in the Oval Office on the morning of his departure."

Two years after that horrific day Sorensen wrote "Kennedy," a memoir that recounted his 11-year friendship with our 35th president. As Sorensen told journalist Theodore White, he wanted to ensure that Kennedy's New Frontier programs didn't "go down the drain because of some nut in Dallas." With a writing style as smooth as ice cream, Sorensen's "Kennedy" focused on such Cold War flashpoints as Cuba, Laos, Berlin, and Oxford, Miss. It recounted the famous "Ask Not" inaugural address that Sorensen had so brilliantly written. Along with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s "A Thousand Days," it was the insider book that essentially created Camelot.

But Sorensen didn't tell the half of it in "Kennedy." For in "Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History," Sorensen's extraordinarily lucid memoir, he lets his hair down, revealing poignant moments of his Kennedy White House years that he didn't feel appropriate to reveal while Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was alive. Take his writing of "Kennedy." Once Sorensen completed the manuscript he gave it to the former first lady to prune for typographical errors or mistaken assumptions. What he unexpectedly got back were handwritten pages of the most truthful nature ranging from her husband's dislike of large crowds to his apparent contempt for The New York Times. With surprising intimacy Jackie corrected Sorensen on JFK's ever having called his son (John Kennedy Jr.) "John-John," as was widely reported. "That nickname now plagues the little boy - who may be stuck with it all his life," she complained. "I know your book deals with more important things - but it would be great if you could put that nickname to bed. I don't know where it started, as both of us hated nicknames - our own - Jack and Jackie we thought a most unfortunate combination - and we always called our children by their first names. I can only think it started when I was hugging John as a baby and saying nice things to him - like John, John - and some newspaper woman - it may have been dear old Laura Berquist - picked it up - John gets angry now when strangers call him John-John - because he thinks it is babyish - He has many fights in the park about it. You could help him if you said his father never called him that."

Without question "Counselor" is the most up-close memoir ever written by somebody deeply involved with JFK's political and personal life. Beginning with his idyllic childhood in Lincoln, Neb., and ending with a screed against today's "sorry political leadership," Sorensen displays a knack for lively storytelling. While there are plenty of fine thumbnail sketches of such Kennedyites as McGeorge Bundy, Pierre Salinger, and Kenny O'Donnell, it's JFK's nonstop wit that wins the day. Recounting a 1959 Western excursion he took with then Senator Kennedy to test the presidential waters, for example, Sorensen recalls numerous comical and bawdy incidents that alone make the book worth the price of admission. "The most influential Democrat in one state was a woman older than both JFK and I, who, JFK claimed, looked upon me with some affection," he recalls. "It amused him to claim that I could tie up that delegation if I would 'romance' the lady. I was willing to do almost anything for his success, but not that."

Except for a handful of loners, most US presidents have alter egos (i.e., Woodrow Wilson-Edward House or FDR-Harry Hopkins or Ronald Reagan-Nancy Reagan). Clearly Sorensen, along with JFK's brothers Robert and Teddy, played that role for the president. Sorensen didn't just write Kennedy's speeches, he helped him discover his voice, which spoke directly to America's postwar aspirations. Traveling around with JFK during the late 1950s, for example, whenever the Massachusetts senator's voice gave out, Sorensen would deliver the speech in his place, ones that he had drafted himself. One Wall Street Journal reporter, in fact, discovered at one of these fill-in events that Sorensen was "reading" Kennedy's address from blank sheets of paper.

Whether it was drafting the all-important letter to Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis or botching JFK's famous "Ich bin Berliner" speech by inserting the word "ein" before "Berliner" (which translated as "I am a jelly doughnut"), Sorensen was the administration's indispensable man. After Dallas he tried working for other politicians - including Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter - but it never really worked out. As he makes abundantly clear in "Counselor," his love and loyalty still belong to the man he called Jack.

A few years ago a well-meaning professor told Sorensen that he was going to require his students to read either Clark Clifford's "Counsel to the President" or Richard Neustadt's "Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents" over Sorensen's "Kennedy" because they worked for multiple presidents, not just one. "Yes," Sorensen replied, remembering a one-liner Margaret Mitchell once used to defend the fact that she had written only "Gone With the Wind," "but my one president was quite a president."

Douglas Brinkley is a professor of history at Rice University and is writing "I So Declare It: Theodore Roosevelt and American Wilderness 1858-1919."

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