Bill Steigerwald

Ted Sorensen will be paying special attention to Barack Obama's inaugural address on Tuesday. One of the last surviving insiders from John F. Kennedy's administration, Sorensen, 80, was JFK's legal counsel and primary speechwriter and played a major part in crafting Kennedy's oft-quoted and much-praised 1961 inaugural address.

While Kennedy himself came up with the most-famous line (albeit cribbed from history) -- "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" -- it was Sorensen's words and rhetoric that made up the flesh and bones of Kennedy's speeches and writings from 1953 to 1963 (including the 1956 book "Profiles in Courage"). Sorensen's candid 2008 autobiography, "Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History" (Harper), includes an often critical account of the time he served Kennedy. I talked to Sorensen Thursday by telephone from his office in New York City:

Q: If you were Mr. Obama's chief speechwriter, what would be the first bit of advice you'd give him?

A: My advice would be what it should not be. No. 1, it should not be a campaign speech. He should not attack the Republican Party or even George W. Bush. No. 2, it should not be a State of the Union message with a laundry list of legislative proposals. No. 3, it should focus primarily on his global audience, because the American people already know Obama and what he's like and what he stands for. The rest of the world is very interested but up to now they have only indirect words about him. This is his chance to stamp his identity on global thinking for the next four years.

Q: Would this be all-purpose advice for any inaugural or just for Obama?

A: Well, yes, I think I would say the same thing to anybody who I thought was capable of living up to it, and he clearly is; he's a naturally eloquent man.

Q: What is the main purpose of the inaugural address?

A: The main purpose should be to set the tone and the theme of the next four years.

Q: Has that purpose changed since 1961?

A: Well of course when Kennedy was inaugurated, it was the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and that necessarily had to be the context in which he spoke. But Kennedy and Obama both stood for hope and change, for young enthusiasm and idealism, so there are some similarities there and I think this will probably be the best inaugural address since Kennedy's.

Q: Kennedy's inaugural is usually ranked in the top one, two, three or four addresses.


Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald, born and raised in Pittsburgh, is a former L.A. Times copy editor and free-lancer who also worked as a docudrama researcher for CBS-TV in Hollywood before becoming a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a columnist Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Bill Steigerwald recently retired from daily newspaper journalism..