Ted Sorensen offers Obama advice

Bill Steigerwald

1/19/2009 8:18:14 PM - 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.

A: That's exactly right. Lincoln's second was the best. Jefferson's first was good and Roosevelt's first was good. Some say that Roosevelt's second and Lincoln's first were also right up there, but those I remember less well.

Q: When we say JFK's address was good, what do we mean -- the rhetoric, the ideas?

A: We mean both. I think JFK's talk was exceptional for the strength of its ideas beautifully articulated. Maybe strike the word "beautifully" and say "nobly."

Q: Are you always editing yourself?

A: Yes (laughs).

Q: What is your favorite line or idea from JFK's inaugural?

A: There are a lot of lines competing for that honor. One of the most important, which has been sadly forgotten, was his line, "So let us begin anew -- remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness ."

Q: Is there an idea or line or message in JFK's address that you wished history had paid more attention to or emphasized more than the ones we do know?

A: Well, there are several of those, too. For example, after he says the "Ask not" line, the next line says, "Fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America can do for you but what together we can do for the freedom of man." Well, think about that salutation -- "fellow citizens of the world." That means he's saying I'm a citizen of the world. Nobody noticed that.

Q: Can you clear up the provenance of that famous line, "Ask not what your country can do for you"?

A: (The phone line goes dead and we're disconnected for several minutes.) Alright, so modern communications aren't what they're cracked up to be. What I'm saying is that of course I was involved, as I had been involved for four years with JFK's writings and speeches. But he was very heavily involved himself. He wouldn't just take something I would work on and get up and give it without changing it.

Q: And that "Ask not" line?

A: Yes, there are a lot of people who claim that it was said first by Oliver Wendell Holmes or Warren G. Harding or the headmaster at Choate. The furthest reach of all was Kahlil Gibran (who wrote "The Prophet" in 1923) who wrote something like it back in the '20s. As I say in the book, the Gibran Society wrote me and said while it's true that that particular work of Gibran's had not been translated into English until long after the Kennedy inaugural, was it possible that either Kennedy or I could read Persian or Arabic and that's where we got it? I had to say, "No."

Q: When Milton Friedman wrote his book "Capitalism and Freedom" in 1962, he opened the book with JFK's "Ask not" line and he critiqued it strongly because he said it was putting the state above the individual. Did you ever hear that criticism and if so what would your response be to that?

A: "What you can do for your country" doesn't mean the government, it means your fellow human beings. Kennedy often said that public service includes helping the Red Cross, and the Boy Scouts, and your local hospital and school. It's not putting the state over the individual.

Q: Is there a great line from a political speech that you wish you had written? One that you go around saying, "Man, I wish I had pulled that one off. That's one of the greatest lines of all time"?

A: Well, I think there have been some great speeches in my time, including Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, but I don't know of any better speech or more quotable speech than Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural and in his Gettysburg Address. As far as I'm concerned, Milton Friedman or not, "Of the people, by the people, for the people" is still the best definition of democracy there is.

Q: How do you describe yourself politically?

A: I'm a liberal, I should say a liberal Democrat . I'm still self-editing (laughs).

Q: Have your politics changed in any significant way since your JFK days?

A: No. Again, please read the book "Counselor." It's available at Amazon.com and local bookstores. In the one-third of the book about my years after Kennedy, I stressed that my views had not changed, even though a lot of other people's have. Once when I needled my friend Pat Moynihan, a good fellow, a little bit about some of his slippage in views, he said, "Why, Ted, you sound like a 1960s liberal." And I thought to myself, "Yes, I still am a 1960s liberal."

I also quoted in the book that when the FBI did its first field search on me when I was first applying for a lowly job in the federal government after I graduated from law school, one of my law school classmates said in answer to the FBI questions -- I know this because this appeared in the report, when I got my FBI file -- "Ted's real liberal, but he's a loyal American." As I said in the book, and as I say now, "I'll take that verdict on both counts."

Q: You feel comfortable with today's Democratic Party and you believe JFK would as well?

A: Yes. Oh, there are always going to be Democrats who didn't think JFK was not liberal enough, aggressive enough, or that Kennedy should have spent more money on this or that. He was actually a fiscal conservative and I worked with him on that. Part of my responsibility was to keep the budget below $100 billion. Now they're up there in the trillions.

Q: Do you have any claim on the Kennedy line, "A rising tide lifts all boats"?

A: No. That came from a business group -- although I have to admit I stole it from them and had something to do with passing it on to JFK. That was the slogan of the New England Council, which was like a regional chamber of commerce. Their slogan was, "A rising tide lifts all the boats."

Q: Which is a wonderful metaphor.

A: It is. I like it.

Q: When you write a speech do you write it for the eye or the ear?

A: Both. You've got to remember the ear, because that's how it's going to first be received by the immediate audience in the room and if it has words that are difficult to pronounce, or understand, or distinguish from the word before or the word after, it can diminish the impact of the speech. Of course I am writing for the eye because of the way a speech is reported in the press. I think everyone writes for the eye. But for a good speech, some sense of the poetic is important and poems are clearly written totally for the ear.

Q: Is there a line or two or a big thought or a timeless theme that you'd insert into Mr. Obama's speech if you had the chance?

A: If he asks me, I will give him some suggestions for his ear only and I think I won't do it through the Pittsburgh press.

Q: If you were writing a speech for Mr. Obama, is there a trick you'd want to pull out of the Ted Sorensen speechwriting playbook that would fit Obama's speaking style and oratorical skills perfectly?

A: I don't have tricks in a playbook, but I think it's going to be a great speech and it's going to emphasize the need for a more peaceful world and a more united country in which we can restore confidence in our leadership and our economy.