Ted Sorensen: The Passing of a Giant

The world of communications quietly lost an intellectual giant on Sunday with the passing of the iconic Theodore C. Sorensen.

Photo from whitehousemuseum.org

Ted Sorensen at The White House

Most know Mr. Sorensen as President John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter, but we must remember him as much, much more than just a penman. Sorensen’s own genius completed the icon we all know as JFK. Though a masterful wordsmith, Sorensen served as counselor-in-chief to President Kennedy through some of the darkest, most dangerous moments in our nation’s history.

For example, communications folks are often tasked by clients with becoming jacks of all trades, but I defy you to beat this story. At the young age of 34 years, Mr. Sorensen received the task of drafting a letter for President Kennedy’s review and signature. Sounds simple, right? Wrong.

John F. Kennedy (left) and Ted Sorensen in the late 1950s. Sorensen began working for Kennedy as a research assistant in 1953. (PAUL SCHUTZER)

Photo from The Boston Globe

This was no ordinary letter, for the dispatch was written to Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev in an effort to diffuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. The words Sorensen chose for this letter would influence the fate of the United States and the future of the human race. As he wrote, Russian missiles menaced America in silos only 90 miles from the U.S. mainland. The New York Times recounted this story in Mr. Sorensen’s obituary:

“Time was short,” Mr. Sorensen remembered… “The hawks were rising. Kennedy could keep control of his own government, but one never knew whether the advocates of bombing and invasion might somehow gain the upper hand.”

Mr. Sorensen said, “I knew that any mistakes in my letter — anything that angered or soured Khrushchev — could result in the end of America, maybe the end of the world.”

With a storied career that spanned more than 50 years, Mr. Sorensen could fill a library with such stories. He began as a researcher with Kennedy (then a freshman U.S. senator) in 1953, wrote many of Kennedy’s immortal words during his campaign for the White House, and served as the president’s right-hand until his assassination in 1963. After leaving the White House, Sorensen continued as a political advisor to numerous heroic leaders, including Nelson Mandela, Robert F. Kennedy, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, and President Barack Obama.

I plan to celebrate Mr. Sorensen’s life by reading more of his life’s tales. I’ll start with Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History. America needs more leaders like Ted Sorensen – those who lead with grace, skill, compassion, and intellect.

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