Sorensen, Theodore Chaikin ("Ted")

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SORENSEN, Theodore Chaikin ("Ted")

(b. 8 May 1928 in Lincoln, Nebraska), President John F. Kennedy's chief adviser and speechwriter, who translated Kennedy's political philosophy into New Frontier programs and policies.

Sorensen's attraction to public service and his liberal/pacifist views were rooted in his family background. Raised a Unitarian, he was one of four children of Christian Abraham and Annis (Chaikin) Sorensen. His lawyer father was born in a prairie sod house to Danish immigrants and served as state attorney general of Nebraska. He became a crusading Republican and political ally of the progressive senator George Norris. Ted's mother was of Russian-Jewish background and was a feminist and pacifist. As youths, Ted and his older brother Tom were active campaigners for civil rights before this became a national political cause. After receiving a law degree in 1951 from the University of Nebraska, where he was first in his class, Ted headed for Washington, D.C., to work as an attorney for the Federal Security Agency and then as a researcher for a congressional subcommittee on railroad retirement before joining John F. Kennedy's staff.

In 1953 first-year Senator John F. Kennedy recruited the twenty-four-year-old Sorensen as his legislative assistant. He became an indispensable aide on both legislative and political matters. In the mid-to late 1950s, he planned Kennedy's speaking tours and accompanied him in his travels. It was Sorensen who researched and wrote a profusion of speeches and articles that showcased Kennedy's understanding of domestic and foreign issues and historical perspectives, all of which contributed to Kennedy's rising national stature. Although never taking credit for it, Sorensen is widely acknowledged to have been a shaping force behind Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize–winning Profiles in Courage. Sorensen also played a leading role in Kennedy's nearly successful bid for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination in 1956.

So important was Sorensen to Kennedy that as special counsel he became the president-elect's first appointee in November 1960. Kennedy delegated to him considerable responsibility for screening people and ideas and for fleshing out policy; cabinet and agency officials typically dealt with Sorensen rather than the president on most domestic matters. In totally dedicating himself to Kennedy, Sorensen worked long hours, often alone; as a result, both his health and marriage suffered. In August 1963 he was divorced from Camilla (Palmer) Sorensen, whom he had married on 8 September 1949. She returned to Nebraska with their three sons. Sorensen remarried in 1964, but that union also ended in divorce within five years.

Tall and angular, with a square, somber face set off by dark-rimmed glasses, Sorensen's appearance underscored a reputation as a no-nonsense intellectual. His demeanor was stiff, his personal habits prudish, and his attitude aloof, though it may have masked a natural shyness. When charm was required, however, Sorensen could rise to the occasion, and his colleagues reported that he had a wry wit.

Kennedy valued Sorensen's advice as a generalist. Insiders confirmed his contributions both to domestic policy and international issues. His voice counterbalanced more politically conservative and militarily aggressive pressures, as in his support for using a blockade instead of an air strike against Cuba during the missile crisis of October 1962. Sorensen was a major force behind Kennedy's persistent pursuit of the August 1963 nuclear test ban treaty despite repeated Soviet rebuffs and delays.

Sorensen captured in speeches and in other writings the content and emotional emphasis required at each critical point of the Kennedy administration. The most noteworthy of Sorensen's speeches included the inaugural address; the announcement of the blockade of Cuba on 22 October 1962; the American University foreign-policy address of 10 June 1963; and the eloquent civil rights speech televised nationally on 11 June 1963. The drafts were perfectly attuned to Kennedy's clipped, emphatic delivery. The messages were lofty, but the language and syntax were simple, making frequent use of short sentences, staccato phrasing, parallelisms, and alliteration. Though some critics expressed irritation over the mannered oratorical style, none challenged the impact that the Kennedy-Sorensen speeches had on listeners at home and abroad.

Following the Kennedy assassination, Sorensen stayed on with President Lyndon Johnson only long enough to assist with the transition. His departure in early 1964 was criticized by some as an abandonment of Kennedy's programs and ideals. Instead, Sorensen felt compelled to write Kennedy, published in 1965, which he described as a "substitute for the book [Kennedy himself] was going to write." In that sense it remains the closest thing possible to a Kennedy memoir. Sorensen has written or edited seven other books, mostly dealing with the Kennedys and the presidency. Sorensen returned to Kennedy service as an unofficial consultant to Senator Robert F. Kennedy and as a full-time member of Robert Kennedy's staff during his aborted 1968 presidential campaign. Ironically, Sorensen had advised Kennedy to wait until 1972 to seek the presidency.

In the decades following the 1960s, Sorensen remained active in Democratic Party politics in New York and the nation. He served in a number of appointed positions and unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate from New York in 1970. Although endorsed by the state Democratic committee in the primary, he finished a distant third for the nomination, evidence that he lacked the charisma to capture public support. In 1977 President-elect Jimmy Carterconsidered Sorensen for director of the Central Intelligence Agency, but Sorensen withdrew his own name following opposition from the Senate Intelligence Committee, due partly to his registration for the draft in 1945 as a noncombatant.

On 28 June 1969 Sorensen married Gillian Martin. They have a daughter and continue to live in New York City. Sorensen practices international law as senior counsel with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, the firm he joined in 1966. Sorensen also writes commentaries for the national press and scholarly journals on foreign issues and the American political scene.

Sorensen was important to the 1960s for his central role as special counsel in the Kennedy White House. Over the decade of his relationship with John Kennedy, he impacted Kennedy's thinking and implemented Kennedy's political agenda to as great a degree as any other individual. Although they came from contrasting backgrounds and rarely socialized, the two formed an effective and powerful team. Sorensen had a liberalizing effect on Kennedy's political philosophy. In turn, Sorensen absorbed a keen pragmatism that he directed toward protecting the political interests of his chief. They united on the middle ground of what was politically possible. Sorensen became so attuned to the thoughts, desires, speech patterns, and mannerisms of Kennedy that he was dubbed the president's "alter ego." In the years since the 1960s, he has remained one of the most ardent apologists for the Kennedy presidency. By his own admission, no day passes without his thinking of John Kennedy.

The Sorensen papers and oral history transcripts are found in the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston, Massachusetts. Sorensen's books, especially The Kennedy Legacy (1969), record his perceptions and provide insight on his participation in events. Analysis of Sorensen's background and influence on John Kennedy can be found in Patrick Anderson, The Presidents' Men: White House Assistants of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson (1968); Herbert S. Parmet, Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy (1980); and JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (1983). For further information see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (1965); James N. Giglio, The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (1991); and Laurence Leamer, The Kennedy Men (2001).

Joanne Schenk Paull