Memoirs of presidential advisers are often self-indulgent and ponderous literary exercises. The writing is generally mediocre at best and the behind-the-scenes revelations are chosen for their ability to help sell books, rather than their historical significance.
That’s definitely not the case with the autobiography of John F. Kennedy’s former speechwriter Ted C. Sorensen. “Counselor: A Life At The Edge Of History” is an engaging and fast-paced account of both the inner workings of the Kennedy White House and the story of an American life that took Mr. Sorensen from a middle-class neighborhood in Lincoln, Neb., to the West Wing in a relatively short period of time.
Mr. Sorensen, who wrote the book while recovering from a stroke that made him partially blind and hampered his writing ability, is quite proud of the record of the Kennedy administration and his own (if he does say so himself) contributions to it. You come away from reading the book respecting the author and longing for a time of more inspired presidential leadership.
While he is best known as President Kennedy’s main speechwriter (though he declines to take credit for some of the most memorable Kennedyisms), he was also a top policy adviser and political strategist. Some of the best parts of the book are when he gives readers a first-hand account of events such as the 1960 campaign and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
During the early days of the campaign it was often just Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Sorensen flying around together seeking support for the relatively unknown senator. Campaigns were simpler, with less media scrutiny than they receive today. Mr. Sorensen never speculates whether his former boss would have been elected at a time when the relationship between the media and candidates is far more adversarial.
Once Mr. Kennedy entered the White House, Mr. Sorensen seemed to have his finger in every pie. He describes the chill that descended upon the room when Dean Acheson, the former secretary of state, advised the president to solve the situation by bombing Soviet missile sites in Cuba. When asked how things would play out after the Soviets bomb NATO sites in Turkey in response, Acheson said “cooler heads will prevail.”
Asked to respond to a subsequent comment that Acheson made to the media that Mr. Kennedy showed more luck, than talent, during those tension filled days, Mr. Sorensen replied “we were lucky - lucky we did not follow Mr. Acheson’s advice.”
As for his work as Mr. Kennedy’s ghostwriter, he admits to having done much of the research and rewriting of “Profiles In Courage,” but insists that Mr. Kennedy was the main writer. Mr. Sorensen does a bit of a dialogue with himself about what entitles someo ne to get the billing as the author of a book, even if he or she got a great deal of help.
Mr. Sorensen doesn’t describe the battles within the White House staff over some of the big speeches during the Mr. Kennedy administration and he devotes little space to his rivalries with other Kennedy aides. He does, however, admit that he could be brash and impolitic when handling internal political disputes.
“I have read enough about my ‘arrogant abruptness’ in those days to know that the charge must have some truth to it,” he writes. Mr. Sorensen also concedes that he could have shared some of the plumb assignments with others on his staff but states - rather immodestly - that he didn’t do so because “these were basically JFK’s decisions; he wanted me to perform the tasks he gave me.”
“When Jack’s injured, Ted bleeds,” according to a popular quip. That sentiment is very much in evidence throughout this book, which occasionally veers off into hero worship. After discussing the assassination of his boss, Mr. Sorensen makes a series of predictions about what might have happened if Mr. Kennedy had lived. Not surprisingly, he guessed that all the things that LBJ accomplished would have occurred in a second JFK term while Mr. Kennedy would not have been mired so deeply in Vietnam.
“Counselor: A Life At The Edge Of History” is a poignant look back at that era. Its timing couldn’t be better, coming at the tail end of the tenure of a vastly unpopular president who will be replaced by either a Democrat or Republican who cites Mr. Kennedy as a source of inspiration.
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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