- Associated Press - Sunday, October 31, 2010

NEW YORK | Theodore C. Sorensen, the studious, star-struck aide to President Kennedy whose crisp, poetic turns of phrase helped idealize and immortalize the Kennedy administration, died Sunday. He was 82.

He died at noon at Manhattan’s New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center from complications of a stroke, said his widow, Gillian Sorensen.

Mr. Sorensen had been in poor health in recent years, and a stroke in 2001 left him with such poor eyesight that he was unable to write his memoir, “Counselor,” published in 2008. Instead, he had to dictate it to an assistant.

President Obama issued a statement saying he was saddened to learn of Mr. Sorensen’s death.

“I know his legacy will live on in the words he wrote, the causes he advanced, and the hearts of anyone who is inspired by the promise of a new frontier,” Mr. Obama said.

Hours after his death, Mrs. Sorensen told the Associated Press that although a first stroke nine years ago robbed him of much of his sight, “he managed to get back up and going.”

She said he continued to give speeches and traveled, and just two weeks ago, he collaborated on the lyrics to music to be performed in January at the Kennedy Center in Washington — a symphony commemorating a half-century since Kennedy took office.

“I can really say he lived to be 82 and he lived to the fullest and to the last — with vigor and pleasure and engagement,” said Mrs. Sorensen, who was at his side to the last. “His mind, his memory, his speech were unaffected.”

Her husband was hospitalized Oct. 22 after a second stroke that was “devastating,” she said.

Some of Kennedy’s most memorable speeches, including his inaugural address and his vow to place a man on the moon, resulted from such close collaborations with Sorensen that scholars debated who wrote what. He had long been suspected as the real writer of the future president’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Profiles in Courage,” an allegation Mr. Sorensen and the Kennedys emphatically — and litigiously — denied.

Kennedy called him “my intellectual blood bank,” and the press frequently referred to Mr. Sorensen as Kennedy’s “ghostwriter,” especially after the release of “Profiles in Courage.”

Mr. Sorensen’s brain of steel was never needed more than in October 1962, with the U.S. and the Soviet Union on the brink of nuclear annihilation over the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Kennedy directed Mr. Sorensen and Robert F. Kennedy, the administration’s attorney general, to draft a letter to Nikita Khrushchev, who had sent conflicting messages.

The careful response — which ignored the Soviet leader’s harsher statements and included a U.S. concession involving weaponry in Turkey — was credited with persuading the Soviets to withdraw their missiles from Cuba and averting a superpower war. Mr. Sorensen considered his role his greatest achievement.

“That’s what I’m proudest of,” he once told the Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald. “Never had this country, this world, faced such great danger. You and I wouldn’t be sitting here today if that had gone badly.”

Of the many speeches Mr. Sorensen helped compose, Kennedy’s 14-minute inaugural address — the fourth-shortest inaugural address ever, but in the view of many historians rivaled only by Lincoln’s — shone brightest.

Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations includes four citations from the speech — one-seventh of the entire address, which built to the exhortation: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

After Kennedy’s thousand days in the White House, Mr. Sorensen worked as an international lawyer, counting Anwar Sadat among his clients. He stayed involved in politics, joining Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968 and running unsuccessfully for the New York Senate four years later.

A public memorial service will be held for her husband in about a month, Mrs. Sorensen said. Survivors also include a daughter, Juliet Sorensen Jones, of Chicago; three sons from his first marriage, Eric Sorensen, Stephen Sorensen and Philip Sorensen, all of Wisconsin; and seven grandchildren.

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