By Richard Korman
Peggy Noonan scripted Ronald Reagan; Louis Howe fed words to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In the annals of presidential ghostwriting, you could make the case that Ted Sorensen is the greatest ever. He penned some of the signature rhetoric of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and served as a key writer and advisor during Kennedy’s senate and presidential terms. Imagine helping Kennedy craft his bestselling Profiles in Courage, drafting JFK’s memorable inaugural speech and writing a critical memo to Krushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The recently released paperback version of Sorensen’s memoir, Counselor: A Life Lived at the Edge of History, has much to admire and amuse, including instances where Sorensen says Kennedy’s speeches bombed and quotes from Jackie Kennedy on the ways she asked Sorensen to revise the draft of his post-assassination biography of JFK.
Partly blind from a stroke suffered several years ago, Sorensen deserves a prize just for getting this final book finished and into print. He is what he always was: a brainy public servant, a complex Midwestern liberal, a loyal member of the Kennedy family court. By his own admission he never tires of talking about JFK. His book contains several chapters on writing, including his suggestion that ghostwriters maintain a “passion for anonymity.” Although much ghostwriting these days takes place under short-term financial arrangements, such transactions never bear as much literary or political fruit as the longer relationships of trust and respect such as Sorensen shared with JFK. As my ghostwriting friend David Kohn has said, “bad chemistry produces bad books.” The opposite is also true.
Sorensen has said that JFK’s assassination cut short his career as a top public servant. Afterwards, Sorensen chose to live the rest of his life in the half-light of JFK’s unfinished term. In doing so, he almost trivializes accomplishments that would spill off the page of anyone else’s resume, such as hundreds of top writing credits, decades as an international attorney and advisor to foreign heads of state. By choosing to see himself always as JFK’s man, Sorensen’s descriptions of his non-Kennedy endeavors take on a kind of poignant irrelevance. No matter. This book’s behind-the-scene accounts will interest anyone in writing or politics.
Richard Korman is the editorial manager for ENR.com.
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