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JFK's Close Adviser, Speechwriter Ted Sorensen Remains Committed to Peace

Ted Sorensen is best known as President John F. Kennedy's principal speechwriter and close adviser. And since those historic years in the White House nearly a half-century ago, Sorensen has pursued his passion for public policy, playing an active role in progressive politics, international law and human rights.

Sorensen has always described himself as a proud liberal, and that lifelong political orientation probably took root soon after his birth on May 8, 1928, in the Midwestern city of Lincoln, Nebraska. Sorensen says he inherited his outlook from his mother, who was a feminist and a committed pacifist, and his father, who was also a pacifist and a one-time state attorney general.

"Both of them brought up their children to believe in peace, both at home and abroad," Sorensen said recently during an interview in his gracious apartment overlooking New York's Central Park.

All five Sorensen children were in their high school and college debate teams.

"But," he added, "we fought with words, not with weapons!"

Conscientious objector

Unlike his future friend and boss, John F. Kennedy, who had been a World War II naval combat hero, Sorensen declared himself to be a conscientious objector when he was drafted by the U.S. military after the end of World War II. He told the draft board he'd be proud to join the armed services to drive an ambulance, to work in a kitchen or in some other useful, non-violent role.

"But I did not believe in killing people, and I did not want to be used to kill people," he says.

Taking that stand was a courageous move on Sorensen's part. He acknowledged that if had wanted to be part of the approved thinking as a future politician, or even as a future lawyer, "that was not the way to go. But it's what I believed."

Sorensen was exempted from military service and graduated from the University of Nebraska law school in 1949 at the top of his class.

Befriending JFK

In 1951, hoping to work on public policy, he went to Washington, where he soon signed on as a legislative aide to the newly-elected U.S. senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. The two became close friends, and when Kennedy launched his campaign for president in January 1960, Sorensen went with him as a speechwriter, political strategist and confidante. Together, they traveled to all 50 states.

It is rare indeed for a bright and idealistic young man to enter the White House and have significant influence with the president.

"Of course, the individual who wields the pen has an opportunity to convey his ideas in speech form," said Sorensen, who considers himself to have been fortunate in getting the opportunity to work for a wise, compassionate and idealistic president.

Sorensen says his views influenced JFK's policy

Kennedy was free to change the ideas or phrasing in the speeches Sorensen prepared for him - and he sometimes did during the early days of their association. But Sorensen believes that over time, he was able to persuade Kennedy to share many of his views.

"He had come from his father's conservative house, and I had come from my father's progressive house, and therefore had an opportunity to educate Kennedy on a progressive philosophy and its merit."

Sorensen noted that both during the presidential campaign and as president, Kennedy was strongly committed to diplomacy, the Peace Corps, disarmament "and on finding ways to settle our differences with the Russians other than killing each other with nuclear weapons."

Whose words were they?

Kennedy once referred to Sorensen as his "intellectual blood bank." Indeed, the line between Kennedy's words and Sorensen's has often been unclear. Until his recent memoir - Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History - Sorensen did not acknowledge the full extent of his role in drafting Kennedy's 1956 bestseller Profiles in Courage. The book won Kennedy the Pulitzer Prize and probably helped him win the White House in 1960.

But when Sorensen is asked who was responsible for the famous line in Kennedy's inaugural address - "… ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" - Sorensen answers, with a twinkle, "Ask not!"

Witness to history

Kennedy took office during the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the nuclear arms race between the superpowers was essentially uncontrolled. It was in that context that Sorensen helped write Kennedy's famous June 10th, 1963, commencement speech at the American University in Washington, D.C.

"The most beautiful passage is where [Kennedy says], in effect, 'Yes, the Soviet Union has a different objective than we do. Of course it has a different system than we do. But we can make the world safe for diversity…'" Sorensen says.

The speech continued to say that "... in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal…"

Coping with tragedy

The very next day, President Kennedy delivered a nationally televised speech on civil rights. It was an address Sorensen is especially proud to have crafted. The speech was tied to the president's decision to order the Alabama National Guard to usher in the first two black students admitted to the once-segregated state university.

Kennedy had become increasingly outraged at racial injustice and discrimination during his short presidency. However, on November 22, 1963, the president's life was cut short by an assassin's bullet. The murder devastated Sorensen, who has written, "Deep in my soul, I have not stopped weeping…"

Sorensen helped Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, for three months before leaving the White House to write his first memoir, Kennedy, which became an international bestseller in 1965.

He was a major player in the 1968 presidential bid by Senator Robert Kennedy, John Kennedy's younger brother and former U.S. attorney general. Robert Kennedy's campaign ended tragically, of course, when he, too, fell victim to an assassin.

An advocate for human rights

Though Sorensen remained involved in national politics after 1968, he focused his energies on his international law practice. It is work he sees as another face of the peacemaking between peoples that has always motivated him.

"Differences [between countries] are inevitable," he said. "But settling those differences by violence is neither inevitable nor useful, much less necessary."

Sorensen continues to be active today. He was an early supporter of President Barack Obama, whose ideals, he believes closely resemble those of President Kennedy. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and sits on the board of the International Center for Transitional Justice, a non-profit group that helps countries pursue accountability for past mass atrocities or human rights abuses.

Ted Sorensen has also been an outspoken critic of U.S. detention and interrogation practices related to the Bush administration's war on terror and has called for a bipartisan congressional inquiry into possible criminal wrongdoing.