The legendary speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, passed away Sunday at the ripe old age of eight-two. The Democratic left, of course, will celebrate Sorensen as the man who gave literary life to JFK, Camelot and the New Frontier.
Conservatives, too, however, should sing Sorensen’s praises. The man was a truly great speechwriter whose work celebrated American greatness and American exceptionalism.
This is praiseworthy and important. Especially today, when our political leaders have consciously chosen to set America on a path of national decline, and when our president declares that he really doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism, it is helpful to hearken back to a more grand and patriotic liberal political tradition which believed, as did Ronald Reagan and the burgeoning conservative movement, that America has a rendezvous with destiny.
The American, by nature, is optimistic. He is experimental, an inventor and a builder who builds best when called upon to build greatly…
I think we have to revitalize our society. I think we have to demonstrate to the people of the world that we’re determined in this free country of ours to be first — not first if, not first but, not first when — but first…
We chose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard: Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our skills and talents. Because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one we intend to win, and the others, too…
I think the question before the American people is: Are we doing as much as we can do? Are we as strong as we should be? Are we as strong as we must be if we are going to maintain our independence, and if we are going to maintain and hold out the hand of friendship to those who look to us for assistance: to those who look to us for survival?
I should make it very clear that I do not think we’re doing enough; that I am not satisfied as an American with the progress that we are making. This is a great country, but I think it could be a greater country, and this is a powerful country but I think it could be a more powerful country.
I’m not satisfied to have 50 percent of our steel mill capacity unused. I’m not satisfied when the United States has last year the lowest rate of economic growth of any major industrialized society in the world.
I’m not satisfied when we have over nine-billion-dollars’ worth of food, some of it rotting even though there is a hungry world, and even though four million Americans wait every month for a food package from the government which averages five cents a day per individual.
I’m not satisfied when the Soviet Union is turning out twice as many scientists and engineers as we are. I’m not satisfied when many of our teachers are inadequately paid or when our children go to school on part-time shifts. I think we should have an educational system second to none.
If Ted Sorensen didn’t write these encomiums to American greatness and American daring, he at least had a hand — a strong hand — in crafting them.
“Some who reported on the president [John F. Kennedy],” notes the Washington Post, “maintained, perhaps facetiously, that Mr. Sorensen dwelled within Kennedy’s mind and was sufficiently familiar with every detail of its workings to enable him to finish sentences that the president began.”
The contrast between Kennedy-Sorensen liberals of old and modern-day leftists is perhaps most striking on issues of defense and foreign policy. Kennedy and Sorensen, of course, famously declared, in Kennedy’s First Inaugural Address, that America would
pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
Moreover, said Kennedy (with the notable assistance of Sorensen):
To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required [emphasis added] — not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
Today, by contrast, another altogether different president tells the Afghan people now “struggling to break the bonds of mass misery” that America will help them not for whatever period is required, but until July 2011, and that then they’re on their own. America, he declares, is coming home.
“Our troops commitment in Afghanistan,” this president says, “cannot be open-ended: because the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.”
I’m mindful of President Eisenhower, who, in discussing national security, said: “Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.”
To Obama’s way of thinking, these “broader consideration[s]” include economic factors and “competition within the global economy,” which supposedly limit America’s ability to protect the national interest abroad.
Never mind that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan account for less than two percent of the Gross Domestic Product, according to defense analyst Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute. In Obama’s mind, that’s too exorbitant a cost to bear to “assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
The Kennedy-Sorensen Democrats of old, like the Ronald Reagan conservatives of today, knew better. They knew that a militarily strong and internationally assertive America, far from undermining American prosperity, instead underlies our economic strength and vitality.
Then, too, there was the Kennedy-Sorensen wit, humor and grace, which the current occupant of the Oval Office and his band of speechwriters seem to lack altogether. It is almost impossible, for instance, to imagine Kennedy referring to his Republican opponents as the “enemy.” Yet that’s exactly what Obama has said of Republicans:
We’re gonna punish our enemies and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us.
Here, by contrast, is what Kennedy-Sorensen said about the Grand Old Party and Richard Nixon during the height of the extraordinarily close and highly contested 1960 presidential campaign.
Mr. Nixon in the last seven days has called me an economic ignoramus, a Pied Piper, and all the rest. I’ve just confined myself to calling him a Republican, but he says that is getting too low.
Then there’s this classic self-deprecating remark, one of many uttered by JFK:
I want to express my appreciation to the governor. Every time he introduces me as the potentially greatest president in the history of the United States, I always think perhaps he is overstating it one or two degrees. George Washington wasn’t a bad president and I do want to say a word for Thomas Jefferson. But, otherwise, I will accept the compliment.
Sorensen has been derided in recent years, especially by conservatives, as a hack who has spent the past half-century creating ever-larger myths about Kennedy and America’s “Camelot.” There is, of course, some truth to this. The reality of JFK never quite matched the image.
Weekly Standard writer Philip Terzian, for instance, has amusingly dubbed Sorensen’s myth-making, “Profiles in Delusion.” “Since 1963,” he writes,
Theodore C. Sorensen has been subsisting on his eight-year career as a ghostwriter for John F. Kennedy, and faithful readers of the New York Times have come to rely on his periodic contributions to the editorial pages during the past 47 years. Here Sorensen has repeated, with emphasis, his simple, three-part formula for understanding modern American history:
Very funny and all too true, I’m afraid: As he aged, Sorensen grew increasingly partisan and, in his later life especially, was a shameless and insufferable Democratic Party shill.
Nonetheless, Sorensen’s greatness as a speechwriter cannot be denied. Quite simply, he penned some of the most poetic and memorable speeches in American history. Indeed, many of his remarks are remembered today and will be remembered 100 years from today.
That’s because, as Kennedy’s most important speechwriter, he gave voice to America’s historic aspiration for greatness and achievement. He believed in an America that was “second to none,” and that dared to dream of doing big and important things.
And that’s no small achievement. It is, in fact, something that we should remember today, in this period of national decline: that America has scaled mountains before, and that we will do so once again. Let the word go forth…