Book Review: Counselor, by Ted Sorensen

Counselor, by Ted Sorensen JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen’s book Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History is required reading for anyone calling themselves a speechwriter. Sorensen witnessed many historical moments in his 11 years as JFK’s chief speechwriter and Special Counsel to the President. This book reveals the challenges and rewards of such unparalleled access to one of the greatest American presidents.

As I reported in February, Sorensen gave the closing keynote at the Ragan Speechwriters Conference. I purchased my signed copy at that event and have finally finished it.

There’s over 500 pages of compelling narrative in his striking honest autobiography. It covers his Unitarian origins in the soil of Nebraska, to Washington DC and the Kennedy years, to the recent past. While it does not include his endorsement of Barack Obama there is no doubt that his political sympathies are on the left of the Democratic Party.

Speechwriting Tips

The book contains a fascinating number of insights into speechwriting and the role of the speechwriter:

  • Speechwriters should have a “passion of anonymity” so as not to diminish the principals’ stature by accepting any credit for the speech. (p. 131)
  • Sorensen writes speeches in longhand, with painstaking precision, requiring uninterrupted time, with piles of notes gathered on the floor around him, each pile reflecting a different topic in the outline. (p. 136)
  • The six basic rules of speechwriting (p. 138-141) are:
  1. Less is almost always better than more.
  2. Choose each word as a precision tool.
  3. Organize the text to simplify, clarify, emphasize.
  4. Use variety and literary devices to reinforce memorability, not confuse or distract.
  5. Employ elevated but not grandiose language.
  6. Substantive ideas are the most important part of any speech.

Nevertheless, Sorensen warns, “Saying it so doesn’t make it so” :

Rare is the speaker who has the power to make others listen, and, if they listen, to act, and if they act, to do so in the manner he advocates. Nevertheless, I do not dismiss the potential of the right speech on the right topic delivered by the right speaker in the right way at the right moment. It can ignite a fire, change men’s minds, open their eyes, alter their votes, bring hope to their lives, and, in all these ways, change the world. I know, I saw it happen.

Kennedy’s impact on the world

As fascinating as the ‘inside baseball’ view of speechwriting is, the real value of the book is Sorensen’s role as witness to the defining crises of JFK’s Presidency. Supreme among these was the Cuban Missile crisis, the thirteen days in October 1962 when the world teetered on the brink of destruction. Sorensen had a ring-side seat as a member of the ExComm group who met daily in the White House as the situation unfolded. Many senior advisers encouraged Kennedy to invade or bomb Cuba. Former secretary of state Dean Acheson advised bombing both Cuba and Soviet missile sites in Russia.

Kennedy, as we know, chose the option of blockading Cuba against that of gung-ho military aggression. Sorensen notes that “It is not difficult to amass public support for a belligerent policy against a national adversary… (but)… I believe that a president who refrains from going to war may actually be showing more courage than one who follows the more politically popular course and launches military combat.” (p. 296)

Sorensen’s role as trusted policy adviser during the crisis elevates him far above that of any other speechwriter in history. His drafting of key communiques to Khrushchev helped save the world.

The chapter on Kennedy’s assassination is heart-wrenching for any of us alive on November 21, 1963. More than anyone except Kennedy’s immediate family he felt the loss which robbed him of his future.

Sorensen’s view of 21st century politics

His epilogue reveals his utter contempt for the Bush/Cheney policies. In early 2004 he stated:

The damage done to this country by its own misconduct in the last few months and years, to its very heart and soul, is far greater and longer lasting than any damage that any terrorist could possibly inflict upon us.

Nevertheless, he remained optimistic that “a one-man aberration, however disastrous, is not permanent…Inept political leaders can be replaced.”

He’s lucky to have lived to see the replacement take office. It remains to be seen if Obama fulfills the promise that Kennedy heralded.

Virtual JFK

Coincidentally, the weekend I finished the book, I saw a remarkable movie in San Francisco which was a nice visual coda to many of the highlights in the book.

Koji Masutani’s compelling movie Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived emphasizes the contrast between Kennedy’s approach to international relations and that of LBJ and every President since, save perhaps the current one. It examines the challenges Kennedy faced, from The Bay of Pigs to Berlin and the crescendo of the Cuban Missile Crisis. We are shown documentary footage of press conferences and speeches which all confirm Sorensen’s eye-witness accounts in Counselor. The movie implies that, had Kennedy lived, we might well have avoided the loss of 2 million Vietnamese and 58,000 American lives in that conflict.

The movie is on very limited distribtution, if it’s not showing in your area, at least take a couple of minutes to view this trailer on YouTube:

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3 Comments so far
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This sounds like a fascinating read. I actually never stopped to ponder what could have been- relating it to JFK. Thanks for this great review:)

Thanks, Ian. I have already saved the movie to my Netflix Queue and will next check out the book on my Kindle.

Ian,

I’ve long been a fan of Sorensen (and of Kennedy), so I loved reading the book, long as it was. I wanted to attend the convention in DC to hear him, if for no other reason. I’m glad you got the chance.

One of the insights I took away from the book is this. He could write for Kennedy so well because he was his counselor, not just or even primarily his speechwriter. He knew and was aligned with Kennedy’s thoughts, instincts, values, positions, and policies.

Thanks for summing up the book.

Chris



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