Ted Sorensen, Speechwriter: May 8, 1928 – October 31, 2010

Legendary speechwriter Ted Sorensen passed away on Sunday.

I was fortunate to see Sorensen present at the 2009 Ragan Speechwriters Conference. I enjoyed his book, Counselor.

The world of speechwriting has lost a stellar figure.

Of the many obituaries none is more insightful than this appreciation by American University speechwriting teacher Bob Lehrman who has given me permission to reprint this as a guest posting in my blog.

Former chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore in the White House, novelist and speechwriter Bob Lehrman has written speeches for dozens of political figures, teaches public speaking and speechwriting at American University, and is author of the much-praised new book, “The Political Speechwriter’s Companion: A Guide for Speakers and Writers” (CQPress 2009).

Ted Sorensen’s ‘signature’ marks the aspirations of every speechwriter

By Bob Lehrman

JFK’s ‘voice’ is stilled for a moment, but not for the ages.

In Teddy White’s pioneering The Making of a President 1960, he refers in diplomatic terms to what Ted Sorensen actually did. “His introspection, his reading, his elegant writing, had stimulated many of Kennedy’s finest thoughts and expressions.”

Today, 50 years later, the Washington Post is blunter about Sorensen, who died on Sunday, and who was due to speak at American University in March for the 2011 Speechwriters conference jointly sponsored by Ragan Communications and American University.

“JFK’s speechwriter,” the headline begins over the Post obituary, saying that Sorensen “provided his chief with many of the words and thoughts that still resonate through American life.”

He didn’t just stimulate them, the Post says. He provided them. Which is, of course, true, though Sorensen himself was always circumspect about saying that. The change is a mark of how much he influenced people like me, who never met him. Those were the days when politicians usually didn’t want to admit that others wrote the words they uttered.

Sorensen changed that, not just because his boss was so important, but because his language was so exquisite. This went far beyond the lines everyone quotes—like the “Ask not,” antithesis of the JFK Inaugural. I remember as a grad student, teaching speech from my Monroe and Ehninger text—yes, the Monroe of Monroe’s Motivated Sequence—and noticing a JFK commencement speech from his Senate days. How concrete, witty, and researched it was.

That speech took place at Syracuse University. Kennedy was still a senator. The writer—I don’t think I knew who it was, then—had found a story about Elihu Root that he could have told in two sentences. Instead, he’d taken a hundred words to build up the drama, infuse it with detail and give the punchline impact.

And the rest of the speech! Full of witty quotes, wry comments about political life and funny examples of ridiculous things politicians had done before a final, passionate litany of what politics can accomplish. It wasn’t a politically influential speech—but it influenced me.

You can see things to imitate in the most routine speeches. JFK gives John Glenn a medal for orbiting the Earth. His remarks only take up five paragraphs, but Sorensen notices that it is the anniversary of the day the Marines raised the flag on Mount Suribachi—and draws the parallel to a day when some “Marine or a Naval man or an Air Force man will put the American Flag on the moon.”

In the famous speeches, look for the things that aren’t famous—like the 1962 speech at Rice University about that effort to send a man to the moon, remembered for the phrase, “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” The best part of that speech? JFK’s attention-getting opener with an imaginative analogy comparing the history of human beings to a 24-hour day. Not original. But great.

It doesn’t demean JFK’s memory to acknowledge that Sorensen did more than produce “words.” It enhances it. It says something about JFK that he could attract someone so talented, see the worth of material he dredged up, and be willing to use it.

Kennedy appreciated him, too. As modest as Sorensen is in “Counselor,” his memoir, written with the help of now-Obama speechwriter Adam Frankel, he clearly relishes recounting the time he was so late meeting Kennedy at an Air Force One landing strip that photographers got pictures of an “impatient” president, “checking his watch and walking restlessly outside the plane, until I finally arrived.”

If the things Sorensen did weren’t unique, they were new in the way that all art blends what artists have seen with what we’ve never seen. He studied Lincoln’s inaugurals and drew from them before writing Kennedy’s. He never hesitated to draw from the language others had used well—for example, the Woodrow Wilson line (“Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right.”) that he used in the Cuban Missile Crisis speech.

Though other presidents did these things occasionally—in the first 100 years of the country, they usually spoke fewer than 10 times a year—Sorensen made them routine.

Today, they form the staples of national political rhetoric, whether the litanies that end convention speeches, or the many things Barack Obama loves: the short, colloquial sentences, the historical analogies, and the antithesis that combines wordplay with insight.

The image of what Sorensen did with JFK—the long trips they took together, the accounts of them huddling over drafts—give people an inaccurate sense of how most speechwriters go about their business, in these days where speechwriters are often held at arm’s length by their bosses.

But in the accounts of the days leading up to the Cuban missile crises, don’t they demonstrate the usefulness of that kind of relationship? Of having a speechwriter not just at the keyboard but in the meeting? It’s chilling to see Curtis LeMay call a blockade “almost as bad as … Munich,” and the Joint Chiefs confidently predicting a mission-accomplished airdrop that would “mop up Cuba in 72 hours with a loss of only 10,000 Americans, more or less.”

I especially like that “more or less.” Luckily, Sorensen was there, able to supply other words.

Words can’t be produced independent of thoughts. When some speechwriter makes a graceful line out of some piece of hamburger, the thought, too, changes. If someone hands you, “We travel to outer space, because it is so difficult it challenges the very limits of our potential,” and you turn it into, “We go not because it is easy, but because it is hard,” that’s not the same thought.

Sorensen’s contribution was that during that crisis, he didn’t just contribute words. He contributed thoughts. We’re lucky he did.

And speechwriters are lucky for being able to appreciate both.

So maybe he would forgive me for looking up Oct. 30, and seeing that Ted Sorensen died on the 259th birthday of Richard Sheridan, the playwright who once reportedly told a woman: “Come into my garden. I’d like my roses to see you.”

Those of us who wanted to see him speak at American University in March would no doubt have approached him timidly, with books to sign. We won’t get that chance. But any time we think we’ve written a line that looks a little bit like a rose, the chances are that if we look closer, and think harder, we’ll realize where we learned to do it.

He won’t sign our books. But lots of our speeches already bear his signature.

This article was first published on ragan.com.

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A fine appreciation of Sorensen by white House speechwriter Ed Vilade in the UK Guardian:

It takes extraordinary equilibrium, self-possession and sense of purpose to withstand the pressures and produce words that resonate with people who are outside the barricades. The best do that, and Sorensen was one of the best.

Adam Frankel, Obama’s Chief Speechwriter pays tribute to JFK counselor Theodore C. Sorensen at the 2011 Ragan speechwriters conference.

On the week of the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, many articles note Sorensen’s influence:

The poetry, persuasion of JFK’s speeches

Nebraska native Ted Sorensen’s role in Kennedy White House went far beyond speeches

What made JFK’s rhetoric great?

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