I wanted to take a break from the excesses of
politics to say a word about Ted Sorensen, legendary speechwriter to President John F. Kennedy, who died at the age of 82 last weekend. Maryland
Sorensen wrote some of the greatest political prose in American history. Speaking to his legacy is the fact that a president who was in office for less than three years had a disproportionate amount of memorable speeches remembered nearly 50 years later. The following major speeches all bore Sorensen’s imprimatur: the inaugural address, the
address, the Cuban Missile Crisis speech from the Oval Office, and the 1963 Civil Rights address. So did this one, quite possibly the greatest speech ever given by an American president. American University
Dwight Eisenhower’s many accomplishments are remembered, but his words generally aren’t (with the exception of his farewell speech to the nation regarding the “military-industrial complex”). By contrast, Kennedy’s words and accomplishments are both widely remembered. The skill of his speechwriter – a man JFK called his “intellectual blood bank” – played a big part in shaping Kennedy’s legacy.
Sorensen’s mastery with words helped inspire me to try practicing the craft myself (so did Peggy Noonan’s speechwriting successes, but that’s a topic for another blog posting). I’m sure I’m not the only speechwriter to hear the “Ask not…” line and be humbled by it. But, it also inspires writers to keep aspiring for the next great line, the next crystallizing phrase that captures a public figure’s identity in a few well-chosen words.
Ted Sorensen was the speechwriter’s speechwriter. He will be remembered for that.