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Sorensen's Words and Wisdom: Might They Have Helped Obama?

Nov 1, 2010

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Ted Sorensen, who died of a stroke in New York this weekend at the age of 82, was already a lion in winter when he became aware of a newly elected senator from Illinois named Barack Obama.

Obama, then just 44, reminded Sorensen of another young senator he had counseled long ago, John F. Kennedy. Sorensen was two years out of law school when he went to work for JFK in the early 1950s, supplying advice on everything from policy to politics and prose. He wrote the first drafts for chapters of Profiles in Courage, the 1956 book that won Kennedy the Pulitzer Prize.

Sorensen traveled with the ambitious young senator from Massachusetts and became his intellectual alter ego. The speeches they produced together became classics, especially the 1961 Inauguration Address ("Ask not what your country can do for you ... ") — in many ways the curtain raiser for the decade that followed.

In the Kennedy White House, Sorensen liked to say, the president served as his own chief of staff. But Sorensen as counselor was a near-constant presence.

Kennedy met major national and international crises in his brief time in office, armed not only with Sorensen's thinking but his gift for phrasemaking. Even Richard Nixon said he admired Sorensen's "rare gift" for finding phrases ("New Frontier") that not only made the news but became part of everyone's vocabulary.

By his own account Sorensen was devastated by Kennedy's assassination in 1963. He became an international lawyer, living in New York and never again was so close to power. He surfaced from time to time in Democratic politics, running for one of New York's Senate seats in 1970 and advising drafting sessions for the national party platform. He did not see well after a stroke in 2001.

But he did become active when Obama began running for president in 2007. He endorsed and campaigned with the upstart candidate, intrigued by the prospects of an African-American who held dear so much of the old liberal credo Sorensen himself had espoused. Campaigning with Obama in 2007, he told The New York Times that the candidate's trajectory "reminds me of the way the young, previously unknown JFK took off."

Sorensen, whose mother was a pacifist, especially liked Obama's early stand against the Iraq war. So he was distressed when Obama escalated the Afghanistan conflict in his first year in office. He said that war would be "Obama's Vietnam" — a stern warning from a man who sat in the Oval Office as the American presence in Southeast Asia grew from a few "military advisers" to half a million soldiers and Marines.

But there were other warnings Sorensen might have imparted to his second president, had there been more time and opportunity. Some he shared a quarter century ago in January 1986, in a forum at the University of California — San Diego on the role of the White House chief of staff.

One observation Sorenson offered that day fits Obama so well that it might have been tailored for him:

"There's no question the world looks very different from inside the White House than from outside," Sorensen said. "You can be a good senator or congressman or politician if you make a strong speech or you raise the right question or if you sound the alarm. None of that does you any good at all when you are in the White House and you are responsible for running the show."

Sorensen was recalling the shocking realizations the Kennedy team had come to shortly after taking office. The Soviets threw a wall up across divided Berlin and started shipping nuclear missiles to potential launch sites in Cuba. In the South, the civil rights movement was reaching a crescendo and leaders such as Martin Luther King were appealing to the White House directly to intervene on the side of desegregation.

Similarly, Obama and his inner circle of victorious campaign warriors came into office to discover the economy they ran against was now theirs. The banks were closing and credit markets freezing. The health care mess they had railed against needed fixing now.

They needed answers, yes. But as Sorensen also said at the 1986 forum, answers were not enough unless the American people understood and accepted them.

"The president's senior staff must keep politics in mind at all times. I'm talking about politics ... in the sense of bearing in mind how far out in front of the country you can move."

And when this president and his senior staff had made that decision, they could have used some of that rare gift for finding phrases that spoke to shared American values and captured common experience the way Sorensen's did.

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