Nebraska native Ted Sorensen's role in Kennedy White House went far beyond speeches - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, November 17, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 8:24 pm
Nebraska native Ted Sorensen's role in Kennedy White House went far beyond speeches
Nebraskans in the Kennedy Administration
Ted Sorensen was far from the only Nebraskan to play a key role in the Kennedy administration. In fact, JFK was surrounded by Cornhuskers. Among them:

Evelyn Norton Lincoln: Native of Polk County and daughter of a Nebraska congressman, she served as Kennedy's personal secretary for 12 years in the Senate and White House. She was in the Dallas motorcade when JFK was assassinated. She died in 1995 at age 85. Today, she's best known as part of an odd and tragic footnote to history: The slain Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln, while a century earlier, the slain Abraham Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy.

Lee C. White: Graduate of Omaha North High and a law school classmate of Sorensen, he became JFK's assistant special counsel, with a focus on civil rights. In the post, White worked directly with Martin Luther King and other leaders of the drive for equality. After JFK's assassination, White continued his work for LBJ, helping achieve passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He died at age 90 on Oct. 31 — just 22 days before the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination.

Letitia Baldrige: After spending part of her childhood in Omaha as the daughter of a Republican congressman, “Tish'' joined the Kennedy White House as social secretary. She was responsible for guest lists and overall coordination of social events and handled Jackie's schedule and mail. JFK called her “Miss Push and Pull'' because of the way she herded him around at events. She later became the nation's foremost authority on etiquette. She died last year at age 86.

It was hours after the assassination of John F. Kennedy when Ted Sorensen, the Nebraska native who was among JFK's most trusted aides, received a call from the nation's new president.

Lyndon B. Johnson expressed his deep remorse at what had transpired in Dallas that horrible November day, knowing how close Sorensen and Kennedy had grown over the previous decade.

“Good-bye, and thank you Mr. President,'' Sorensen said as the call ended.

Then Sorensen hung up the phone and broke down sobbing, hit by the cruel truth that he had just used those words to address someone other than Kennedy.

“Deep down in my soul,'' Sorensen would years later write of that moment, “I have never stopped weeping whenever those events are recalled.''

To truly understand how profoundly Sorensen was wounded by the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of JFK, one must understand the depth of his relationship with the nation's 35th president. It's been said that aside from the president's own brother Robert, there may not have been a man closer to Kennedy than Ted Sorensen.

The serious-minded, bespectacled Lincoln native who died in 2010 is most remembered as Kennedy's speechwriter, and in that job, he had a hand in penning some of the most stirring prose in American political history.

Sorensen, however, carried the title of special counsel to the president, reflecting his critical role as Kennedy policy adviser, strategist and confidant. So entwined were their liberal ideals and way of thinking that Kennedy himself once referred to Sorensen as “my intellectual blood bank.''

Likewise, Sorensen admired, even worshipped, Kennedy.

But 50 years ago this week, their days together came to a sudden, violent and devastating end.

It had all started shortly after Sorensen graduated from the University of Nebraska law school and ventured east to Washington. In 1953, he was hired as a researcher by a newly elected U.S. senator from Massachusetts, a war hero named John F. Kennedy.

Their backgrounds were starkly different: a Roman Catholic and a Unitarian; a Harvard graduate and an NU graduate; a wealthy New Englander and a modest man from the Plains. But the two quickly clicked, sharing a progressive idealism.

They thought so much alike that over time the Nebraskan would become JFK's intellectual alter ego. Kennedy trusted Sorensen to ask tough questions and be a skeptic. As Robert Kennedy once put it, “If (an issue) was difficult, Ted Sorensen was brought in.''

Kennedy was first thrust into the national spotlight as a candidate for vice president at the 1956 Democratic Convention. He ultimately bowed out, but nationally televised appearances by the good-looking and articulate young senator left an impression. From all over the country, invitations poured in asking him to speak.

JFK: 50 years later

Fifty years after his death, the memory of John F. Kennedy still captivates and evokes emotion. His shocking assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, has stood for generations as a “where were you when" moment. The early Baby Boomers were especially magnetized by the president's youthful idealism. We look back on JFK, his slaying and his legacy, a half-century later.
Read more.

“Ted,” Kennedy said, “you might as well come along.”

It was the unofficial start of Kennedy's 1960 presidential run. For much of that time, Sorensen served as a one-man logistics team — scheduler, speechwriter, press aide, political director and escort — as he and Kennedy visited every state over the next four years, including multiple trips to Sorensen's native state. It was during those long hours together on the road when the two men drew particularly close.

After Kennedy was elected the nation's youngest president, the administration got off to a rousing start.

Kennedy's soaring 1961 inaugural address — “Ask not what your country can do for you. . .” — is often ranked among the greatest political speeches of all time. It remains so memorable that it carries four citations in “Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, ” amounting to one-seventh of the entire speech.

In modern times, it's accepted that presidents don't write their own speeches. That wasn't the case in 1961. It would be years before Sorensen was given his due credit for penning the lyrical words.

But Sorensen's role in the White House would go far beyond speeches.

He became one of the pioneering spirits of Kennedy's “New Frontier.'' With an office just outside the Oval Office, Sorensen remained close to the levers of power as Kennedy steered the United States carefully into a difficult era of civil rights, shot for the moon and stared down the communist threat of the Soviet Union.

One of the most critical roles Sorensen played in the Kennedy presidency was drafting key communications to Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, helping take the countries away from the brink of nuclear war.

Kennedy's secretary — Nebraska native Evelyn Lincoln — once tried to correct the notion that Sorensen was merely Kennedy's “ghostwriter.''

“Ted was really more shadow than ghost — shadow in the sense that he was never very far from Kennedy during the years they worked together.”

Those years together ended dramatically.

On Thursday Nov. 21, 1963, Sorensen ran out the back door to catch Kennedy, who was leaving for a flight to Texas on Air Force One. Sorensen handed the president some notes of “Texas humor'' he could use in his appearances over the next two days.

Years later, Sorensen could remember little of what would become his last conversation with the president.

The next day Sorensen was eating lunch with a newspaper editor when Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson's name came up. Sorensen would later eerily recall that a thought came into his head: that Abraham Lincoln also had a vice president named Johnson. And that Lincoln was the first of five consecutive presidents elected at 20-year increments — 1860, 1880, 1900, 1920 and 1940 — who had died while in office.

Sorensen was returning from the lunch when he received an urgent call: Get back to the White House. He was expecting some kind of political crisis.

He arrived to tears and ashen faces and was told that Kennedy had been shot. He went to the Secret Service office, where they had a phone line directly to the hospital in Dallas.

A short time later, an agent hung up and turned to Sorensen. “He's dead.''

Sorensen wept for the first time that day as he watched the president's coffin, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy standing alongside, arrive at Andrews Air Force Base. The days that followed became a blur.

Johnson, elevated to president by the assassination, wanted the 35-year-old Sorensen to stay on in his administration. But after helping with the transition, Sorensen left to go into private law practice.

In the coming decades, Sorensen would advise many politicians — including Barack Obama. But he would never again establish political ties or synergy even close to matching what he had with Kennedy. As Sorensen once put it, “my leader, my guide, my chief source of inspiration and motivation was gone.''

Sorensen remained protective of Kennedy's legacy throughout his life. He acknowledged for the first time in a 2008 memoir some of the president's personal failings, including the fact that Kennedy had regularly cheated on his wife. But Sorensen was faithful to the president to the end.

“For 11 years I loved him, respected him and believed in him,'' Sorensen wrote in 2008, “and I still do.''

At the time of Sorensen's death in 2010 at age 82, he was among the last survivors of the “new generation” of leaders Kennedy had eloquently referred to in his inaugural. But the pain of Nov. 22, 1963, never left Ted Sorensen, an emotional burden he would carry to the end.

When asked to recount his memories of the assassination in a 2006 interview with The World-Herald, Sorensen recalled the moment he received word of JFK's death. And then he abruptly changed the subject.

“That's all I want to say, '' Sorensen said. “Even after all these years, it's too tough to talk about or think about.''

Contact the writer: Henry J. Cordes

henry.cordes@owh.com    |   402-444-1130    |  

Henry's a general assignment reporter, so he could end up writing just about anything, though he usually focuses on public policy matters affecting the state, region or nation.

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