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Nunc Dimittis

Counselor

By Ted Sorensen
Harpercollins, 2008

In 1953, young Nebraskan lawyer Ted Sorensen joined the staff of freshman Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy, and thereby began a political apprenticeship that would mature over eleven years into a partnership of remarkable depth and accomplishment. Kennedy, at all times the most unlikely of candidates – young, Catholic, aristocratic, and an increasingly independent thinker – eventually achieved the Presidency, and Sorensen, perhaps more than any other single person, helped him to do it. As legislative aide, then as speechwriter, and finally as ‘special counselor’ to the President, Sorensen played a large part in shaping the Kennedy White House. And after the President’s assassination, Sorensen returned to private life and wrote the magnificent Kennedy biography (scandalously, Kennedy is currently out of print in America) that played a large part in shaping the Kennedy legacy. And so it almost goes without saying: this present book, the last of the big-name memoirs of the Kennedy administration, is the most centrally crucial of them all.

 
“When Kennedy is cut, Sorensen bleeds,” such was the familiar Press Corps quip during the Kennedy years, and yet for forty years, despite innumerable speaking engagements and lecture tours, Sorensen has not until now written what everybody else involved with that time practically scrambled to write – a personal account of Camelot. Anybody familiar with Sorensen could immediately guess the reason for this reticence: loyalty. For although the President himself was slain, his father and brothers were still alive and fiercely protective of his memory. And even later, there was Senator Ted Kennedy and the grieving widow. And before them all there was Sorensen himself, still defending, still protecting, still safeguarding his hero.

He has chosen to break his silence now, in a highly personal and moving (and, it need hardly be added, engagingly written) book whose genesis underscores one of the darker facts of our current history: the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush has stirred deeper and more varied hatreds than any other term in America’s life as a nation. Like Kennedy before him (difficult to know who taught what to whom; more than likely it was an ongoing process of mutual refinement), Sorensen takes great motivation from advising – and perhaps even inspiring – the young:

… most young people today assume that all modern presidents have deceived or disappointed the American people. Perhaps it is worth reminding them that it is possible to have a president who is honest, idealistic, and devoted to the best values of this country. It happened at least once – I was there.

It’s a note he’ll strike two more times in his new book, with bell-note clarity and a little sadness despite himself, the immediacy of his memories, the proximity of his involvement, and the fact that he’s the last of his kind to tell the old story. Sorensen is an old man who has suffered a stroke and feels he’s living on borrowed time; he’s entitled not only to fondly revel in his memories but also to present them in a light favorable to himself. There is no deception here, merely a man with a treasure of private and public memories who wants to press upon his readers the ones that have pleased him the most over the years. It’s a testament to Sorensen’s habitual even-handedness that this impulse only rarely leads him into overstatement or self-aggrandizement, as in his recollection of his elevation to ‘special counselor’:

With that brief introduction, I became – with the exception of his running mate, the vice president – virtually the first member of the Kennedy administration. Now I am almost the last.

There is no doubt of his being the last of that administration’s inner circle – the ‘almost’ is just knee-jerk modesty – just as, conversely, there is no question who was the ‘first member’ of the Kennedy administration was. That mention of Vice President Johnson is an odd red herring, considering how isolated LBJ always was during those years; despite the huge regard in which the President held Sorensen, the first member of the JFK administration was always the President’s brother, his new Attorney General.

Sorensen had a wrinkled relationship with Bobby Kennedy, the full dimensions of which cannot be guessed from the gentlemanly generalities still in play throughout Counselor, and that is entirely our author’s intention, despite a few vague ‘now it can be told’ gestures made in the book’s earliest chapters. He records his frustration whenever RFK demanded private time with JFK, just as he gives a full account of his subsequent discovery, years after the White House, of the animosity felt toward him by Kenny O’Donnell, another of the President’s closest advisors. Again, there is no guise here, just some honest introspection late in life:

Kenny’s hostility hurts and even surprises me, particularly in view of the wonderful comments about me I discovered at the same time in the taped recollections of Robert F. Kennedy, O’Donnell’s hero. I had always considered Kenny a friend. Even now, I do not know what I did to offend him.

The melancholy note with which he acknowledges that it’s too late to mend fences with O’Donnell is one of many such notes struck throughout the book; it’s too late for reconciliations, because all the other players in the drama are gone from the stage. Sorensen has continued to breathe and think and learn, to doubt himself and change himself over the decades – it’s a talent he cedes to others as well as himself (he’s particularly generous in describing how Bobby Kennedy changed over time – an accurate portrait all the more telling because it’s so obviously grudging), and it lends this memoir a poignancy that other Kennedy tracts, more carved in stone, have lacked.

Sorensen’s book has a great deal of warm and loving detail about his life and upbringing in Nebraska, as well as about his post-Washington years as a lawyer, a husband, a father, a stroke survivor, and, when all is said and done, the last of the Kennedy keepers of the flame. “Drawing on the memories and files of my years with John Kennedy,” he writes, “has helped bring a kind of closure after all this time – I have completed my service to him.” It’s the only open lie in the whole book: it’s clear to the least partisan reader that Sorensen’s service to JFK won’t end until his last breath; it seems to have been the effect JFK had on the people in the trenches with him.

Sorensen is above all a realist, as was his presidential master: he must have known before writing his long-awaited memoir that regardless of all the heartfelt homespun personal details he chucks into it, most readers are going to pay attention to his account of the Kennedy years, and indeed there’s no shallowness in this: he devotes the lion’s share of his attention to those years as well. Those years are not a disembodied bygone era to Sorensen; indeed, he’s the last man on Earth for whom they are not, which makes his bitterness toward the present day (very accumulatively built throughout the book) all the more Olympianly devastating:

In 2003, forty years after the president’s death, when America’s reputation abroad was in tatters, I was in Rome for a speaking engagement, and invited by a local foreign policy group to give an address. “On what subject?” I asked the chairman. “Tell us about the good America, when Kennedy was president,” he said. I did. I talked about an America admired for its values, respected for its principles, not feared for its might or resented for its success; an America that led by listening, worked with the rest of the world, and respected international law; an America that stood for peace, not one that started wars. That was America when Kennedy was president.

For young people to whom Kennedy is merely a name in a history book, such an observation will seem limply nostalgic; for those who remember him and what his brief interregnum stood for, it’s a summary that’s nothing less than heartbreaking.

This latter sort of reader will be turning to the JFK pages for their gratification, and Sorensen knows it. So he revisits those years and feels compelled to relive events in the first person he’s already, forty years ago, in Kennedy, told us in the third person. Here is the election; here is the Bay of Pigs; here is racial segregation and all the efforts to end it; here is the space race; here is the foundation of the Peace Corps; here is the Berlin Wall crisis; and here, finally, is the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which President Kennedy stared down the belligerent and illiterate Soviet premiere Nikita Khrushchev, whose military had placed functional nuclear missile launchers in Cuba, a few dozen miles off US soil. It’s only proper that this last event should be prominent in these memoirs, since young Sorensen was instrumental in it its successful conclusion. It was Sorensen who worked to craft the language of the momentous second letter to Khrushchev that was as instrumental as any diplomacy in resolving the world’s first full-fledged nuclear conflict.

And yet, even though the language of that fateful letter was his, the victory belonged to his boss, and he’s the first to acknowledge that. In fact, true to form, he’s the first to trumpet it:

In the forty year cold war contest for the leadership of the world, the United States peacefully prevailed for the same reason we prevailed in October 1962 – because we acted with vigilance, patience, and restraint. In the eyes of history, our greatest presidents have proved their qualities of greatness when confronted by great challenges – war, depression, and moral issues from slavery to civil rights. The discovery that the Soviet Union had secretly rushed nuclear missiles into Cuba tested JFK’s wisdom, courage, and leadership as no president since Lincoln and FDR had been tested. No other test so starkly put at stake, depending on the president’s choices, the survival of our country. It was for that moment that he had been elected; and it was for that moment that he will most be remembered.

To give Sorensen the credit he’s due (and he’s due a great deal of credit; this book could easily have been gigantically more sentimental and self-serving than it is … one wonders if part of the breaking mechanism for such an outcome wasn’t the specter of his former boss hovering over his shoulder through each successive draft, chortling in his inimitable way and saying always, “Geez, Ted, lay off the cornball stuff, will you, for Chrissakes?”), his book has low points in almost equal number to such high points. The fallible human stuff is all here, as well as the heightful stuff of saving the world. Sorensen was present for more of that fallible human stuff than virtually any other person, and although he is very much still the faithful retainer (his contention that JFK was always a ‘wonderful’ boss to work for, in particular, is counterbalanced by the memoirs of many who did work for the man and recorded many a mercurial temper tantrum later hastily apologized for), he’s happy enough to relay some choice bits of ribaldry, like the time JFK referred to Senator Smith at a news conference as “a great lady” only to have to official transcript leave out the ‘d’ until it was hurriedly corrected.

But mostly, Counselor is composed of grand New Frontier moments, with one brief and bizarre detour: for the first time, Sorensen feels compelled to address the thorny question of JFK’s alleged philandering. This detour is brief because there’s nothing to tell – if it ever happened (and even hinting that it didn’t is now the quintessential example of JFK naivete), it was perfectly concealed – and it’s bizarre because Sorensen shouldn’t care. Yes, there have been allegations and veiled innuendo for forty years, but the same thing is true of Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories, and as Sorensen points out in Counselor, he’s never bothered to put his imprimatur on any of them. It’s almost like he’s thinking he of all people should have something to say on the subject, that maybe this might be his last chance in a public forum to comment on this lurid matter.
It’s a shame, for two reasons. First, it’s the only part of this understated and almost noble book that Sorensen’s former boss would have disliked (and maybe more than disliked – again, one can easily hear the angry retort, “Jesus, Ted, what the Hell is this?”). And second, and more pointedly, he has nothing new or insightful to say on the subject. He comments on the ubiquity of innuendo:

Now, amid the allegations and fabrications, enough hard facts have emerged and been documented to make a complete denial or absolute defense on my part foolish. At this stage, it does not honor JFK or me to attempt to cover up the truth.

And yet, what follows contains no ‘hard facts’ at all – just Sorensen’s vague remembrances of seeing various nubile young woman hanging out at various campaign locations, or his vague recollections of some innuendo floating around the West Wing while he – and everybody else- was busy paying attention to things that mattered. The faithful retainer is here either more faithful than ever or else haplessly revealing how uninformed he was. In either case, the result is the same: a chapter in which Sorensen first says he has no choice but to come clean on all the rumors of infidelity and then fails to do anything but retail more gossip.

It’s a brief aberration, however, in a book that otherwise has none. If Counselor is marked by any one signal trait, it’s the eerie persistence of Sorensen’s gifts as a speechwriter – and not just a speechwriter, but a writer for this one particular man. Amazingly, through forty-five years, through divorce and disillusionment and failed attempts at public office, the writer’s historically familiar cadences can be heard time and again in this book: phrases and rhetoric that were written, however unconsciously, to be spoken by only one voice. The peculiar ache of this volume is that it makes you hear that ringing voice one last time.

All the moreso because those speechwriting talents are looking forward as often as they’re looking back. Because although Counselor is very much a stock-taking of one remarkable life, large parts of it look outside itself, to the country as a whole, and to the future. Sorensen is the last of the true believers, and although his public appearances and lectures have hit the same notes for years, this is the first time he’s published the dreads and the hopes with which he views the modern era. And the gist of his sentiments reveals one essential truth, as we’ve already noted: the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush has stirred deeper and more varied hatreds than any other term in America’s life as a nation.

The way you can tell this is simple: Ted Sorensen has helped to write half a dozen of the most immortal phrases in the American lexicography, and he’s been present as a vitally consulted voice in half a dozen of the 20th century’s tightest turning points. His book Kennedy, this book, and his participation in the pivotal events of his era – all these things should combine to render him above the fray. If all these things can’t shield Ted Sorensen from the rancor of the age, then that rancor must be admitted as all-pervading.

And there he is, the last sentinel of Camelot, bare-knuckling this age like any feckless Slate commentator:

The current generation of American decision makers is the first to break the tradition of leaving to its heirs a better society than it had inherited. It will be delivering to the next generation a country, once almost universally respected, that is now deeply resented and feared; a country weakened by widening gap between rich and poor; a world of growing terrorist violence, proliferating weapons of mass destruction, and increasing environmental degradation. Our current executive branch is dominated by people who do not believe in government, too many of whom consequently show no competence at governing, except for granting privileges and patronage to their cronies.

“What has happened to JFK’s standards for dedication and innovation?” Sorensen asks:

The luster of public service has been tarnished by the increasing role of incompetent presidential cronies and corrupt lobbyists. Affirmative action has been reduced to patronizing photo opportunities for company brochures. His emphasis on the power of diplomacy and economic assistance has been replaced by a foreign policy increasingly reliant on the power of guns and threats.

A week after JFK’s death, his widow wrote to Chairman Khruschev:

You and he were adversaries, but [were] allied in a determination that the world not be blown up … While big men know the need for restraint, little men will sometimes be moved more by fear and pride.

How sad that less than fifty years after Jackie wrote this, little men have mired this country in a mindless war.

This would be damning indeed, if anybody in Washington read it, or cared. As it is, the disconnect is so absolute that for once in his life Sorensen is no longer seeking to advise; rather, he’s washing his hands of what executive branch has become and looking away from it entirely, to the future, which he hopes, in the manner of old men who once did great deeds, will more than a little resemble the past. He looks to a new generation of leaders, people who will restore the stature of public service, elevate the tone of the national narrative, and in the process re-ignite the various dreams Sorensen last dreamt in the age of JFK.

So stark and violent were that age’s many endings that it seems unlikely Sorensen could still muster hope, and yet Counselor is a stubbornly hopeful book. True, he sees only littleness at the center of American power these days, but he has seen such littleness before – and its opposite. And if it’s possible Sorensen underestimates the sheer amount of damage the Nixon years did to the presidency (and the country’s belief in the presidency), it’s certain that he’s in as good a position as anybody to counter cynicism with a belief in the future’s hidden twists. He ends his book with that same defiant note, derived from the ultimate trump card of direct personal experience:

I’m still an optimist. I still believe that extraordinary leaders can be found and elected, that future dangers can be confronted and resolved, that people are essentially good and ultimately right in their judgments. I still believe that a world of law is waiting to emerge, enshrining peace and freedom throughout the world. I still believe that the mildest and most obscure of Americans can be rescued from oblivion by good luck, sudden changes in fortune, sudden encounters with heroes.

I believe it because I lived it.

He lived it, and he has finally, against considerable odds, written his book about it (and Kennedy besides, one of the greatest first-hand accounts of a presidency ever written), the last of the Kennedy stalwarts to do so. It’s an eloquent and unassuming piece of work, and surely it’s all that can be asked of its author, who has spent his life in the service of these principles, these dreams, and this man. It’s tempting to borrow a line from the old Catholic service the Kennedys would have known well: nunc dimittis – now let thy servant depart in peace.

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Steve Donoghue worked as a city prosecutor in Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s and was furiously gathering evidence against the Chicago Outfit when Al Capone was jailed on charges of tax evasion. His white whale imprisoned, Donoghue lost his lust for the work and turned to writing; today he hosts the literary blog Stevereads