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Thanks for Nothing, Ted Sorensen

Here’s a belated book review of my most frustrating read of 2009: Ted Sorensen‘s book Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History.

The book came out in 2008 and it’s billed as Ted Sorensen’s frank personal memoir of his 11 years as John Kennedy‘s speechwriter and right-hand advisor.

Sorensen says in the preface that he was still in shock from JFK’s assassination when he wrote his 1965 memoir Kennedy, plus Jackie and family were still alive and he didn’t want to insult anyone and etc, etc. This time he’s going to tell the truth, as well as he can remember it, for history. Great!

(Full disclosure: I think you could call me a Ted Sorensen fan.  I’m certainly a Kennedy fan, and Sorensen had the kind of brainy, idealistic, working-for-the-public-good career that I think is extremely admirable.)

The first 100 (large-print) pages or so of the book are recollections of Ted Sorensen’s childhood in Nebraska, then there are another 80 pages of his first years in Washington and early working years with JFK.

(Sorensen almost hired on with Oregon Senator Wayne Morse — another high-minded liberal and later one of only two senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964. Sorensen then turned down a job offer with Washington’s Scoop Jackson in order to take the job with JFK. Jackson was more of the Democratic rising star at the time, it seems. Sorensen asked both Jackson and JFK what he’d be doing for them. Kennedy told him he wanted him to research and write up a detailed analysis of the fading industries of New England. Jackson said, “I need a smart lawyer to get my name in the paper more.”)

On to page 180, where we get a chapter titled: “My Perspective on JFK’s Personal Life.” Great! Finally, finally, I’m going to get the straight dope, from someone who knows, about exactly what shenanigans there were and how we can resolve the adulterous horndog side of JFK with the smart, idealistic statesman we also believe he was. Right?

Well, wrong. Instead I get 13 pages of Ted Sorensen wagging his finger at me for wondering about it and admonishing me not to believe everything I read in the paper. Well, 10 pages of finger-wagging and 3 pages of out-of-focus comments that seem to admit that JFK fooled around but really don’t tell me a thing. (Sample: “To paraphrase E.B. White, ‘He awoke every morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy it.'” And: “JFK had many virtues, and would probably have been a less interesting man if he had no vices.”)

Ted Sorensen admits that Kennedy has affairs (“After 1956 I was aware of a few flings and fancies along the campaign trail”) but insists that most women who claim to have slept with him are untrustworthy. He even offers this remarkable quote from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr: “Questions which no one has a right to ask are not entitled to a truthful answer.” Wha–?

Sorensen never met Marilyn Monroe and doesn’t know if she and JFK had a romantic relationship. “Nor did I ever arrange a date for him… He never asked me to lie to the press or to his wife.” (Which, of course, are not questions anyone asked.) And he says, “I do believe JFK loved his wife dearly, enough to take pains not to confront, humiliate, hurt, or anger her with public misconduct.”

Then he rushes to wrap up with a denunciation of our salacious media age.

Well, heck.  As a JFK fan, a Democrat, a student of history, and a citizen, I just don’t think it’s really wrong to puzzle over that part of Kennedy’s life.  Most of the rest of his career has been revealed fairly clearly, from several angles.  I feel like I have a handle on it.  This, I still can’t quite make sense of.

We’re not talking about a few campaign-trail “flings and fancies” (what an artful phrase). Those seem to happen to nearly every politician out there. (Except surely not George W. Bush or Barack Obama!)

We’re talking about nutty stuff, and lots of it: claims that Kennedy had naked women in the White House pool, had women sent in when Jackie was away, made it with Marlene Dietrich upstairs at the White House, etc, etc. God knows how much of it is true — surely some of it is not — but any part of it makes you think “Wait, what? How?”

Sorensen plays dumb. Oh, he does mention the pool: “Even hijinks in the White House swimming pool, long alleged, were perhaps inappropriate but not illegal.” Yes, “long alleged” indeed. Alas, Sorensen just can’t tell us if those long-alleged “hijinks” occurred or not.

I’m sorry, but it’s very, very hard to believe that the president had naked women in the White House pool and Sorensen never heard a word about it. Because gee, you know, in the White House nobody gossips.

It’s just strange. It’s very unsatisfying. (And I imagine that this one chapter is the entire reason that Harper Collins agreed to publish the book in the first place. They must have been BEGGING Sorensen to address it frankly).

So we’re still in the dark. We can believe biographers like Kitty Kelly and Thomas Reeves, with Kennedy making it with women in the upstairs bath while loyal Secret Service agents stand by to assist at key moments, or we can believe Ted Sorensen, who worked side by side with Kennedy for 11 years and barely heard a whisper about anything.

But whatever the truth was, I’M a bad guy for wondering about it. Phagh.

It’s too bad, because the rest of the memoir is quite lively.  Sorensen does get off a good little speechwriting story about Lyndon Johnson, too:

“I was told that, when LBJ received a speech draft containing a quotation from Socrates, he scratched out the philosopher’s name and replaced it with ‘my granddaddy.'”

Thus endeth the review.

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