JOHN SHATTUCK: Good evening. I’m John Shattuck, CEO of the Kennedy Library Foundation, and on behalf of Paul Kirk, our distinguished chairman, who’s here with us tonight, other members of the board who are also here, and the Library’s Director, Tom Putnam, I want to welcome you to this evening’s very special forum at the Kennedy Library.
Let me first express our thanks to the organizations that make these forums possible, starting with our lead sponsor, Bank of America, and our other generous supporters, Boston Capital, the Lowell Institute, the Corcoran-Jennison Companies, the Boston Foundation, and our media sponsors, the Boston Globe, NECN and WBUR, which broadcasts these Kennedy Library Forums on Sunday evenings at 8.
Tonight we celebrate the contribution to our nation and the world of a man who during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, in the words of the poet Wallace Stevens, “was the man responsive as a mirror with a voice, who in a million diamonds sums us up.”
In the summer of 1963 President Kennedy wrote the Foreward to a new book entitled, Decision-Making in the White House. Here’s what he had to say about its author: “Ted Sorensen has been an astute and sensitive collaborator in the presidential enterprise. [He has] isolated the elements in presidential decision with great perception and precision.”
Ted Sorensen has long been a master of perception and precision. Growing up as the third of five siblings, he learned early in life how to make a compelling argument. At the age of eight, he tells us, he observed that his two older brothers seemed to have special privileges, and that his younger brother and sister also appeared to be getting special treatment, so he made a perceptive and precise argument to his parents that he, too, deserved something special because he was “the biggest of the littlest, and the littlest of the biggest.”
When Ted Sorensen arrived in Washington, D.C. in July 1951 by train from Lincoln, Nebraska, he tells us he’d never ridden in a taxi, drunk a cup of coffee, set foot in a bar, written a check, or owned a car. A year and a half later, after doing most of these things and acquiring some Washington experience in government jobs, he was hired by the newly-elected junior senator from Massachusetts.
We know the story line from there. A brilliant young lawyer from the heartland becomes the future president’s most trusted adviser, criss-crosses the country with him before and during his presidential campaign, serves as his closest collaborator on speeches and policy positions, is named right after the election as the new President’s first appointment, goes on to be the President’s closest adviser on the greatest issues of the day, from the moral crisis of civil rights to the survival crisis of Soviet missiles in Cuba, is one of the architects of the New Frontier, and today by his very presence and his eloquence, links the legacy of John F. Kennedy to the challenges of the 21st century.
Ted Sorensen tells his story in a dazzling new memoir, Counselor, which is on sale in our bookstore, and which I know he’ll be pleased to sign after tonight’s forum. His book is subtitled, Life at the Edge of History, but his story is really at the epicenter of an era, and it’s told with the modesty of the incomparable Dizzy Dean, who once said, “If you done it, it ain’t braggin’.”
We expect great eloquence from Ted Sorensen, but we also get great humor. He tells us, for example, that he had to learn to eat just about anything when he was on the campaign trail with JFK, but he confesses that he balked at consuming the eyes of an exotic sea creature that was served at a Hawaiian luau. At a pre-inaugural brunch for the President’s new cabinet, he salutes the august group with a bit of deflating doggerel:
“All hail the men of new frontiers—
The hardy Kennedy pioneers.
The Georgia cracker known as Rusk.
The courtly Hodges never brusque. . . .
Send racy books to Edward Day.
Send lazy crooks to Bobby K.
Take health needs to Ribicoff.
Blame Dillon if your checkbook’s off.
McNamara’s Ford is in his past.
Art Goldberg, not least, though mentioned last.”
To honor Ted Sorensen, his contribution to our country, and the publication of his memoir, we have assembled an extraordinary group of panelists here on the stage of the Kennedy Library. I’d like to introduce each of them as Ted describes them in his book.
We’re certainly not surprised to learn, and I quote, “that JFK regarded Defense Secretary Robert McNamara as the star of his team, calling upon him for advice on a wide range of issues beyond national security.” For many people inside and outside the Administration, Secretary McNamara was indeed a superstar, and he played what many regard as the crucial role in restraining the military during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson spoke with awe of the role of Robert McNamara in President Kennedy’s cabinet in 1962 and 1963. “Except for General George C. Marshall,” Acheson wrote, “I do not know of any department head who, during the half-century I have observed government in Washington, has so profoundly enhanced the position, power, and security of the United States.” Thank you, Secretary McNamara, for being with us today.
Carl Kaysen served in the inner councils of the Kennedy White House as Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs under McGeorge Bundy. Ted Sorensen refers to Carl as “one of the President’s ablest, most trusted aides,” and tells the story about how after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Carl urged the President to move right away to try to solve some other intractable problems, like the India-China border dispute, because “you’re more than ten feet tall,” to which the President replied, “Oh, that will only last a couple of weeks.” After his service in the Kennedy White House, Carl Kaysen went on to become Director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and a distinguished professor at MIT.
Lee White was Ted Sorensen’s classmate at the University of Nebraska Law School. Ted recruited him in 1953 to join John F. Kennedy’s Senate staff, making sure he understood that there was, in Ted’s words, “a great multitude of non-legal tasks that we perform here,” and then cheerfully passing on to Lee the chore of answering the Senator’s legislative mail. Lee White served as Assistant Special Counsel to President Kennedy, working as Ted Sorensen’s deputy on a staff of three that under later presidents would swell to fifty or more White House lawyers. Lee went on to become Special Counsel to President Johnson, and then Chairman of the Federal Power Commission, and he’s just published his own reflections on public service in a new book entitled Government for the People.
Our last panelist, Adam Frankel, is a speechwriter for Barack Obama, who has also worked for the last six years with Ted Sorensen. In a special “author’s note” at the beginning of his book, Ted thanks Adam for serving, quote, “as my chief assistant and close collaborator – almost literally as my eyes – and for his loyalty and dedication [that] made the book possible.” That’s certainly great praise from a great source.
Finally, to officiate over this extraordinary Evening with Ted Sorensen, we’ve recruited one of the Kennedy Library’s all-star moderators, Tom Oliphant. Tom has written for the Boston Globe since 1968 and was part of the team that received a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Boston school desegregation struggle. He’s covered every presidential campaign for the last forty years and appears frequently as a television commentator. He was too young to cover the Kennedy White House, but he tells me that as a 17-year-old exchange student in Norway during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was sent by the American embassy to talk to other students and later reported back that “Northern Norway is on board.” [laughter]
We’ll begin the evening with a discussion by our panel, and then Ted Sorensen will come to the stage for written questions from the audience and concluding remarks.
So please join me in welcoming to the stage of the Kennedy Library Robert McNamara, Carl Kaysen, Lee White, Adam Frankel, and Tom Oliphant for this extraordinary Evening with Ted Sorensen. [applause]
TOM OLIPHANT: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador, very much. The Kennedy administration was famous for its -- most of the time -- its precision, its care, and its organization. This panel will have none of those features. We’re going to spend a wonderful 45 minutes talking about Ted Sorensen and the unique role he filled in the evolution, really, of the modern White House. The only thing that’s a little odd for our discussion is that the great man himself is sitting in the front row here. But given the nature of the intellects to my right, I think that’s likely to make them even rougher on him than if he weren’t here.
I’d like to begin, if I could, by asking each of our panelists to help introduce this astonishing man to all of you. Following protocol, Secretary McNamara, when we talked earlier this week, you spoke to me of the extent to which President Kennedy depended on Ted Sorensen in the functioning of his office. And I was wondering if you could introduce us to this guy you met so long ago, and what it was that caused President Kennedy to be so dependent on him
ROBERT MCNAMARA: First, let me say, I’m dependent on him. I would not be here tonight were it not for him, and I don’t mean the invitation to come! It was he who inspired me to join the Administration. And I think it was that quality which the President depended on. And I don’t say this with any attempt to limit the President’s enormous influence on our country. I’m extremely proud to have been a member of that Administration. But I don’t believe the public has any understanding of the degree to which he depended on Ted.
I brought along this book, Profiles in Courage. And I’m not attempting to find out whether Ted wrote it or didn’t write it. And that’s not important. [laughter] That’s really not important to me, in this sense: I know! And I’m not asking him. I just know; I don’t have to ask him that he did a lot of the research of this book. And if you haven’t read the book recently, please buy it and read it! It will inspire you as it inspired me. And I think it was that inspirational quality that Ted had that inspired the President to do so many of the great things that we all admire him for. Let me stop there.
TOM OLIPHANT: Except I’d like to follow up, just a little bit, Mr. Secretary, and ask you to help us understand what this inspirational quality was. What was it like to talk to him?
ROBERT MCNAMARA: Well, as I say, I’m here because of him, because he invited me to be a member of the Administration. But it was the inspiration that he conveyed to me, his view of what this country could be. And I don’t think we have that inspiration today. And that inspiration came, to a considerable degree, from Ted.
So, I say, I’m not trying to find out what he wrote or didn’t write. I don’t need to ask. I know how he inspired the President. I was present on numerous occasions when that inspiration occurred. We all owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude.
TOM OLIPHANT: Thank you very much. By the way, when we get to Adam, here -- and for those of you who’ve read the book, there’s a full, complete, encyclopedic account of the writing of Profiles in Courage that ought to lay to rest all questions about it forever. And I won’t tell you what it says; you have to buy the book to read it. Dr. Kaysen, you’ve seen White House staffs from many perspectives. Intelligence community, defense establishment, the White House itself.
As a result, I think, of a couple of memos during the transition from Clark Clifford and Professor Richard Neustadt, this concept of somebody called a Special Counsel to the President evolved. And if I understood the original brief, Mr. Sorensen was to be the President’s principal advisor on domestic policy. But as the administration unfolded, it became so much more than that. And I was wondering, as somebody who has worked with him off and on for a long time, if you could describe for us the process by which Mr. Sorensen became so much more than what he was designated as at the time.
CARL KAYSEN: To answer that question, Tom, let me step back a little and characterize the White House staff in the Kennedy Administration. It was quite small. It was informal. It was as un-bureaucratic as could possibly be. In that context, and given the President’s uninterest in organization charts, and interest in assessing and sizing up people as to what they could do and what they couldn’t do, Sorensen simply became the all-purpose quarterback.
Now I didn’t join the White House staff until May of ’61, so I think the situation had already settled into or developed into the breadth of responsibility which Sorensen had. So I can’t speak to its origins. But I can say that there was no important question, whether it would be a good idea to think about devaluing the dollar, whether we needed to buy 1000 Minutemen and 36 Polaris boats, or something I know more secondhand -- what was it wise to do when George Wallace stood in the door -- that Ted wasn’t involved in.
He was and is dazzlingly bright. I’m an academic and something of an academic snob. And I thought I’d met all the smart people in the world. But I was quite wrong. And in a group of people of distinguished academic careers, Jim Tope (?) and Jerry Wiesner, there wasn’t anybody with as quick a mind and as deep an ability to grasp a new subject as Ted.
And, finally, he was a perfectly unpretentious person. He wasn’t a shrinking violet in any way. He assessed rightly his own competencies, but didn’t feel he had to boast about them or be self-important. And I remember an occasion -- I’m not sure what the subject was, I think it was foreign aid, and had to do with a man called Fowler Hamilton, the first unsuccessful administrator to the Agency for International Development. And we were sitting around the table in the Cabinet Room, a bunch of us, Ted, Dave Bell who succeeded to that job, I think Walter Heller or somebody, I’m not sure, and discussing the issue. And when we finished, Ted looked around and said, “My Gosh, is this the government of the United States?”
TOM OLIPHANT: If I could get you to talk just a little longer, Dr. Kaysen, many of us … After all, when you entered the White House, the United States governmental culture was becoming more and more specialized, demanding higher and higher degrees of higher education. The problems were beginning to be extremely complex. President Kennedy did not use, formally, a Chief of Staff. But could you understand the role of a generalist, in a way, dabbling in so many decisions that affected so many very specific things?
CARL KAYSEN: I have to repeat something I just said. It wasn’t that Ted was a generalist that made him so effective, it was that he was a brilliant man and a tremendously quick learner, so that he could get into the specialized issues very readily and grasp the central point very effectively.
And I think that -- and this is Carl Kaysen’s opinion, for what it’s worth -- that the lack of formality, the small size, the personal ease amongst the staff members made all that work better. A Chief of Staff sounds like an organization chart and a "who is allowed to talk to whom" and all that. And there was literally none of that that I perceived in the Kennedy White House.
TOM OLIPHANT: Lee White, you go back pretty far with Ted Sorensen. To law school, I believe, at the University of Nebraska. And I was going to ask you to elaborate some on what this guy is like, and how he functioned. One of my favorite sentences in the book is a self-description of Mr. Sorensen. He refers to himself as a Danish Russian Jewish Unitarian who happened to be from Nebraska. What was he like, and what was he like to work with?
LEE WHITE: Ted was a very good student. In fact, he was so good that he and I used to study for law exams in his father’s law office, very close to the campus. And I would explain things to Ted. And then if he couldn’t get them, I’d explain them again. And you know what? He always got better grades than I did! [laughter] I tried to figure out why. Well, I found out that there were two reasons. One, he’s smart as hell, and second, he writes beautifully. And that is what we found out about his remarkable talents.
Not too long ago, Ted was in Washington at Politics & Prose, a bookstore. And I had worried a little bit that he was going to be labeled a speechwriter. And I notice his book does not say speechwriter, it says counselor, which sounds a great deal better. But when Ted was pushed on that point on that bookstore, he said he didn’t mind, because some of the better speeches that President Kennedy did, and with Ted’s collaboration, really stand out.
And there was nothing sort of small town about that. But he said, guess what? He even knows what the headline will be on his obituary. Most of us haven’t gotten that far. But his was pretty good, and he had it all lined up. “Ted Sorensen, speechwriter for JFK, died last week at 104 at the hands of a jealous husband!” Now that’s something we can all aspire to. [laughter]
I’ve seen White House staff, because I’ve been one of them. And there are staff people and there are staff people. I’m a big bug on genetics. Ted really had a good package given him. He had not only the mental power, but he knew how to weave it together and work with the President and with the rest of us. We all knew that he was right next to the President. And that’s okay. I didn’t mind being in the second ring, or even the third or fourth ring. But Ted was right there when the big things were happening. And it wasn’t that he was chronicling them. He had a role. And that is the difference with most people who are staff people.
As my life unfolded, I was a staff person for two United States Senators, two Presidents, and all of a sudden, I was appointed to the Federal Power Commission, where I had my own vote. And instead of being a staff person, I remember what Martin Luther King had said, “Free at last!” Instead of having to be very careful with somebody else, the principal’s reputation, it was your own reputation. But staff’s work is so essential in our system.
I have to tell you one story about what Secretary McNamara raised about the collaboration. When all hell broke lose in Birmingham, Kenny O’Donnell called me up from the second floor down at the first floor to say, “President Kennedy just gave Ted a very, very, tough assignment. He has to write a speech about Civil Rights. Why don’t you help him?” Well, two people can’t write a speech. The President had committed himself to a time when he was going to give this speech on all networks. Ted is dictating to Gloria Lipsman (?), his secretary, who’s very good. And he had a little bit of (inaudible), maybe five or six pages. But President Kennedy could talk faster than Ted could dictate, Gloria could transcribe, and then it could be carried to the press. Pretty soon, toward the end, he ran out of paper. And he just kept on going. That’s how close those two people were, in their thoughts and their words that they could just keep on going. I said to Ted, “Tell you what? I just couldn’t tell. I don’t think anybody could tell where your stuff stopped and his kept going.” Sorensen said, “Yeah? Well, two of us can!” [laughter]
TOM OLIPHANT: As the President’s Special Counsel, how did he walk that -- I don’t know if you’d call it a fine line or a delicate line -- between advisor and advocate? Between, oh, pragmatist and idealist? How did he handle the mixture of things at the very top of the American government that we’re all subject to in our own lives?
LEE WHITE: Well, as Carl suggested and as Ted points out in his book, it was a very, very small staff. In fact, it was too small. I’m surprised we got as much done as we did get done. But we should have had more bodies, more good bodies, to help. But you do what you can do.
And we’re all a mixture. We’ve got idealism pouring out of our veins, and we’ve got pragmatism. You have to get things done. And that blend is what really makes the difference. And some people have that talent. Most of us have it in small degrees. Ted has it in extreme degree. If you read his books and his things, you get the idea he really was there.
In fact, I’m having a little trouble, if you don’t mind my saying, Ted. I’m trying to get rid of you. Every time I turn on the TV, you’re there! Charlie Rose interviewed him at 11:00 one night -- I’m supposed to be in bed by then -- for two hours, and he didn’t miss a beat. Ted’s recall is really excellent, and his phraseology doesn’t have to be said, but is very special.
TOM OLIPHANT: It’s fun leaning on Adam for help because, in a way, he’s almost the bookend for this book. Not only did he put about six years of his life into the indefatigable work that is required of this kind of project, but of late, he has been a much praised young staff member on the speechwriting team of Barack Obama in Chicago.
And as some of you know, Mr. Sorensen has not only supported Barack Obama, but he’s gone out and campaigned for him all winter and spring. And the first thing I wanted to ask you, Adam, is if you have developed a way of thinking about then and now that links the two?
ADAM FRANKEL: Yes, I think so. Actually, it’s interesting. There are so many similarities. The more time that goes by, the more similarities I see between 1960 and the current campaign. One of the things I admire most about Mr. Sorensen is his idealism. It’s sort of the re-emergence of idealism now, with Senator Obama.
Ted, when he was growing up, was working on civil rights issues. I mean, this is extraordinary at the time. And took real courage. This is someone who wrote a conscientious objector statement because he believes so deeply in peace. And so he went to Washington to live out these principles.
And this is someone who, when he wrote a speech, wrote it so that it would be good enough to be included in “great speeches” books. That was his standard. It’s extraordinary. And that’s part of the reason I admire him so much. And that sort of spirit, I think, is very much alive now. There’s sort of a symmetry, in that sense, between that sort of trying to live out these sort of principles and the Kennedy style of rhetoric.
One Ted’s great gifts, obviously, is eloquence. But this notion that eloquence has a real role in public life, that eloquence can mobilize people to bring about real change, is something that obviously is one of his great contributions and something we’re trying to live up to.
TOM OLIPHANT: Of course, one of the things I suspect you’re finding out in Chicago, as Mr. Sorensen did in Washington, is that it is necessary that you get your fingernails dirty from time to time, that politics is not always eloquent and not always high-minded. And there’s a balancing act that goes on every day, inside every head.
There’s a lot of self-criticism in this book, some of it almost casual in its eloquence. But what caught my eye, Adam, are the moments when Mr. Sorensen looks back at an act. For example, briefly disagreeing with Senator Kennedy’s decision to call Coretta Scott King when her husband got busted just before the 1960 election, and saying how he regretted the position he took in the room on the grounds that it would be more symbolic than real. It was something that people could disagree on very easily. But has it helped you figure out when you stand for high principle and when you need to take out the stiletto?
ADAM FRANKEL: That’s a good question. I think that politics … Well, put it this way. That’s the thing that I … that kind of, the stiletto kind of politics, is something I don’t love about politics. That’s not why I’m working in politics. And so I think that what we share is this notion that we’re in it not for that, not for the stiletto kind of politics. That’s something I really learned from Ted, is this notion that we can do better, that we can actually hold ourselves to a higher standard. That while there are certainly compromises that have to be made at times, and those are made on a case by case basis, the notion that you can compromise on issues without compromising on principles.
The notion that you can be an -- I think Jackie Kennedy’s phrase -- an idealist without illusions. That sort of notion that while you recognize that in order to make progress you have to be pragmatic, but yet, sort of holding yourself to your highest ideals. That’s sort of a lofty answer to it, but I think that that’s something that I’ve tried to draw from.
TOM OLIPHANT: Now you played a role in this project. It seems to me that the job you carried out mixes editor and collaborator and research person. And that meant, I suppose, that you had to help Mr. Sorensen wrestle with a couple of questions that only he could answer, if in fact they were answerable. And being a two-dimensional, simplistic kind of person, I naturally went immediately to the question of how did “Ask not what you can do for your country” get into the inaugural address? I’ve gotten that answer from him over the years. Famously, if you ever asked him about it, he would just say, “Ask not.”
But what’s different in this book is that there is a thorough discussion of the evolution of the inaugural address, including some suggestions about origin that have nothing to do with Sorensen and a lot to do with Kennedy, namely something that the headmaster of his prep school may or may not have said once. And there’s a willingness to ask all of us to tolerate this gray area in collaboration, where it’s not always easy to understand where one mind ends and the other one begins. Were you like a reporter, pushing for a simple yes or no, or …
ADAM FRANKEL: I was at times. I was at times. I mean, one of the most extraordinary things about this was how candid Ted always insisted on being throughout on all sorts of topics. That was something from the beginning he was pushing himself on, and I think did it to an extent that few others would have. This issue of authorship is just so complicated. The thing that I can appreciate, in particular now as a speechwriter, is the value that he must have drawn from those years with JFK on the road. That is priceless for a speechwriter. He traveled across the country to all fifty states, just the two of them, and not only is that valuable in terms of strengthening a friendship, not only is that valuable in terms of helping someone get a sense, helping Ted get a sense of John F. Kennedy’s ideals and policy positions and views on all sorts of subjects, it gave him a sense of JFK’s rhetoric, and he could hear the evolution of his style. Who knows the authorship of some of these phrases? I really think they’re lost to history.
I’d be surprised, frankly, if either of them could have identified the true origins within weeks after they’d written them. Because some of these things were probably … He’d mention something on the campaign trail, but he might have gotten that idea from Ted, who might have gotten it from something JFK said in a meeting -- who knows? It’s lost to history.
TOM OLIPHANT: Let’s take a crack at a specific crisis or problem or development in the Administration, just to get us all talking for a second. It’s hard not to choose the Cuban Missile Crisis, but in a way I don’t want to entirely. Secretary McNamara, I wanted to remind you of a quote of yours from Moscow a few years ago when a movie starring Kevin Cosner as Kenny O’Donnell opened about the Missile Crisis. I think it was called 13 Days. And it placed Mr. O’Donnell at the center of all the decision-making and actions during the crisis. And what you said in Moscow was a classic simple sentence. “It was not Kenny O’Donnell who pulled us all together; it was Ted Sorensen.” Could you talk a little bit about how a group of people that didn’t constitute an official government agency were pulled together to manage the closest crisis we ever came to a nuclear exchange?
ROBERT MCNAMARA: Before I answer that question, let me suggest to you, if you haven’t read it recently, read again Profiles in Courage. I don’t know whether Ted wrote it or not, and I’m not trying to find that out, but what I do know is he did much of the research for it. And it puts forward to you, to me, to all of us today, his thoughts about the role of the president, and about what we stand for as Americans. And I strongly urge you, if you haven’t read it recently, read it soon. It’s inspiring.
Now, to go to your point, Ted knew the President. He understood what he believed in. Ted was inspired by the same view of this country that the President was. And it was almost natural to him to suggest to the President, whether it was in Moscow or someplace else, what he should do next. He had tremendous influence on the President, for that reason. And as I say, at 92 I am losing my memory, and I may have mentioned it a moment ago, if I didn’t, let me again say: read Profiles in Courage. It will inspire you.
TOM OLIPHANT: But read Counselor too!
ROBERT MCNAMARA: Although this is a lot shorter. And you’ll get the same inspiration from it in less time. So I urge you to get it and read it.
Now, Tom, the point I want to make is that Ted thought as the President did. And I can’t tell you, when I read what has been printed under President Kennedy’s name, I can’t tell you whether Ted wrote it or he wrote it. What I know is that Ted thought the way he did. They were both inspired by this country, and they were determined to turn that inspiration into progress for the nation. And they did.
TOM OLIPHANT: Dr. Kaysen, managing a Pentagon, a CIA, the military services in the middle of a nuclear crisis, one of the things that always stunned me about this White House group, the so-called Executive Committee, is how they found -- I gather buried in some war-gaming study at the Pentagon four months before -- this testing of the idea of a blockade or a quarantine as it was called, as opposed to striking Cuba with airplanes and invading. And can you tell me how, from the White House, a bureaucracy as vast as the United States government was managed under crisis conditions.
CARL: KAYSEN: Well, I’ll do my best, but I have to begin by reminding you I was not a member of the Executive Committee. I didn’t participate in those. I had the kind of modest title, informally, of Vice President In Charge of the Rest of the World. I did talk to McBundy, my immediate boss, every day about what was going on. And so I have a somewhat secondhand impression.
One of the things I would say is that the strength especially of Bob McNamara in this respect was enormously important. The Defense Department is probably the single most complicated enterprise in the world, and the ability to understand how the parts worked and how they connected, the ability to deal with both the internal politics and the, if you will, the public politics of military-civilian relations in a crisis were just tremendously important. And I think Bob was the essential figure in this. In a sense, I think that’s the most important point to make. The State Department had such a different role to play that the kind of management question doesn’t seem, to me, to have been equally important. But I say that with some distance.
You mention the intelligence agencies. Of course, the operating side of the intelligence business, which actually, in this situation, was mostly the job of the Air Force, the reconnaissance job and so on. Again, it was the Secretary of Defense’s business to deal with that, although I don’t want to neglect the importance of some parts of the intelligence process in the immediate crisis. The people who looked at pictures and figured out what was going on and so on.
TOM OLIPHANT: Mr. White, in your office, I think those of us who have only been able to study the Kennedy Administration have often felt that speeches and policy often came together, in contrast to today when they are more political, artificial creations. And I was wondering, during the Missile Crisis, whether for example the drafting of the initial speech to the country, or the reply-to that was decided on to Chairman Khrushchev’s letter, how much Mr. Sorensen’s work on the drafting of the language really involved pulling together the strands of policy.
LEE WHITE: As Carl pointed out, I’ll have to say too, I didn’t know there was a Cuban Missile Crisis. All I knew was when I went down to Kenny O’Donnell’s office to see President Kennedy, he said in that dour way of his, “I don’t know what you’ve got but it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. Go upstairs and I’ll call you when it’s time for you to see him.”
He’d never said that before. That’s because 13 or 14 people were meeting, called the ExComm. And so I have no idea what they did, but obviously they did the right thing. We were right smack up, one against the other -- as Dean Rusk said -- we were eyeball to eyeball and one of us blinked. So I don’t know. Ted had and has a capacity to articulate thoughts in a way that makes him sing a little bit. And as you read his book, here’s a relatively young man at the age of 34 writing a letter to a big guy by the name of Nikita Khrushchev, saying, “Listen you, you’d better behave yourself or we’ll show you how to do things.” But he didn’t put it that way. He put it more tactfully. And can you imagine how close we were to almost ending the world as we know it! Now someone might say, (inaudible). Not too bad an idea, since the last administration has sort of got us … ” [applause]
TOM OLIPHANT: Touché.
ROBERT MCNAMARA: May I interrupt for a moment?
TOM OLIPHANT: Yes sir, please do. That’s the whole idea.
ROBERT MCNAMARA: The sentence that was spoken a moment ago typifies Ted’s role in the Kennedy Administration, as I observed it. Speeches and policy came together. Sometimes speeches and policy come together in the hands of an incompetent individual, and we get poor policy as a result. Maybe good speeches, but poor policy. In Ted’s hands, speeches and policy came together. And he stimulated policy-thinking in the President that the President benefited from immensely. He was not a speechwriter, he was a policy-maker!
TOM OLIPHANT: Yeah. I was thinking that perhaps the classic example of this, and perhaps, Dr. Kaysen, you can help us on, is the speech at American University.
ROBERT MCNAMARA: Exactly! And if you haven’t read it recently, read it again!
TOM OLIPHANT: It’s not in Profiles in Courage. But we’re coming up, aren’t we, on the 45th anniversary of that famous oration? And isn’t it fair to say that the work that went into that was actually the formulation of a new policy towards nuclear weapons.
ROBERT MCNAMARA: That’s right. Ted was more a policy-maker than he was a speechwriter!
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, now, how do you do both?
ROBERT MCNAMARA: Well, because he had inspired the President to recognize his ability to formulate policy as well as to write speeches. And I think the President admired him more and owed more to him as a policy formulator than a speechwriter.
TOM OLIPHANT: Dr. Kaysen, if I could ask you just to amplify some more. What stuns me, especially the way it’s told in the book, is how the idea for the specific components of the speech, the moratorium and the initiating of the negotiations that led to the Test Ban Treaty, in a way, seemed to come from outside the Government rather than bubbling up from inside.
There’s a discussion about information that was brought to the White House’s attention, I believe by the editor of the Saturday Review, Norman Cousins. And can you talk a little bit about that process of, in a way, putting life into policy-making with air from the outside?
CARL KAYSEN: Well, I can tell you my experience at kind of the particular slice of it. And I have to plead with Bob that I’m not as young as I used to be, and my memory isn’t 100% on. But I think several groups of people, Bundy and me among them, people in the State Department, and I don’t remember who else, got a note from Ted saying the President’s going to make a speech. I think it was a commencement address. And it’s going to be, in some general sense, about peace. And do you have ideas? And we all put in our two cents worth about what were good things to do. And this was a period of more than a week, maybe about two weeks, in which the back-and-forth went on and so. Sometime during this period we got two indications, the one you mentioned from Norman Cousins, but another, more direct, that the Soviets were willing to have a discussion about the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. And, at least in my mind -- and this may not be correct, and I don’t remember what Ted said in the book -- that was the trigger, in a sense, to crystallize the speech around these issues. And I think you, in your question, you put the proposition quite accurately that writing the speech was an act of policy-making.
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, let’s ask the researcher to elaborate just a little bit more. I wanted to ask you, Adam, as you plowed through all of the original material, including, by the way, the Cuban Missile Crisis. If you look at the speech to the country, the initial speech to the country, the drafts of the letters and whatever to Khrushchev, can you almost track the forming of a consensus at the top of the government to proceed in the direction we did, as opposed to war, just by following the words and the thoughts?
ADAM FRANKEL: Well, I think you can, but I also think that there’s another example, during the Cuban Missile Crisis which speaks to the link that Ted played between -- this link between policy and writing. He was asked to draft a letter to Khrushchev that was essentially an ultimatum. And he was presented with the case of “Do what we say or we’re going to go and bomb and invade Cuba.” And he couldn’t draft it. And he sat down to write this, and he found that there were so many questions he had about exactly how it would work, whether these were really the right arguments, and he just couldn’t do it. I mean, part of the reason, I think, that, as he says, he couldn’t do it, is because he knew John F. Kennedy could never deliver that kind of letter or give that kind of speech, if that were to be the speech. But so he brought it back to the ExComm and that forced renewed discussion of these issues. And so there, I think, you see the link between the writing process and policy-making.
TOM OLIPHANT: So it may be a rare case where a case of writer’s block saved the world! I get to do something now that’ll be a thrill that’ll stay with me forever. If you would like to please rise and welcome Ted Sorensen to the podium. [applause]
TED SORENSEN: For the first time in my life, I’m speechless. [applause] As Yogi Berra said on his farewell night at Yankee Stadium, “I want to thank everyone who made this night necessary.” I certainly want to thank this wonderful institution, the Kennedy Library, its CEO John Shattuck, its Director Tom Putnam, the lady who did so much to arrange all of this, Amy Macdonald, but above all, I must thank this extraordinary panel of friends of mine for a very, very long time.
As you know, if you have read the book, although I am Unitarian, a member of the Unitarian Church, which believes that all human beings are children of God, and as you know, if you’ve read even the opening chapter of the book, that my mother named me Theodore not for the sometimes imperialist President of the United States, but because she was a Greek major at university and liked the words, which in Greek, mean “Gift from God.” Although I have those in my background, I have never claimed to have, even in humor or in hint(?), any Christ-like qualities. But I can’t resist noting tonight, if no one will please quote me, that tonight it took four wise men to celebrate my life with their gifts of frankness and mirth! To put all that in perspective, I will quote the late Molly Ivins, the great humor columnist in Texas, who said that, although she was all for church and state, she was in favor of the Texas State House in Austin having a crèche at the holiday time once a year. She said it’s the only time in the year that they have three wise men and a virgin in the capital! [laughter]
So how can I adequately thank these four friends of mine? How can I adequately describe their own roles and qualities? As I often do, I will borrow from John F. Kennedy. Come to think of it, Bob, John F. Kennedy in a chapter on George W. Norris in Profiles in Courage. You should read that book! [laughter] But in the chapter on Norris, JFK quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic Nominee -- I believe it’s during his race for the nomination, not his race for re-election -- coming to Nebraska and praising Norris by putting a list of highest qualities of character in question form and answering yes to all of those for Norris.
As I say in the book, when the time for John F. Kennedy to have a farewell to Massachusetts -- and it came right in the midst of all the transition activities in which we were establishing special task forces on the key issues facing the country, and it was in the middle of preparations for the inaugural address -- so I borrowed again from Kennedy borrowing from Roosevelt, and I would repeat today, for one last borrowing of those words, the same four questions that JFK asked in that farewell and apply it to these four gentlemen here today. What Kennedy said -- I believe the address was before the state legislature, which had something to do with his putting it in question form – “History asks: Were we men of courage? Were we men of judgment? Were we men of integrity? Were we men of dedication?”
Let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen, Bob McNamara was a man of courage, as he demonstrated standing up against the military chiefs and others in such an important fashion in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Carl Kaysen was a man of judgment in one crisis after another, encouraging the President of the United States not to use that vast military might which was at his disposal in order to try to solve a political problem with a military solution, which never solves political problems. My old classmate, Lee White, was a man of integrity as he dealt with a whole variety of legal questions and civil rights questions that came before the Kennedy White House. He dealt with the legal aspects of that office much more than I did. And, finally, I have to tell you that young Adam Frankel, during his six years of helping me as my eyes and putting this book together, was truly a man of dedication, and he dedicated himself to that task as no one I’ve ever worked with before could have.
So I’m going to close for old time’s sake. Most of you probably were not out there in those 50 states when John F. Kennedy was speaking. I know Don Wilson was; he’s here tonight, former USIA Deputy Directory. He was a reporter for Life Magazine, if I recall correctly. Perhaps others here were on that campaign trail occasionally, and if so, they will remember that Kennedy would end probably 90% of his speeches with a story, which at the time we thought came from Alistair Cooke, but which I have since learned came from John Greenleaf Whittier.
It’s the story of the skies at noon in Hartford, Connecticut, one day in the late 18th century, but before, long before, there was talk of a new United States of America. The skies at noon, clouding over until, inside the old colonial legislative assembly, it became absolutely dark. Some thought doom was upon them. Some members, some men -- there were no women in the assembly in those days -- cried out in alarm. Some fell down on their knees in prayer. And the Speaker of the House, Colonel Davenport, gabled for attention. When the press heard the words “Colonel Davenport,” they started back to the bus, knowing that the speech was over. Colonel Davenport gabled for attention. “Gentlemen,” he said, “either the Day of Judgment is here, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for alarm. If it is, I prefer to be found doing my duty. I ask, therefore, that candles be brought.” And I say to you today, as JFK said in speech after speech during 1960, these four gentlemen have been spending their careers bringing candles to light our nation’s way. Thank you. And I thank them. [applause]
By the way, pay no attention to these people trying to help me into my chair. It’s true; I can’t see you, but I have more vision than the President of the United States! [applause]
TOM OLIPHANT: Now we have more for you, because Mr. Sorensen has graciously offered to answer a few questions which have been submitted from the audience, which I’ll read to him. And so we can proceed for a little while longer. So, Mr. Sorensen, here’s one. I apologize for the tense in this one about past and present, but it’s a good question. From what you know of contemporary White House advising, what are the important differences between your time and today? And if not, why not?
TED SORENSEN: Let me cite two facts in response. The first is that one of the reviews of my book compared me to Woodrow Wilson’s Colonel House, Franklin Roosevelt’s Harry Hopkins, perhaps to Truman’s Clark Clifford, and George W. Bush’s Karl Rove. And one of my lawyer friends cut out that review, underlined the words “Karl Rove,” and said, “I am prepared to be your lawyer in a libel action.” [laughter]
Number two, I’m sure all of you have heard the news today that President Bush’s former press spokesman, communications director, has now written a book exposing everything as a sham and a fraud, including the President and some of the policies, including the war in Iraq. That would have been unthinkable -- I’m sure my colleagues on the stage would agree -- that would have been unthinkable in our time. In part because there was an emphasis on both loyalty up and loyalty down. We all talk about loyalty up, and I hope I have been true to that standard all these years, but one reason for it is loyalty down. John F. Kennedy was loyal to those of us who worked for him. If we had problems, he cared about the problems. If we were ever under criticism or attack, he defended us. That has not been true of the current President, and because he has not shown loyalty down, I’m not surprised that there is not much loyalty up, and I think there are going to be a lot of books like the McClellan book.
TOM OLIPHANT: Whatever happened to the concept of a passion for anonymity? That’s a Roosevelt, a New Deal term, isn’t it?
TED SORENSEN: No. That term comes from the Brownlow Report. The Brownlow Commission was established because it became clear, particularly as foreign policy demands fell more and more on the Roosevelt White House, that the President, FDR, was simply understaffed. And the members of that commission recommended that a new system of White House staffing, administrative assistance and all the rest, and they recommended that those who fill those positions have, among other qualities, a passion for anonymity.
I had something of a passion for anonymity, partly because John F. Kennedy, as I described in the book, urged that upon me during the transition prior to the inauguration. But again, recent White Houses seemed to have changed, and a lot of staffs have done all they could to publicize themselves. And I think Mr. McClellan … well, in any event, not all of them ought to claim credit for the decisions Bush has been making. But it’s a very different atmosphere. Even the speechwriters are out there claiming what they wrote, which I think is unfortunate.
TOM OLIPHANT: Indeed. Here’s a pretty good follow from someone in the audience who had done his homework. On page 231 of your book, and I quote, you wrote “It was an Administration uniformly characterized by high ideals, dedication, and integrity. An era of altruistic governance that now appears to be gone forever.” Here’s the question: has your view changed? Has your view changed as we progress through this campaign year, given your support for Senator Obama?
TED SORENSEN: Yes, I don’t know if and when the publishers will bring out a second edition in which actual changes are made, but one change will be to eliminate the word “forever.” But I’m going to openly confess here, for the first time, a few other changes that are going to be made.
I’m sure it’s my fault, but there’s a wonderful picture in the book -- in fact, all the pictures are good -- but this one shows then-Secretary of Interior Udall introducing me to a grand old man with a lot of wispy white hair sticking out from under his hat, and I suppose it’s my error; I suppose somebody at the publisher’s said, “Who is that?,” and I guessed Robert Frost. It was Carl Sandburg. Sorry about that.
And there’s another error of that kind, Mortimer Caplin, who was our wonderful Commissioner of Internal Revenue -- I believe may still be with us -- Mortimer Caplin did not spell Kaplan the way all good Jews spell Kaplan, K-A-P-L-A-N, he spelled it C-A-P-L-I-N, and our copy editor didn’t know that.
TOM OLIPHANT: Now that we know we’ll be gone forever, soon, here’s another kind of follow and that is: have you evolved a feeling, a justification, for secretiveness or secrecy in government? Are there critical decisions that you think the electorate should be kept from knowing about?
TED SORENSEN: You’ll have to speak it into the microphone, Tom. I didn’t hear that.
TOM OLIPHANT: Is there a justification, in your view, for secrecy in government? Can you think of decisions made that the people should be kept from knowing about?
TED SORENSEN: I think there is a role for a limited amount of secrecy in the government. President Kennedy wisely, in my opinion, told Bob and me and all the others gathering around that ExComm table on the first morning of the 13 days that he did not want limousines piling up in front of the White House; he did not want people cancelling their dinners and their speaking engagements; he did not want Washington to know that there were crisis meetings going on, because then the Soviets would know that we knew about their missiles, and he felt that if we had time to formulate and answer before panic and pressure from the public and the Congress poured in on us or the Soviets took some preemptive act, that we would be much better off.
And there, I think, the secrecy was justified. In fact, on the evening of October 22nd when he was about to address the country, he called the Washington Post publisher -- I believe it was McBundy who called the New York Times editor -- and pleaded with him, because they both had gotten word, to hold off at least until after his speech so that people heard, for the first time, that the United States was on top of the problem, we had formulated a plan, and so that the Soviets also would receive his response unfiltered.
So sometimes secrecy is justified. Sometimes the Administration is nurturing a new infant idea, an idea too weak and new to stand out there against the winds of partisan attack. And so why not keep that new idea a secret until the President can announce it in full armor?
TOM OLIPHANT: If I could just cite another example that is discussed in the book, the private or back-channel exchanges in writing between the President and Chairman Khrushchev. After all this time, wouldn’t we all benefit, when there’s so much discussion about the wisdom of negotiations, leader to leader, between nations that are antagonistic, wouldn’t we all benefit from being able to read those exchanges?
TED SORENSEN: Yes, we would. Thank you for asking that question. Because the New York Times, for reasons unbeknownst to anyone, decided last week to publish an op-ed page by two unknowns -- who will never be known -- that Kennedy, when he had his summit meeting with Khrushchev, made a great mistake. That he was bullied, bludgeoned, pummeled. Having read the transcripts of the Kennedy-Khrushchev exchange in great detail, I can assure you that no such thing happened. Khrushchev’s son, Sergei, who has appeared on this platform at least once with me, and I’m sure more than once, reported that when his father came home from Vienna, his father was very impressed with Kennedy and that he was an articulate champion of the U.S. and Western policy. Khrushchev threatened to move in on West Berlin during that, but he never did, so he could not have possibly concluded from that discussion that Kennedy was weak. And if the Cuban Missile Crisis showed some conclusion on Khrushchev’s part that Kennedy was weak, it’s a conclusion that he came to regret when Kennedy stood up to him then and afterwards.
So, of course, the final letter in which I was involved to Khrushchev, as was mentioned in John’s very nice introduction of it, that final letter was going against the conventional wisdom then, as it appears to be among some people now, that you don’t communicate with your adversary or negotiate with your adversary. That letter plus the oral communications that Robert Kennedy delivered to the Soviet Ambassador that same evening were a form of negotiation. I’ve always felt that Israeli Prime Minister Rabin, another one of the sad list of world leaders whom I have known who were killed, Rabin said, “Of course, I negotiated with my enemy. Who else would I negotiate with?”
And that’s why, when Senator Obama says that yes, he thinks the United States should have communications whether they are written or oral, with leaders of Iran or Syria or Cuba or North Korea, I think that’s a very, very sensible policy. I still remember the old days when we would not talk to Mao Tse-Tung, and he hated us as a result. We would not shake the hand of Ho Chi Minh, who started a war because of it. To have no communication with your enemy is the worst kind of folly.
TOM OLIPHANT: A nice one here. Not as easy, probably, as it might sound. In your opinion, what was the best advice you ever gave to President Kennedy? The piece of advice you are most proud of.
TED SORENSEN: Only a few sports fans will understand this analogy, but I’ve compared myself to Whitey Herzog when he was manager of the Kansas City Athletic and the greatest hitter, except for Ted Williams, who opposed Kennedy. [laughter] Except for Ted Williams, the greatest hitter in baseball, George Brett, played for the Kansas City Athletics. So, Whitey was asked, “Do you ever give advice to George Brett on hitting?” “Oh yes,” he said, “sure, sure. I say, look them over carefully, George. Get a hit up there, George.” That’s about the quality of advice that I gave to John F. Kennedy. [laughter]
TOM OLIPHANT: And perhaps this might be the perfect one to conclude with, at the end of which, I am happy to turn the program over to the boss, Ambassador Shattuck. The questioner writes, “It seems the legacy of the Kennedy Presidency is still being debated. What is your perspective?”
TED SORENSEN: Well, it’s true that almost 45 years have gone by since Kennedy’s death. That’s a long time for memories to hold, for legislation to stay in place, And yet, we’re all still here because of his resolve and judgment during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s a pretty good legacy.
We are at least on the road to progress in changing the centuries-old treatment of discrimination and segregation against our black citizens that Kennedy launched in his speech to the country, interestingly, one day after his speech at American University, which launched the first arms patrol step of the nuclear age.
We are still at home in space, after, of course, all time prior to 1961 being tethered then -- was tethered to Earth. But because of Kennedy’s bold call to send a man to the moon and back in a decade, a pledge which was fulfilled, we now have all the medical, communication, scientific, meteorological, and other benefits of space exploration, which we almost take for granted. We still have the Peace Corps. We still have the special programs for the mentally ill and the mentally retarded, which Kennedy was wise enough to distinguish.
So, yes, I think there are many parts of the legacy still existent and important despite the effort to tear them down. There are still people around the world who remember that under Kennedy this was a great and generous country that offered help, and above all, hope to all kinds of peoples, of all kinds of religions and races, in all parts of the world. That’s quite a legacy. [applause]
JOHN SHATTUCK: I know this audience is filled and thrilled. Filled with people who are thrilled with the words they’ve heard. And who, like me, were inspired by those words when they were first spoken, and now hear them again, today, in this extraordinary moment. And I feel, actually, quite proud of one thing that I said in my introduction. Ted, I don’t know whether you like it, but it’s about another man from Hartford, Wallace Stevens, who I think summed you up about as perfectly as I know. He says …
TED SORENSEN: Lay it on me again.
JOHN SHATTUCK: The man who in a million diamonds sums us up. And I think that’s really, for me, what this extraordinary evening has been about. We have over a thousand people here, tonight, and we’re very excited by that, and that’s a tribute to you, Ted. And because of that, we are going to have the book signing that you’re going to be laboring on. You’re going to have to prove your athletic abilities, because with a thousand people we’re going to have a book signing down in our Pavilion afterwards. So those of you who have purchased a book and would like to have Ted sign it, please go down to the Pavilion. Ted will just sign his name; otherwise, he will not get home to bed tonight. So don’t expect a personalized event.
This has been an extraordinary evening with Ted Sorensen, as we have billed it. And we’re especially grateful to Secretary McNamara, to Carl Kaysen, to Lee White, to Adam Frankel, to Tom Oliphant, and above all, to Ted Sorensen. [applause] And I have one final introduction that I would like to make. Gillian Sorensen is here, along with members of the Sorensen family. If you could please stand. [applause] Thank you all. And you can reach the Pavilion by proceeding down the stairs. Thank you.