JFK Revisited: Nebraskan Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s Speech Writer


November 20th, 2013

Lincoln, NE — On Nov. 22, 1963, a shocked nation mourned the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Fifty years later it’s an event that still resonates with many Nebraskans. The NET News special reporting project “JFK Revisited” examines the assassination and Kennedy legacy from a Nebraska perspective. For this story, we share reflections on working with Kennedy from one of his closest aides, Nebraskan Ted Sorensen.


In June of 1963, in the shadow of the Cold War, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech at American University which sought to redefine our relationship with the Soviet Union. Called “A Strategy of Peace,” these words led to a slowing of the nuclear arms race through passage of a nuclear test ban treaty. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was said to be “deeply moved” by what he called “the greatest speech by any American president since Roosevelt.” The initiative and words came from the president, and also from a young Nebraskan who spent almost a decade at Kennedy’s side as speech writer and advisor.

Lincoln native Ted Sorensen was a longtime aide and speech writer for John F. Kennedy (White House photo)

Lincoln native Ted Sorensen was a longtime aide and speech writer for John F. Kennedy (White House photo)

“Without giving away any secrets or claiming any credit, that’s the speech that I worked long and hard on,” former Kennedy advisor and speech writer Ted Sorensen said in an extensive interview with NET News in 2003.

Sorensen was born and raised in Lincoln. After undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he joined the staff of then Senator John Kennedy in 1954. On the surface, the two had little in common: very different upbringing, education, religion and experiences. But Sorensen said despite the differences, they got along “famously.”

“We both had a sense of humor, liked to hear jokes and tell jokes,” Sorensen said. “We both believed in progressive values, had some concern for the people at the bottom of the pyramid and not just pay attention to the people at the top, and we both believed in public service. We found we worked well together, and we both wanted him to win.”

Sorensen learned to write for Kennedy by spending years on the road with the young senator.

“There’s nothing like listening to him day after day for a speech writer to find out what goes and what doesn’t,” Sorensen said. “What works and what doesn’t work. What kind of phrases to use, what kind of organizations he handles best and so on. So our style and our standard fused and grew together.”

This relationship was never more important than October 1962, when the United States found evidence of nuclear missiles in Cuba. The 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis brought the United States and Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear conflict. Inside the White House, opinions on an appropriate response were divided; some wanted air strikes and invasions, others favored diplomacy. Sorensen, who described himself as the son of two pacifist parents, sided with the “doves.”

Sorensen crafted a speech to the nation, but also personal communication from Kennedy to Khrushchev. He worked on a response to letters from the Soviet premier that offered a glimmer of hope for a peaceful resolution. Sorensen called this letter the most important words he ever wrote.

A draft of the first page of Kennedy's 1962 address to the nation on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Note Ted Sorensen's initials at the top. (White House photo)

A draft of the first page of Kennedy’s 1962 address to the nation on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Note Ted Sorensen’s initials at the top. (White House photo)

“The president said, to his brother Bobby and I, ‘All right, you feel strongly about it? Go write it,’” Sorensen remembered. “Bobby of course expected me to write it. We went to my office, and I drafted it for the approval of the whole group and the president. The president’s letter to Khrushchev, which in effect said can we make a deal here. We like some of the elements in your letter from last night. We salute you for them.”

Sorensen, speaking in 2003, said there are lessons for modern day lawmakers to learn from Kennedy and the events of 1962.

“Most important is the fact that communications with our adversary continued, even at the height of the crisis. Negotiations continued,” Sorensen said. “That final exchange of letters between Kennedy and Khrushchev was in effect a negotiation.”

Sorensen, who died in 2010, was always coy about this role in crafting Kennedy’s words, especially the “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” line from Kennedy’s inaugural speech. Sorensen’s standard response, when asked if he wrote this famous line, was always “ask not.”

“It’s because the first thing a speech writer should learn is anonymity and a modesty,” Sorensen said.

At the end of the interview, Sorensen talked about a “wistfulness” he had for the Kennedy era, calling it “a special era.”

“With a very special leader, (it was a) time that gave hope to Americans and to the rest of the world about America,” Sorensen said. “A time when we fulfilled our destiny as a beacon to the rest of the planet, at a time when we had a government that was committed to the public interest. Men and women who were dedicated to serving the public, not to lining their own purses.”

Watch extended segments of NET’s 2003 interview with Nebraska native and former Kennedy aide/speech writer Ted Sorensen.

VIDEO, JFK Reflections: Watch participants in a UNL Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) class “JFK: A Half Century Later” share memories of Kennedy’s assassination.

VIDEO, Cattle Sale: What happened at a Nebraska cattle sale on the dale of the assassination; a video extra from the NET documentary, “Beef State.”

PHOTO GALLERY: Images of Kennedy and the Kennedy presidency.

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