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Theodore Sorensen


By Michael Lerner

When Theodore Sorensen moved into Leverett Towers, he secluded himself in a sparsely furnished tutor's suite with some books and a few belongings. For a week no one saw him.

He made his first appearance in the Dining Hall for lunch. Conversation teetered on neutral subjects--mathematical tricks and why the Leverett elevators only stop every second floor. At the end of the first meal, Sorensen was reminded that at Harvard one returns one's tray to the kitchen.

Since these first encounters with the House, Sorensen has relaxed considerably. But he is not a talkative man. At an interview soon after he moved into Leverett, he answered questions easily but maintained a deep reserve. Wearing one of the dark suits he favors and a PT boat tieclip, Sorensen spoke with a trace of a smile, specifying as he went where he could be quoted. It was hard to ask him about Kennedy because the questions seemed so personal. What, for example, were some of the greatest popular misconceptions about Kennedy? "I would rather the answer to that appeared in my book than in the columns of the CRIMSON."

Did the prospect of writing the book on Kennedy scare him? "Scared isn't the word I would have chosen--perhaps overawed." The problem of the book's scope bothered Sorensen, "and there is the difficulty of classified material: I wouldn't do anything to endanger present security, but I have a responsibility to history, too. It will be a personal, not a comprehensive book."

Sorensen would talk more straightforwardly on general questions about politics. Students interested in political careers, he said, "should go to law school. A degree in government doesn't help because they don't teach what you need to know." Advice from consultants outside government "generally isn't worth much--It's too academic."

At the same time, Sorensen showed a pride in the craft of politics which he expressed as what "a good politician" should do. Do you get used to criticism? "A good politician has to." Would personal antagonisms affect the choice of the next Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate? "A good politician can't afford to let that happen."

The sense of how a good politician acts did not come only from the eleven-year experience with John F. Kennedy. Although on a smaller scale than the late President, Sorensen was also brought up on politics. His father, Christian Abraham Sorensen, rose from the Nebraska prairie sod house in which he was born to become state attorney general. His mother, Annis Chaikin Sorensen, was a convinced pacifist and feminist from a Russian-Jewish family.

It is recorded that "Christian Sorensen often took his son Ted to meetings on public utilities, and he sometimes had the child address the audience with a 'few words' from the platform." The story may be apocryphal. But while Jack grew up listening to powerful politicians talk conservative politics around Ambassador Kennedy's table, Ted grew up in a household of liberal books and magazines. The Sorensen home was a gathering place for progressive Nebraskans who debated the issues of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.

At about the time his future chief was serving in the Pacific, Sorensen graduated from Lincoln High School and entered the University of Nebraska on a Regents scholarship to take the pre-law curriculum. He chaired the mock United Nations convention, the campus constitutional convention, and the University YMCA, while continuing to follow high school interest in debating, drama, and the band. In 1949 he entered the University's law school, edited the Nebraska Law Review, and lobbied during spare time in the state legislature for a Fair Employment Practices Committee. He still managed to spend enough time studying to graduate first in his class in 1951. His family hoped he would practice in Lincoln, but Sorensen headed for Washington, D.C.

The story of Sorensen's career with the then newly-elected Senator from Massachusetts is too complicated to tell in detail. Sorensen was recommended to Kennedy in 1953 by Sen. Paul Douglas of Illinois. Kennedy hired him to work on problems of New England -- "I wasn't prejudiced," Sorensen adds, "because I had never been there." In 1954 Sorensen drafted speeches for Kennedy; in '55 he researched Profiles in Courage; and in '56 he urged Kennedy to try for the Vice-Presidential nomination. In 1960, Kennedy said: "I want to keep Ted with me wherever I go in this campaign. You need somebody whom you can trust implicitly."

Sorensen was trusted implicitly in the White House, too, and with the exception of Robert F. Kennedy he was the President's closest adviser. He had a scrap with Barry Goldwater in the fall of 1961, when the Arizona conservative read into the Congressional Record a story for the Chicago Tribune which stated that "the man behind President Kennedy's rocking chair in a world with war tensions, escaped military service as a conscientious objector and Korean War service as a father." For the rest, he remained in the background: what he contributed to the fabric of Kennedy statements was almost impossible to distinguish from the rest. "I knew the way Kennedy thought, and how he would say things," Sorensen explains simply.

That leaves a great deal unsaid about Sorensen's influence on Kennedy. He joined Kennedy as a militant A.D.A. liberal when the junior senator was conservative enough to avoid the censure vote on Sen. McCarthy. Eight years later President Kennedy was proposing the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress. Something very basic had changed in Kennedy's thought during those eight years. Certainly Sorensen was in part responsible. Twelve years after graduating from law school, Sorensen is back on a campus again. He smiles when asked what he plans to do. "I guess I'll be interested in and fascinated by politics all of my life. I won't teach and I don't plan to write another book." Sorensen considers himself too liberal for Nebraska politics. Would he take up residence in another state and work toward political office? "Oh I suppose I could. But when you've done what I've done, it's hard to start from the begining again, and work your way up to assistant governor. No, my contribution to politics won't be as a candidate."

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