Forty-five years after John F. Kennedy's assassination, Ted Sorensen's adoration of his old boss shines as brightly in Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History as it did when the two men were laying the foundation for what came to be known as "The New Frontier." Kennedy hired Sorensen as his legislative assistant in 1953 shortly after being elected to the Senate and kept him on at increasing levels of responsibility throughout his presidency.
It was a strange pairing from the start. Kennedy was a Massachusetts-born, Harvard-educated, Catholic war hero with fairly conservative leanings, while Sorensen was a politically progressive Nebraska native of Danish and Russian Jewish origin, a Unitarian and a registered conscientious objector. Still, they hit it off immediately. Sorensen found in Kennedy the makings of an idealist, someone who had the industry, intelligence, good will and charisma to fulfill Sorensen's own liberal political values. Both had a rich sense of humor.
While conceding that Kennedy was unfaithful in his marriage, Sorensen does little more than nod toward that subject. In his eyes, Kennedy's weaknesses were trivial compared to the good he achieved as president in furthering civil rights, orchestrating the removal of Russian missiles from Cuba without going to war, lobbying for nuclear disarmament and putting America on the road to pre-eminence in space exploration. He dutifully notes his superior's flaws, such as failing to censure Joseph McCarthy and being a latecomer to the civil rights cause, but he clearly considers these as aberrations in an otherwise noble personality.
A year after joining Kennedy's staff, Sorensen began writing speeches for him and remained his chief scribe from that point on. Without discounting his own considerable input, he does deny the still pervasive rumor that he wrote Kennedy's best-selling 1956 book, Profiles in Courage. He credits the senator with conceiving the idea, masterminding the research and doing much of the writing and editing. Profiles was such a success that instead of assigning Sorensen half of its income, as he had done for articles his assistant had ghosted in his name, Kennedy paid him a large flat fee, the amount of which the usually candid author chooses not to disclose.
Sorensen's descriptions of his companionship with Kennedy, both in his office and on the interminable campaign tours, are charming glimpses into the ways politics used to be done - before the proliferation of pollsters, media advisors, opposition researchers and frenzied fundraising schemes. (Kennedy, of course, was amply funded by his father.)Always at his boss' elbow - a factor, he admits, that hastened the breakup of his first marriage - Sorensen explains the various strategies that ultimately calmed the electorate's fear of Kennedy's Catholicism. It boiled down to the youthful-looking senator convincing voters that he truly believed in the separation of church and state. Sorensen observes that all the fears of religious dominance conservative Protestants then voiced against Kennedy have now been fulfilled by a Protestant president.
Counselor is one of the most readable political memoirs one could hope for. While not as breezy and gossipy as Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s Journals, it does convey the intensity, excitement and joy of those who believe that government, properly inspired and executed, can be a great force for good.
Edward Morris watches politics from Nashville.