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Close President Kennedy's aide Ted Sorensen dies

President John Kennedy with Ted Sorensen, right, in this undated photo. They collaborated on the famous “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” speech.

Associated Press

President John Kennedy with Ted Sorensen, right, in this undated photo. They collaborated on the famous “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” speech.

NEW YORK — President John F. Kennedy's aide and speechwriter, Theodore C. Sorensen, a symbol of hope and liberal governance, died at a time of contempt for Washington and political leaders.

Mr. Sorensen's death Sunday (Oct. 31, 2010) came just as supporters of his friend and boss were preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a very different moment in history: The election of Kennedy as president and the speech that remains the greatest collaboration between Mr. Sorensen and Kennedy and the standard for modern oratory.

With its call for self-sacrifice and civic engagement — "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" — and its promise to spare no cost in defending the country's interests worldwide, the address is an uplifting but haunting reminder of national purpose and confidence, before Vietnam, assassinations, Watergate, terrorists attacks and economic shock.

But to the end, Mr. Sorensen was a believer.

He was 82 when he died at noon at Manhattan's New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center from complications of a stroke, his widow, Gillian Sorensen, said.

Mr. Sorensen had been in poor health in recent years and a stroke in 2001 left him with such poor eyesight that he was unable to write his memoir, Counselor, published in 2008. Instead, he had to dictate it to an assistant.

President Barack Obama issued a statement saying he was saddened to learn of Mr. Sorensen's death.

"I know his legacy will live on in the words he wrote, the causes he advanced, and the hearts of anyone who is inspired by the promise of a new frontier," Obama said.

Hours after his death, Gillian Sorensen told the Associated Press that although a first stroke nine years ago robbed him of much of his sight, "he lived to be 82 and he lived to the fullest and to the last — with vigor and pleasure and engagement. His mind, his memory, his speech were unaffected."

Her husband was hospitalized Oct. 22 after a second stroke that was "devastating," she said.

Of the courtiers to Camelot's king, as special counsel Mr. Sorensen ranked just below Kennedy's brother Bobby. Some of Kennedy's most memorable speeches, from his inaugural address to his vow to place a man on the moon, resulted from such close collaborations with Mr. Sorensen that scholars debated who wrote what. He was long suspected to be the real writer of the future president's Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage, an allegation Mr. Sorensen and the Kennedys emphatically — and litigiously — denied.

Mr. Sorensen's deft touch was never needed more than in October 1962, with the United States and the Soviet Union on the brink of nuclear annihilation over the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Kennedy directed Mr. Sorensen and Bobby Kennedy, the administration's attorney general, to draft a letter to Nikita Khrushchev, who had sent conflicting messages, first conciliatory, then confrontational.

The carefully worded response — which ignored the Soviet leader's harsher statements and included a U.S. concession involving U.S. weaponry in Turkey — was credited with persuading the Soviets to withdraw their missiles from Cuba and with averting war between the superpowers.

Mr. Sorensen considered his role his greatest achievement.

"That's what I'm proudest of," he once told the Omaha World-Herald. "Never had this country, this world, faced such great danger. You and I wouldn't be sitting here today if that had gone badly."

In 2008, Mr. Sorensen endorsed Obama "because he is more like John F. Kennedy than any other candidate of our time."

A year after Obama's election Mr. Sorensen said he was disappointed, because Obama was "clearly well informed on all matters of public policy, sometimes, frankly, a little too well informed. And as a result, some of the speeches are too complicated for typical citizens and very clear to university faculties and big newspaper editorial boards."

Theodore Chaikin Sorensen was born in Lincoln, Neb., on May 8, 1928. His father, C.A. Sorensen, was a lawyer and a progressive politician who served as Nebraska's attorney general.

He graduated from Lincoln High, the University of Nebraska and the university's law school. At age 24, he explored job prospects in Washington, D.C., and found himself weighing offers from two newly elected senators, Kennedy of Massachusetts and fellow Democrat Henry Jackson, from Washington state.

Mr. Sorensen went to work for Kennedy, considered the less promising politician. "I wanted a good job," he wrote in his memoir.

Gillian Sorsensen told the AP that a public memorial service would be held for her husband in about a month, but the exact date has yet to be set. She said there would be no formal funeral.

Survivors include a daughter, Juliet Sorensen Jones, of Chicago; three sons from his first marriage, Eric Sorensen, Stephen Sorensen and Philip Sorensen, all of Wisconsin; and seven grandchildren.

Close President Kennedy's aide Ted Sorensen dies 10/31/10 [Last modified: Sunday, October 31, 2010 9:57pm]
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