From the Archives:
An Interview with
Theodore Sorensen

America's most celebrated presidential wordsmith on speeches real and imagined.

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Theodore C. Sorensen: 2008 and ca. 1961
Photos by Daniel Case and US Park Service

Theodore C. Sorensen, who died yesterday at the age of 82, was America’s most celebrated presidential wordsmith and a friend of the Washington Monthly. As young special adviser to President John F. Kennedy, he helped establish the 35th president's reputation as a great orator and political visionary—leading JFK to refer to Sorensen as his "intellectual blood bank." 

In 2007, we asked Sorensen to write the speech he would most want the next Democratic nominee to give at the party convention in Denver in August 2008. We requested that he proceed with no particular candidate in mind and that he give no consideration to expediency or tactics, but instead write the speech of his dreams. We ran the result as our cover story in July of that year. 

Shortly thereafter, Sorensen was interviewed by Washington Monthly on the Radio hosts Markos Kounalakis and Peter Laufer. In that interview, which later appeared as a chapter in the book Hope is a Tattered Flag, Sorensen discussed the faux speech he wrote for us, and the real one he penned for JFK in 1960. Here is an excerpt of that interview:

Washington Monthly:  Back on the fifteenth of July 1960, John F. Kennedy accepted his party’s nomination at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles.  For those who don’t remember that speech or who want to hear it again or weren’t around in those days, we want to excerpt a segment, one that should be listened to [see beginning 14:13] for full effect and power:

I stand here tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier. From the lands that stretch three thousand miles behind us, the pioneers gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build our new West. They were not the captives of their own doubt nor the prisoners of their own price tags. They were determined to make the new world strong and free, an example to the world, to overcome its hazards and its hardships, to conquer the enemies that threatened from within and without. Some would say that those struggles are all over - that all the horizons have been explored - that all the battles have been won - that there is no longer an American frontier. But I trust that no one in this assemblage would agree with that sentiment. For the problems are not all solved, and the battles are not all won, and we stand today on the edge of a new frontier - the frontier of the 1960s - the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils - the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats. Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom promised our nation a new political and economic framework. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal promised security and succor to those in need. But the New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises - it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer to the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride. [Applause from audience.]

WM: That was July 15, 1960, spoken by President Kennedy. Now Theodore Sorenson, you collaborated with President Kennedy on that speech. What was the breakdown of duties? Did the two of you sit there and kick it around? Did you make a draft, send it over to him? How did that all work out?

Theodore Sorenson: Oh, you’re asking deep dark secrets to be revealed.

WM: Yeah, well it’s a few years later.

TS: It was a collaboration. The policies, the values, the principles and decisions were all his, but a good deal of the wording, the first drafts, subject to his revision were mine.

WM: And what’s the breakdown on importance: words versus delivery? Or can you not separate that?

TS: Well first of all policies and principles are number one.  No matter how well-worded a speech is, no matter how well-delivered it is, if it’s the wrong policy or empty, mean, ugly principles, it’s not a great speech. So I think that’s number one. Number two, delivery is important and I have to admit to you as I sat here listening just now to that recording, a chill went through me. I haven’t heard that wonderful voice, much less that particular speech, in a very, very long time. It was, it almost brought me to tears. We don’t hear speeches like that anymore.

WM: Yes, indeed.  It brings us back to a time of hope and excitement in our imperfect history. The Washington Monthly asked you to write the speech you would like to give the Democratic nominee for the next election in 2008. We requested that you proceed with no candidate in mind and that he give no consideration to expedience or tactics. In other words, just write the speech of your dreams.

TS: I’m not writing what the next Democratic nominee would give; I’m writing what he or she should give.

WM: And I would even say, Mr. Sorenson, that you are daring them to write such a speech. That was the whole point. To raise the bar and for citizens to judge what they are going to hear in Denver by the words that Ted Sorenson committed to paper. Would you read from the speech?

TS: I have my copy of the speech right here [he reads].

In this campaign, I will make no promises I cannot fulfill, pledge no spending we cannot afford, offer no posts to cronies you cannot trust, and propose no foreign commitment we should not keep. I will not shrink from opposing any party faction, any special interest group, or any major donor whose demands are contrary to the national interest. Nor will I shrink from calling myself a liberal, in the same sense that Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, John and Robert Kennedy, and Harry Truman were liberals - liberals who proved that government is not a necessary evil, but rather the best means of creating a healthier, more educated and more prosperous America.

WM: And here’s where we want to hear the cheers come out of the audience there in Denver saying, “Yes, yes.” Applauding your words.  Standing up.  Hope swelling in our hearts. Now, here’s the question of the day please, Theodore Sorenson, these are the words you would like which candidate to speak?

TS: Oh, now you’re getting into a whole different angle because I happen to be friends with most of the Democratic candidates and have no wish to offend any of them.

WM: Of course not. And that puts you in a great position then to answer the question because you know them intimately.

TS: It so happens that I have previously made known my opinion, at least, that Senator Obama would make the next best president.

WM: If you think of Senator Obama in Denver, reading your words, and we go back to what we were talking about earlier, the value and importance of the delivery, how will that sound? Can you internalize that and get a feeling for whether he’d be able to make your words sing?

TS: Oh, of course he can make them sing if he is courageous enough to use them all. He’s a very good speaker but I am willing to acknowledge that there are some passages and positions in this speech which will be deemed controversial by some and a new presidential nominee who’s looking for every vote he can possibly get may feel that he wants to soften, tone down or compromise some of this language so that he doesn’t turn off some voters who already look at him skeptically. I believe it all, so I hope the candidate will give it all.

Read Sorensen’s speech for the Monthly here.
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