Hailing the impact of a hero’s pen

Updated
Let me finish tonight with a tribute to one of the great Americans of my lifetime. In late 1952, Ted Sorensen sat in a hallway of the old congressional office building. He was in the midst of a job interview. A young congressman, 35 years old, had just been elected to the US Senate and wanted someone to help him write legislation. That hallway interview, he didn’t have his new office yet, and how well it went, changed history. “I still believe that the mildest and most obscure of Americans,” Sorensen was to write a half century later, “can be rescued from oblivion by good luck, sudden changes in fortune, sudden encounters with heroes.” The man young Ted sat across from in that hallway six decades ago was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, war hero and future president of the United States. It is always hard to separate the writer from the one who inspires the writing. I don’t think the speeches of John F. Kennedy, so central to his iconic career, could have been written without both Ted Sorensen and the man who gave them. Ben Bradlee, the newspaperman and pal of Kennedy, was riding in the car with the president as he approached the West Berlin city hall in 1963. He remembers the president struggling with some words in German. Within minutes that “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech would rally the free Germans as nothing before or after in the Cold War. “I am a Berliner.” It’s not just the words. It’s the grandeur of the statement, the inspiration of it all, an American president saying that he stood with the people of the west confronting the reality of the Berlin Wall, brutal and at the same time pathetic. “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to ‘put a wall up to keep our people in.’ I think of the words Kennedy spoke at the meeting with the Houston ministers when he said, “So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again–not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me–but what kind of America I believe in.” But his greatest achievement as a speechwriter was when he was assigned the task of writing a presidential statement defending an invasion of Cuba. How could you write a speech attacking a small country? It would be like Pearl Harbor only with us in the role of the Japanese. That was what Sorensen decided. He came back to the president and said he could not write such a speech and his friend could not deliver one. For the speeches he helped write and for “the one he said he could not.” Ted Sorensen, a hero, too.

Hailing the impact of a hero's pen

Updated