Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History

Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History

by Ted Sorensen


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An intimate, deeply revealing memoir from John F. Kennedy's legendary right-hand man.

In January 1953 the newly-elected Senator John F. Kennedy hired a young Nebraskan lawyer named Theodore Sorensen as his legislative assistant. Sorensen quickly rose up the ranks in JFK's senate office, from research aide to speechwriter to campaigner and advisor, eventually working closely with JFK on his speeches and books, including Profiles in Courage, and encouraging JFK's interest in the vice presidential nomination. Though JFK's pursuit of that nomination fell short at the 1956 Democratic Convention, he had emerged as a prominent national figure; and JFK and Sorensen traveled over the next three years to all fifty states exploring his prospects for the presidential nomination in 1960. Upon his election, Kennedy appointed Sorensen as his Special Counsel-a role that allowed him to serve as the President's own lawyer, speechwriter, and trusted confidante.

Sorensen recounts in thrilling detail his experience advising JFK through some of the most dramatic moments in American history, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, when JFK requested that Sorensen draft a letter to Khrushchev at the most critical point of the world's first nuclear confrontation. Sorensen was immersed in everything from civil rights to the decision to go to the moon, and he also had a hand in JFK's most important speeches.

Illuminating, revelatory, and utterly compelling, Counselor is the brilliant long-awaited memoir from a man who shaped the presidency and legacy of JFK as no one else could.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060798727
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/05/2009
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 592
Sales rank: 523,973
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.94(d)

About the Author

Ted Sorensen was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, and after law school moved to Washington, D.C., where he would ultimately work for John F. Kennedy. He left the White House soon after JFK's death, and in 1966 joined a New York City law firm, where, as a prominent international lawyer, he advised governments, multinational organizations, and major corporations around the world. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History. Sorensen remained active in political and international issues until his death in 2010.

Read an Excerpt

Counselor A Life at the Edge of History
By Ted Sorensen
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2008 Ted Sorensen
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780060798710

Chapter One


I was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, on the morning of May 8, 1928, Harry Truman's forty-fourth birthday. Harry took no notice of my arrival, being a busy county judge in Missouri at the time. More than twenty years later, I would make my way to Washington, D.C., where my first employer was the federal government over which he presided.

I was born in a Catholic hospital, where my Jewish mother, Annis Chaikin Sorensen, valued the loving care of the nuns on the hospital staff. My father, Christian A. Sorensen ("C.A."), an insurgent Republican making his first run for public office that year, wrote to the head of America's "Hoover Booster Clubs": "Our family was increased this morning by another son. I am going to have a Republican club of my own." A journalist friend, referring to my birth as well as my father's campaign, wrote him from Ohio: "That, properly press-agented, ought to be good for a few thousand extra votes."

There was no christening or baptism rite in the Unitarian Church which my parents attended. I was named at birth Theodore Chaikin Sorensen. Theodore Roosevelt, decades earlier, had led the progressive wing of the Republican Party to which my father belonged. When I was three years old I received a letter from Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the result of a chance encounter between him and my father; it noted that he and I had bothbeen named for the same great man. "From the commotion that the letter caused in the Sorensen household," C.A. wrote back, "[little Ted] knew that something unusual had happened which some way or other involved him."

My mother, a pacifist who did not approve of Teddy Roosevelt's resort to military means for semi-imperialist objectives, always insisted that I was named not for the hero of San Juan Hill, but for the Greek words meaning "gift from God." An early feminist, she also insisted that her children receive her maiden name in addition to our father's last name—and the five of us were Chaikin Sorensen ever since; two names sufficiently unusual that we all became accustomed to misspellings. Books, newspapers, and magazines continue to do so; the New York Times has misspelled my name more than a hundred times in headlines and articles over the past fifty years. My mother's successor as editor of the University Journal, noting upon her departure that "Annis Chaiken resigned to become Mrs. C. A. Sorenson," misspelled both her maiden and her married name in the same sentence.

Throughout my life, I have reflected on my good luck; but never was I more fortunate than on the day of my birth. Among the hundreds of thousands of babies born that day, I won what my fellow Nebraskan Warren Buffett has called the "great genetic lottery." My friend Khododad Farmanfarmaian was born that same day on the opposite side of the world, in Persia. He was ultimately forced to flee for his life from his native country, hidden in a Kurdish hay wagon. I was born into a country protected by the rule of law.

I was raised by parents who were healthy, intelligent, college educated—and determined to see their children be the same. I was also fortunate to have been born in Nebraska. The city of Lincoln in my youth was small, lovely, and quaint; full of parks, stone churches, low buildings, small shops, and shaded streets. Although I heard rumors in grade school from older boys about an establishment called "Ma Kelly's," Lincoln was a wholesome place in which to grow up, the kind of small-town environment now seemingly gone forever. It was a city "in the middle of everywhere," as one Nebraska roadside sign proclaims. That message was confirmed for me as a small boy on a drive through central Nebraska with my parents, when we came upon a sign with two arrows, one pointing east, reading "New York World's Fair, 1,454 miles," and the other pointing west, reading "San Francisco World's Fair, 1,454 miles."

Even after I moved to Washington, D.C., and thereafter traveled the world over, from Fujairah to Bujumbura, from Skopje to Singapore, I always cherished the city of my birth—the safe, peaceful, predictable environment that nurtured my childhood and laid the foundation of my life and career. Of all the cities in which I have lived—Lincoln, Washington, Boston, and New York—the air, water, and politics were always cleaner in Lincoln.

I have occasionally wondered: Can a political career be affected by the name of one's hometown? Hope? Independence? What I do know is that growing up in a city named for Abraham Lincoln, whose stately statue stood by the state capitol in front of a wall on which his Gettysburg Address was inscribed, intensified my interest in the man, his life, and his speeches—speeches I have been quoting ever since.

Nebraska remains in my heart the wonderful home that shaped so much of my youthful outlook. In those halcyon days, Nebraskans spoke plainly, dressed plainly, and opposed elites and sophisticates of any kind. They were mostly middle class with middle-of-the-road views, isolationists increasingly interested in stable overseas markets for Nebraska crops, churchgoers who supported traditional church-state separation (except for school prayer), community-minded pragmatists and businessmen who were skeptical of the far right as well as the far left, and opposed to big spending by politicians. They did not like politicians of either party who showed too little concern about truly big issues but hypocritically expressed too much concern over trivial issues.

Yet Nebraska produced a host of political leaders with the courage to challenge conventional thinking—from the fiery political iconoclast and religious conservative William Jennings Bryan, to the civil rights leader Malcolm X, to Herbert Brownell and J. Lee Rankin of the Eisenhower Justice Department, who helped put courageous pro–civil rights judges on federal courts in the South.

But the best known Nebraskan of all was not in politics—the late Johnny Carson. Johnny and I attended the University of Nebraska in the 1940s, where he was known campus-wide for his magic and ventriloquism acts. My brother Tom thought Johnny the brightest prospect in the Beginning Journalism class Tom taught. As graduation neared, Tom suggested that Johnny come work for him at the local radio station where Tom was news director. "Gee thanks, Mr. Sorensen," Johnny replied, "but I thought I would try Hollywood." "Hollywood?" Tom retorted in disbelief. "I'm talking about $55 a week!"


Excerpted from Counselor by Ted Sorensen Copyright © 2008 by Ted Sorensen. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Author's Note xi

Preface xiii

Prologue 1

Part 1 Lincoln, Nebraska, 1928-1951

1 Roots 13

2 Mother 22

3 Father 34

4 Childhood and Siblings 49

5 Education 59

6 Conscience 67

Part 2 Washington, D.C., 1951-1964

7 Move to Washington, D.C. 89

8 Joining Senator Kennedy 95

9 Relationship with JFK 102

10 My Perspective on JFK's Personal Life 116

11 My Evolving Role on JFK's Senate Staff 124

12 Speechwriting 130

13 My Role in Profiles in Courage 144

14 A Catholic Candidate for President? 156

15 Senator Kennedy's Quest for the Presidency 167

16 The 1960-1961 Presidential Transition 198

17 Special Counsel to the President 203

18 The President's Speeches 215

19 President Kennedy's Ministry of Talent 228

20 My Relations with Vice President Lyndon Johnson 241

21 My Relations with President Kennedy's Family 250

22 Kennedy's Civil Rights Initiative 270

23 The Cuban Missile Crisis 285

24 President Kennedy's Foreign Policy 310

25 My Role in Press Relations 341

26 Planning for JFK's Reelection and Second Term 346

27 The Death of President Kennedy 360

28 President Johnson's 1963 Transition 378

Part 3 New York City, 1965-2007

29 Return to Private Life and Authorship 397

30 New Life in New York 410

31 Practicing Law 422

32 My Continuing Involvement in Politics 452

33 My 1977 Nomination for Director of Central Intelligence 484

34 Family and Health 504

Epilogue: Reflections, Regrets, and Reconsiderations 519

Acknowledgments 533

Index 535

What People are Saying About This

Barack Obama

“Ted Sorensen’s words inspired a generation, and his counsel and judgment helped steer our nation through some of its most difficult hours. This gripping, candid memoir illuminates a revered era in American history. Sorensen has written a book that will be cherished for generations.”

Jon Meacham

“With eloquence and honesty, Sorensen takes us on a tour of many of the most important moments of the second half of the American Century, from who wrote ‘Profiles in Courage’ to the Cuban Missile Crisis to Dallas and its terrible aftermath. This is an illuminating and engaging book.”

Walter Isaacson

“This is an important book, and it’s also a poignant one. As Jackie Kennedy once said of a speech that Ted Sorensen gave about her husband, it captures not only the soul of John Kennedy but also the soul of Sorensen. This clear-eyed but loving memoir is fascinating.”

Tom Brokaw

“Ted Sorensen has given us a very welcome up close and personal view of life and politics at the side of John F. Kennedy. There are fresh insights and enduring lessons for this and future generations to study and embrace. And painful memories of what we lost.”

Robert Caro

“Ted Sorensen’s Counselor is that rare gift to history: an account of mighty events by a participant who stood at their heart, and a writer masterful enough to make us understand them as well.”

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Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Dr_RRF More than 1 year ago
Ted Sorenson was perhaps the ultimate insider in the Kennedy Whitehouse, crafting virtually all of John Kennedy's most memorable speeches. Sorenson certainly has a valuable and compelling story to tell of his 11 years with JFK from his entry into politics in the 1950s to his untimely death in November, 1963. In this book Sorenson shows himself a staunch defender of the legacy of JFK and the Camelot mystique (or myth). More than perhaps any other book on the subject, Sorenson conveys the warmth and wit of John Kennedy. But it does have its faults and limits - Sorenson's frequent lofty praise of the ideals, integrity and altruism of JFK is nearly to the point of delusion. He gives scant credence to recent critics of the policies and actions of the Kennedy administration. He notes early in the book that JFK lead a very compartmentalized life which he, Sorenson, admits to knowing only certain parts of. He does not seem to realize that this fact ultimately hurts his credibility in defending the Kennedy administration on various points. Sorenson's rather shallow coverage of other members of the Kennedy family is largely confined to his limited interactions with them. While Sorenson does delve into some of the controversies around the JFK administration, his objectivity and span of knowledge is suspect. In some cases he clearly exaggerates the accomplishments of the JFK administration such as in how JFK "boldly transformed " NASA into a successful program. In actuality, Kennedy's goal of putting a man on the moon was both hazardous and skipped a number of intermediate steps that were crucial to a long-term process of space exploration. Sorenson states repeatedly that Kennedy did not send one combat soldier into Viet Nam although this is a moot point given that US advisors in Viet Nam were routinely in combat operations and a growing number became casualties (all known to JFK). The righteous and peaceful world that Sorenson thinks would have resulted had JFK lived and been elected to a second term, as compelling as it sounds, seems less a verdict of history and more the high hopes of a unfailing JFK admirer, undiminished by the passing of over 45 years. I would strongly encourage the reader of this book to take it for what it is worth, a memoir or personal reflection of sorts, and not as an essentially history of the Kennedy years (told much better by others.)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've long been a student of the inner workings of politics, and the Kennedy administration in particular. This book is a great chronicle of that time, providing insight into the White House and one of Kennedy's most trusted advisors. While Sorensen admits his bias toward Kennedy, he still does his best to give an honest account of that time. I came away an ever greater admirer of Sorensen for his integrity and principles.
Doondeck on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Great memories of JFK and RFK and new insights into how JFK governed and led. I know it's a memoir but just a little too much "Ted Terrific".
ALincolnNut on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ted Sorensen, often thought to be the most influential presidential speechwriter of all time due to his indispensability to John F. Kennedy, writes his first full memoir in "Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History" (2008) -- though some note autobiographical elements in his early reminiscences of the Kennedy administration in his 1965 book, "Kennedy." Although the book covers Sorensen's full life, it focuses mostly on his decade-plus association with Kennedy.With the flavor of a transcribed oral history -- which it probably is, due to the limitations imposed on Sorensen by a stroke late in his life -- Sorensen breezily relates much of his life, from his boyhood in Nebraska to his later years in New York City. Unlike many memoirs, it offers a refreshing amount of candor, including personal details of shortcomings and misconceptions, culminating in a brief chapter on Sorensen's failed nomination to head the CIA under then-incoming president Jimmy Carter.Unlike other autobiographies, except possibly for those written by people with more famous spouses, the shadow of another life looms larger in these pages than the subject. Partially, this is because Sorensen's career is so closely allied with Kennedy's career -- their collaboration from Kennedy's Senate years, through the 1960 presidential campaign, and into the White House. Mostly, though, it is because the loyalty that Kennedy obviously prized in Sorensen has never faded and the affection that Sorensen felt for his boss is still explicit 40 years after Kennedy's assassination.This leads to an odd overtone. In places where Sorensen feels obliged to explain or defend something in the past, it is almost always a defense of Kennedy's reputation, even at the expense of his own. In this book, Sorensen admits to playing a role in writing Kennedy's award-winning book "Profiles in Courage," but he defers authorship to Kennedy. Sorensen admits to offering candid advice, but he defers all decisions to Kennedy. Even as he built on his experience to become a legal consultant to leaders around the world, Sorensen downplays his capability and judgment (though his discretion with regards to these later years is apparent). In some ways, the tone of the book could be an echo of Lou Gehrig's great speech at the end of the 1942 film "The Pride of the Yankees": "Today I consider myself the luckiest man in the world."There is much to appreciate in "Counselor." Even though the mostly chronological text has frequent leaps and omissions, Sorensen's account is appealing, with the flavor of a free-wheeling, if extended, dinnertime storytelling session. The narrative style is consistently pleasant to read. And, again, the echoes of Camelot ring, if in slightly muted fashion, harkening to another era.
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