I never met President John F. Kennedy, although I admired him greatly, but I did have the opportunity to meet the man who to me embodied John Kennedy, his Counselor, Ted Sorensen. While he will always be identified as Kennedy’s speechwriter, Sorensen was much more, and he leaves behind several generations of people all over the world who have benefited from the role that he has played in their lives.
As noted the New York Times’ announcement of his death, Sorensen “was best known for working with Kennedy on passages of soaring rhetoric, including the 1961 inaugural address proclaiming that ‘the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans’ and challenging citizens: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ Sorensen drew on the Bible, the Gettysburg Address and the words of Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill as he helped hone and polish that speech.”
Not long ago, I asked Ted Sorensen if he were the author of my favorite Kennedy quote: “Success has a hundred fathers; failure is an orphan.” Sorensen said “no,” and added that he once asked Kennedy about the origin of that statement. Kennedy replied that it was an old Chinese proverb, but Sorensen said that he had asked numerous Chinese people about the quote, and none had ever heard of it before Kennedy’s utterance. Then, Sorensen smiled, and I got the impression that Sorensen believed that Kennedy himself was the author. Later, I wondered if Sorensen himself, humble as ever and always deflecting the spotlight toward Kennedy, had really written it, or at least played some role in the drafting. I’ll never know, but I’ll never forget his smile and the twinkle in his eyes, even though by this point his eyesight was seriously impaired.
Besides, as Kennedy might have said: “Good quotes have a hundred parents; bad quotes are forgotten.” It’s still my favorite Kennedy quote, and Ted Sorensen is still one of the kindest, most insightful, and most inspirational men I have ever met. Thank you, Ted. The world will miss you … and your smile and the twinkle in your eyes.