Tribute: Ted Sorensen

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.

Who Owns Success?

Hardly a day goes by when we don’t hear of something else not getting done in Washington. Congress puts off debating taxes and the Federal budget until after the election. Politics has completely replaced governance. Personal and Party interests have replaced the Public interest. There has to be a better way. And there is, if we have the courage to overcome our discomfort.

In the spring of 1961, after the Russians put a man in space and the disastrous U.S. invasion of the Bay of Pigs, President John Kennedy answered a question at a press conference with the now famous statement: “There’s an old saying that victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan.” Kennedy was trying to avoid saying too much in public about these and other U.S. foreign policy failures during his first 100 days in office. Interestingly, the public reaction after these failures was to rally around the popular President, because they liked and trusted him.

Now, 50 years later, can you imagine President Obama, or any Congressman or Senator, saying: “Success has 1,000 parents and failure is an orphan” (allowing for inflation and political correctness), and then saying: “We should all share our successes”?

Why don’t we put the interests of our nation ahead of our personal or political interests or affiliations? Why don’t we build others up and cheer their good ideas (for surely “they” have some good ideas)? Why don’t we share success? What are we afraid of? What is so broken that we have forgotten that we are all in this together? When are we going to get out of our own way?

We can start with our own labels. What would the world look like if we all put our labels aside? Would we see each other differently? Would our leaders see people instead of labels? Would they resolve issues, instead of avoiding them? Imagine the possibilities…

Guys: Be Proud of Yourself

Have you ever done anything that has made you proud? Not just proud of the outcome, but proud of yourself for doing it? Can you admit this pride to yourself? And here’s the scary part: can you tell someone else how proud of yourself you are? An intimate friend or spouse? An acquaintance?

As a youngster growing up, I learned that that it was OK to point to an external result with modest, understated pride. Hit a home run. Score an 800 on the college boards. Get a great job. Write a widely read article. Achieve a financial result. All external results. All OK to acknowledge without being pompous, without bragging.

A tip of the hat while rounding the bases was an acceptable self-acknowledgement of the home run, expressing any pride was not. External results could be acknowledged with modesty, but humility was critical. Anything else would be self-aggrandizing, self-promotional, egotistical, not acceptable behavior. Bragging was bad, and showing pride was the same as bragging. Wrong.

Over the years, I’ve conducted my own unscientific survey. Every male with whom I’ve spoken about this feel the same way. White House officials. Government and corporate leaders. Friends and colleagues. And, all admit a sense of unfulfillment, of restraint. But worse, all feel a need to keep striving that comes from not being able to admit to oneself that you’ve done it, that you’ve made it, that you’ve achieved it. All feel a need to say to someone else, and to themselves, “Hey, look at my doing, not just at the outcome of what I’ve done. I did it, and I’m proud!” All want permission to say it softly, to say it gently, to say it quietly, but to say it, nonetheless.

How do women feel about this, I’ve been asked. Well, I’m not sure. In my conversations, the women seem much more focused on contentment and fulfillment. The men are inherently scorekeepers, and yet they’re not letting themselves acknowledge a personal victory, a personal score, a personal win. Surely, generalizations are imprecise, but so is the unscientific survey that I’ve conducted on this subject for decades. My conclusion: it’s a guy problem.

So, how do you be appropriately proud, without bragging, without going over the top? That’s easy. Trust your judgment. You didn’t get to where you are in life without knowing how to achieve balance, without knowing how to be appropriate. You’ll do fine. Just do it.

So, guys, what are you proud of yourself for doing lately? I’m proud of myself for finally writing this.