Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Kennedy/Lincoln Link to Mandela

Review by Bill Doughty

Fifty years ago -- Jan. 14, 1964 -- JFK's former top advisor, still grieving from Kennedy's assassination, walked into the Oval Office with his formal letter of resignation to President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Ted Sorensen was a top advisor and writer for Senator-then-President John F. Kennedy.  His 2008 autobiography "Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History" is a remarkable behind-the-scenes look at successes and failures in the 1950s and 60s.  Sorensen discusses his role in helping write the former naval officer's "Profiles in Courage" and discusses Lincoln, Civil Rights, Cuban Missile Crisis, LBJ, Nixon, MLK, Vietnam and Nelson Mandela, among other subjects.

Historians consider him to be not at the edge but at the center of history.  He drafted speeches to the nation, wrote articles for the president for influential publications and penned influential correspondence to Soviet Union's leader Nikita Khruschchev.  He was at the heart of the crisis (Cuba) that brought our nation the closest it may have ever been to nuclear war.
Sorensen siblings read Life magazine at home in Lincoln, Nebraska; Ted at left.
Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, Sorensen attended college at the University of Nebraska with contemporary Johnny Carson (Malcolm X was another Nebraskan he mentions in "Counselor").  

Sorensen reflects, "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 n 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."

He writes in depth about his relationship with John F. Kennedy and the Kennedy family, including Robert F. Kennedy, Edward "Ted" Kennedy and father Joseph P. Kennedy.

In a chapter titled "My Perspective on JFK's Personal Life," Sorensen discusses JFK's virtues, including his service in the Navy as a "WWII combat hero in the Pacific," and vices, including reports of his infidelity.  "Once he became a popular national figure, enough men claimed to have serve on his little PT boat with him to have staffed a battleship ... and after his death, enough women claimed to have gone to bed with him to have left him time and energy for little else."

Sorensen writes of his role and arrangement  with JFK in producing the Pulitzer Prize winning "Profiles in Courage," featured recently here on Navy Reads.

As for Kennedy's own profile in courage, Sorensen says the failure to vote and speak out in a censure of fear monger Senator Joe McCarthy was the only lasting stain on JFK's and his political record.

After JFK's death Sorensen was unable to resolve his ambivalence about supporting President Johnson.  He says he was grateful that Johnson carried on Kennedy's fight for civil rights but profoundly disappointed about another key decision that affected history for decades.
Ted Sorensen in the White House.
"I felt an immense sympathy, almost pity, for the man who had fought the good fight against poverty and racial injustice, who had pushed through so much important legislation for those who, in the end, had turned against him.  then I thought of the tens of thousands of young Americans he had needlessly sent into an escalating war in Vietnam, and all the innocent civilians killed by the tons of American bombs he dropped on the North Vietnamese without breaking their will to battle for independence, and all the federal health and housing programs that had been financially starved because of that war -- and I could not find it in my heart to utter more than a few words of routine praise and gratitude for Lyndon B. Johnson.  For all his brilliant successes, I would always revere the tragically abbreviated thousand days of John F. Kennedy's New Frontier far more than the nearly two thousand days of war and waste in Johnson's Great Society."
After leaving federal service, Sorensen worked for a private legal firm, where in 1993 he met the head of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela.  Then, 20 years ago he took a New Year's to New York on an Irish businessman's private jet, where he talked to "Madiba" about celebrity-social issues, opinions about de Klerk and Mandela's personal-family issues.
"On our flight back to New York on O'Reilly's private jet, Mandela and I had a long, wide-ranging conversation, discussing everything from Jackie Onassis and Elizabeth Taylor (both of whom impressed him), to the singer Michael Jackson (was he guilty of sex abuse charges? Mandela asked), to his twenty-seven years' imprisonment and his family life ... He liked George H. W. Bush, who he said was the first head of state to call him upon his release from prison; but he had no regard for Ronald Reagan, who had once alleged that there was no true believer in democracy in Africa, then later amended that to say he had met one -- Zulu chief Mangosuthu G. Buthelezi, Mandela's principal rival, who, Mandela believed, sought guaranteed regional rule without being elected to the post and without cooperating with those who were elected."
Sen. Ted Kennedy presents a bust of JFK to Nelson Mandela, Boston 1990.
Published just two years prior to his death and well after the passing of principals JFK, First Lady Jackie Onassis, LBJ and others, Sorensen writes with the freedom of someone unconstrained to share his opinions -- at the edge or center of history.

In the book's epilogue, he writes:
"...half a century ago, John F. Kennedy showed in fewer than thousand days how quickly our country's role in the world can be changed for the better.  Ultimately, I predict, the American people will grow sick of cynically corrupt political hypocrisy and turn on those who permit our security and international standing to erode, our environment to be despoiled, our fiscal problems to worsen, and our energy independence to wither.  In time, they will return once again to the idealism of the New Frontier."
Ted Sorensen died in 2010. To the end he remained hopeful. He believed in equality. Like military leaders he said he admired most -- General Maxwell, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt and General Wesley Clark -- he believed in responsible use of military power.  He left a record of opening gates, building bridges and keeping faith in the future for a freer, more peaceful and safer world.

Sorensen concludes:
"I'm still an optimist.  I still believe that extraordinary leaders can be found and elected, that future dangers can be confronted and resolved, that people are essentially good and ultimately right in their judgments.  I still believe that a world of law is waiting to emerge, enshrining peace and freedom throughout the world.  I still believe that the mildest and most obscure of Americans can be rescued from oblivion by good luck sudden changes in fortune, sudden encounters with heroes."
He concludes, "I believe it because I lived it."

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