The Wisdom of Kennedy’s Speechwriter Ted Sorensen

By USA-based speech coach Mike Landrum

For 11 years, Sorensen was a policy advisor, legal counsel and speechwriter for Senator and then President John F. Kennedy. The Kennedy administration brought many changes to Washington, D.C. In January 1961, JFK was 43 years old and the first president born in the 20th century.

He surrounded himself with the “best and brightest” young aides and associates the country had to offer, chief among them Theodore C. “Ted” Sorensen, a lawyer from Lincoln, Nebraska.

Kennedy’s energetic diction, his tone of voice, the simple, measured language of his speeches snapped overhead like a banner in a fresh breeze. It was Sorensen’s job to create that banner. He first joined the staff of the newly-elected Sen. Kennedy in 1953, and quickly earned a position of trust and responsibility that lasted for the rest of JFK’s life. Much of Kennedy’s legacy flowed through Sorensen’s pen and into the hearts of all Americans.

In private conversation Ted Sorensen is modest and soft-spoken. Listeners around his lunch table lean forward to catch his words as he banters about the current political scene. At the lectern, he stands tall, still trim at 77, and his hair still dark. Though his eyesight is failing and his voice is quiet, it carries vigorously and with a barbed political point.

“Don’t worry about the fact that I can’t see…I have more vision than the President of the United States.”

He greeted the group as colleagues and proceeded to entertain them with stories from his true peers, the presidential speechwriters of prior administrations. Under the leadership of William Safire, they have formed the Judson T. Welliver society, named for President “Silent Cal” Coolidge’s speechwriter, the first of his trade.

“Now, if you’ll all promise not to violate my copyright, I’ll share with you the secrets of speechwriting,” Sorensen continued. (Readers are hereby cautioned that the future use of any of his remarks must be accompanied by attribution to Theodore C. Sorensen.)

“Speechwriting really comes down to four words and five lines. The four words: brevity, levity, charity and clarity. Then the five lines are:

1: Outline. Absolutely indispensable, always the best place to start.

2: Headline. What do you want the headline to be?

3: Frontline. What’s the most important point, what do you move up to the front?

4: Sideline. Put in a quotation from a poem, an allusion to history, a bit of eloquence or precedence from the past.

5: Bottom line. What is your conclusion?

“A speech is made great, not from the words used, but from the ideas conveyed. If the ideas, principles and values and substance of the speech are great, then it’s going to be a great speech, even if the words are pedestrian. The words can be soaring, beautiful and eloquent but if the ideas are flat, empty or mean, it’s not a great speech.”

There were questions about working with JFK, of course, but Sorensen joked about the need for security clearances and declined to answer with a simple, “Ask not.”

It is a rare and gratifying experience to be in the room and hear the thoughts of one whose words achieved a place on marble walls across America. Ted Sorensen is best remembered for his role in carving these words into the history of America: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask rather, what you can do for your country.”

John F. Kennedy has been dead for nearly as long as he was alive. His most famous words are easily remembered – here is a random selection of other quotes from the years when Ted Sorensen served as his speechwriter and policy advisor:

Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men.

I’m an idealist without illusions.

The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie: deliberate, contrived, and dishonest; but the myth: persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.

We have the power to make this the best generation of mankind in the history of the world or to make it the last.

The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were.

When we got into office, the thing that surprised me most was to find that things were just as bad as we’d been saying they were.
(Quotes from John Fitzgerald Kennedy)

©2005 Michael F. Landrum

Used with permission from the original author, Mike Landrum and his newsletter The Passionate Speaker. You can subscribe here

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