Tips from a Legendary Speechwriter

Tips from a Legendary Speechwriter

Ted Sorensen hears echoes of Kennedy in Obama.

By Paul Sterman

Photo Caption: Famed speechwriter Ted Sorensen worked alongside John F. Kennedy for 11 years and was one of Kennedy’s most trusted advisers.

On the snow-dusted afternoon of Jan. 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy stood on the steps of the United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C., delivering his presidential inauguration address.

Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s personal speechwriter and the man who drafted that address, was sitting close by as the historic moment unfolded.

“I sat high above the back of the podium with my sister, tense, thrilled, excited but anxious as his words initially met with silence from the crowd assembled below,” Sorensen recalls in his 2008 memoir, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History (HarperCollins). “Was it to be a flop after all? Not until one-third or more of the speech had been delivered did the first round of applause begin. Then came more, then more; and I relaxed.”

It’s almost comical now to learn of Sorensen’s initial anxiety, given that Kennedy’s inaugural address is regarded as one of the greatest political speeches of our time. A stirring call to action, it produced such classic phrases as “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans”; “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate”; and this legendary line: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Nearly 50 years after JFK’s memorable speech, Sorensen is among those eagerly anticipating Barack Obama’s inaugural address, which he will deliver on Jan. 20 after he is sworn in as America’s 44th president. Sorensen feels a strong connection to the incoming Commander in Chief. Like many, he sees a strong likeness between the new president’s rhetorical flair and Kennedy’s oratorical prowess.

“Obama is the first [politician] to come along who has the same gift to inspire and to mobilize people since the Kennedy brothers,” Sorensen says in a telephone interview from his New York City home.

Although Sorensen is firmly in the Obama camp – and has championed various liberal causes through the years – it’s a measure of how highly he’s respected that he draws high praise from both sides of the political aisle.

“Ted Sorensen is one of the great political speechwriters of all time,” Peggy Noonan writes in an e-mail to the Toastmaster magazine. “…He worked very closely with John F. Kennedy, and their collaboration yielded speeches that were great gems of American political literature.” Noonan’s eloquently crafted speeches for President Ronald Reagan and later, for George H. W. Bush, made her a celebrated wordsmith. She now is a frequent political commentator and columnist for the Wall Street Journal

Making Your Mark
Now 80 and nearly blind from a stroke he suffered eight years ago, Sorensen expresses definite opinions about inaugural speeches. They’re a pivotal event for a president, one where he can put his first signature mark on his term, Sorensen notes. The words the president expresses that day can have an indelible impact on millions of people around the world.

In 1961, Kennedy was well aware of the global audience tuned in to his inaugural speech, as evidenced by these words in his address (following up on his “Ask not what your country can do for you” line): “My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

When Obama presents his address, he, too, will be very conscious of its implications for an international audience – particularly given the increasing importance of globalization in today’s times (and especially considering Obama’s own multicultural heritage).

                    “Ted Sorensen is one of the great political speechwriters of all time.” – Peggy Noonan

Sorensen contends that an inaugural speech should have a sense of vision and power, and not get bogged down in a litany of policy points.

“It’s not a laundry list of what you’re going to do,” he says, “but a chance to enunciate your general principles.”

Before he started drafting Kennedy’s address, Sorensen studied many of the inaugural speeches given by past presidents. Historians say the best of these were delivered in times when America was at a crisis point (which bodes well for Obama, considering the almost-daily headlines of financial disasters in recent months). Sorensen says that Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural speech, when America was trying to heal from the Civil War, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, when the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, were particularly inspiring. (It was in that 1933 speech that Roosevelt uttered his famous line, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”)

But most of the other presidential orations were verbose and laborious, Sorensen adds. “It was a pretty sad collection.”

Sorensen released his memoir, appropriately enough, in the thick of last year’s election season. Counselor focuses on his long career in politics and law (Sorensen has worked for the past four decades as a high-profile international lawyer, dealing with world icons like Nelson Mandela and Anwar Sadat). The book delves into detail about the craft of speechwriting and the various speeches Sorensen wrote for and with JFK. It’s a historian’s delight, with Sorensen referencing previously unpublished drafts of Kennedy speeches and public statements, as well as his own strategy memos written to the late president.

There are also some light-hearted contributions to speechwriting lore. One such nugget is when Sorensen confirms a grammatical snafu he made on a particularly memorable sentence. It was in the text of Kennedy’s famous 1963 speech in West Berlin, which he ended by declaring to the roaring crowd: “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner), These were highly significant and symbolic words, the president offering American solidarity to West German citizens in a world threatened by the Cold War.

Except for one detail: By incorrectly inserting the word “ein” into the phrase, Sorensen actually had Kennedy saying, “I am a jelly doughnut.”

The speechwriter says he received buckets of mail pointing out his mistake, but he also says he’s had Germans assure him that the West Berliners knew exactly what Kennedy meant that day.

A gracious, good-natured man, Sorensen is also known for his integrity and modest manner. “He’s a doll – witty, dry, fun, warm,” Noonan writes in her e-mail. “What a good man he is. I admire him so much.”

The Old School Spirit
Sorensen’s first real experience with public speaking came at Lincoln High School in Nebraska, where he was on the debate team and coached by teacher Florence Jenkins.

“I enjoyed it immensely,” he says in the interview. “My siblings were all on it, too.”

His father was also known for his public speaking. C.A. Sorensen won a Nebraska state oratory contest as a young man and in his noted law career he powerfully articulated his courtroom arguments. Meanwhile, Ted’s mother was a brilliant writer and editor from whom he inherited his literary talents. “You had to be able to express yourself in our family or else you wouldn’t get dinner,” Sorensen jokes.

In Counselor, Sorensen outlines some of his main principles about speechwriting. One of his key tenets is brevity. For the most part, Kennedy’s speeches were always kept between 20 and 30 minutes long. That inaugural address? It clocked in at just under 14 minutes. Which makes it the fourth-shortest inaugural speech ever given.

(At the opposite end of the brevity barometer is the inaugural address turned in by William Henry Harrison in 1841; he uncorked a one-hour, 45-minute opus – spanning more than 8,000 words. Even a snowstorm didn’t deter him from cutting it short. And Harrison died of pneumonia a month later. It’s ironic that the longest-winded speaker served the shortest term of all U.S. presidents.)

In the Sorensen School of Speechwriting, there’s an important rule: Don’t use more words than you need. And be simple, clear and direct. As a particularly effective example of this, he cites the beginning of Winston Churchill’s radio address after the fall of France in June 1940: “The news from France is very bad.”

Another Sorensen suggestion about speechwriting: Alliteration, rhymes and repetition can help make a presentation memorable.

Friend and Adviser
Sorensen worked with Kennedy for 11 years – from the time Sorensen was a 24-year-old fresh out of law school going to work in the then-Senator’s office, to the tragic day in Dallas when the president was assassinated. He ended up being much more than a speechwriter in the Kennedy administration: Sorensen was one of the president’s most trusted advisers and friends – someone who Kennedy once referred to as “my intellectual blood bank.”

In fact, the most important work of literature he ever produced for Kennedy may have been a letter rather than a speech – the one he drafted to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Historians agree the deft piece of diplomatic writing played a vital role in helping to end the crisis, in which the world stood on the brink of possible nuclear destruction.

One of the messages conveyed in Counselor is that, despite the cynicism often aimed at politicians, sometimes words – and speeches – do have a momentous impact on the world. The author proudly notes the influence that JFK’s oratories had on issues such as civil rights, space exploration and nuclear arms control.

Sorensen’s skills as a speechwriter had much to do with that. Still in his early 30s when he worked with the president, he had a potent intellect, a passion for political ideas and a knack for the poetic phrase. Kennedy’s inaugural address embodied all those qualities. And the famous passage below is an enduring tribute to Ted Sorensen’s talent for crafting elegant rhythms and rhetoric:

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans – born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage – and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty. 

Paul Sterman is an associate editor for the Toastmaster magazine and a resident of Orange, California. Reach him at