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  • Writer's pictureEmma Brumpton

An Afternoon with JFK's Speechwriter

Updated: Mar 14, 2020

"Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. 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." John F. Kennedy

Sorensen with JFK in the Oval Office

Theodore (Ted) Sorensen was chief speech writer and close political advisor to the late John F. Kennedy. Whilst it was J.F.K who delivered the highly acclaimed speech, Ted Sorensen was the man behind the words and I was about to meet him! My photographer friend Thorsten had invited me to Stockholm to film an interview with Ted and I felt very privileged. Sorensen was instrumental in bringing the Cuban missile crisis to an end when he drafted a letter from J.F.K to the soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. Decades later he was busy supporting Barack Obama in his bid for the White House.

I was feeling very nervous, however my nerves were quickly dispelled when Ted entered the room. Softly spoken and friendly, yet with a powerful presence, he was very approachable. I introduced myself and began to mic him up. With the mic set to max in order to pick up his soft voice, I set about arranging his seating position and lighting.

An assistant explained to us that a stroke in 2001 had left Ted almost blind so I directed him on where to look during the interview. A lifetime's experience of media techniques was evident and he was a natural in front of the camera. With Thorsten asking the questions, I focused on Ted and his replies. I often found myself so utterly absorbed by his accounts that I had to jolt myself back to the task of filming. He described the process of speech writing with J.F.K...

"Kennedy and I, whenever possible, would discuss the subject of the speech in advance. It would depend who was the audience on the occasion, if it was a particular holiday or a particular debate, that would dictate what would be the nature of the speech. Usually the position to be taken in the speech was one that he would outline to me. In the White House I had the advantage of being not only his speechwriter but his counsel and domestic policy advisor, so I would participate in some of those decisions. So never ever did I just hand him a speech and he would get up and read that speech, having never looked at it before. I’ve known some politicians who did that – but never Kennedy!”

Thorsten asked " Did you ever meet Martin Luther King?"

"I’m sorry to say Martin Luther King and I only spoke by telephone. We did not actually meet in person. Kennedy met with him and was impressed by the “I Have a Dream Speech.” Because King, instead of being negative and nasty talked in positive terms about the relations between Black and White in the United States. Kennedy had already ‘turned that corner.’ One of Martin Luther King’s dreams was when he said ‘the day will come when the hands that picked cotton’ – meaning black slaves – ‘the day will come when the hands that picked cotton will pick the next president of the United States.’ And on election night (November 4, 2008) I turned to a friend of mine as the television news said that large black voter majorities were voting for Obama, in one city and state after another. They were giving him the election. I turned to my friend and I said, ‘That dream of Martin Luther King is coming through! The hands that picked cotton are picking the president of the United States.’”

Once the interview was concluded we chatted over coffee. I described to him my experience of growing up in the North East of Scotland and answered his questions about my life as a young person working In the media industry. I felt privileged to be chatting so intimately with such an interesting and influential man. About a year after our interview on October 31st 2010 Ted Sorensen passed away following a stroke. I will always remember the impression that he made on me and I treasure the signed photograph that he gave me as a memento.

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