Good Reads: ‘Councilor: A Life at the Edge of History’ by Ted Sorensen

Theodore C. Sorensen, Special Counsel to U.S. ...

An excellent book, and a detailed view into one of the most famous periods of American history, without bravado, bluster or pretension.

Ted Sorensen was President Kennedy‘s speechwriter and one of his closest advisers. Councilor is his autobiography, and one of the most interesting and readable non-fiction books I have ever read.

The book covers Sorensen’s birth in Lincoln Nebraska, through his time in the Kennedy White House and, after the assassination, his work on Robert Kennedy’s campaign as well as his own campaign for the US Senate.

I found it to be an incredibly accessible book, written with clarity and focus – much as one would expect from a speechwriter. Of course, much of the book involves the Kennedy administration, from the early days of campaigning to the “deeply traumatic experience” of the events in Dallas. This is a period of history that has always interested me, since I was curious to know whether or not much of the positive thought towards Kennedy was genuine, or due to his untimely death. This book, with its obvious and understandable appreciation of the man, does not shy away from some of his failings, and reveals that there were times when he disagreed with his staff – as well as acknowledging some of JFK’s more personal mistakes.

The insight that Sorensen provides, along with his reflection on how things could have been done differently, makes the events of Kennedy’s time in office much more understandable, and even if you do not agree with the decisions made, it is much easier to see why and how those choices were made. This, I think, is the key to biographies. Not to excuse or cover up events, but to explain the process that went into them.

In particular, the sections on the Cuban Missile Crisis, McCarthy and Civil Rights are most fascinating. Sorensen recounts the meetings, strategies and different forces that played into the response to Khrushchev – a letter that Sorensen himself wrote – and it is startling to realise just how close the world came to disaster. On McCarthy, there is the admission that while not voting for censure was politically beneficial for Kennedy given his ties to McCarthy and the support he enjoyed from the Irish population in New England, it is described by Sorensen as one of his, and the Presidents failings.

When it comes to Civil Rights, it is clear that there were concerns about pushing too hard, or making decisions that could not be clearly supported, but also a desire to improve the situation. Understanding and learning from previous confrontations in Mississippi meant that the handling of George Wallace in Alabama (allowing him to be photographed outside the school door so that his constituency could see him protest) was done shrewdly and with some care.

These and similar insights into the Kennedy presidency make Councilor a worthy read on their own, but the rest of the story of Ted Sorensen is equally fascinating and provides a balanced and thorough view of historical events, whether they were experienced first hand or happening on the edge of Sorensen’s own life.

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