Theodore Sorensen: Speechwriter and adviser who provided the intellectual backbone of Kennedy's 'Camelot'

Ted Sorensen was not just the sole remaining survivor from the innermost circle of the Kennedy White House, a last knight of America's mythical 20th century Camelot. Nor was he only perhaps the greatest and most influential presidential speechwriter of any era. In fact, as was conveyed by his official designation as special counsel and adviser to JFK, Sorensen was far more than a wordsmith, however exceptional. At moments of crisis, when fateful choices had to be made or bold decisions taken – be it the civil rights struggle, the climax of the Cuban missile crisis or the mission to send a man to the moon – he was involved.

"If it was difficult, Ted was brought in," said Robert Kennedy, arguably the only member of the administration who was closer to his brother than Sorensen. John Kennedy himself referred to his adviser as "my intellectual bloodbank."

On the face of it, they were an odd combination: the dazzlingly handsome and well-connected scion of New England wealth, a Harvard-educated war hero – and the sober, somewhat earnest law graduate from Nebraska, of half- Danish, half-Russian Jewish stock, who had never left the Midwest until he went to Washington in 1951, aged 23 and without contacts, only the dream of a career in government.

But in the words of the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sorensen's friend and fellow Camelot insider, Kennedy and his indispensable aide "shared so much – the same quick tempo, detached intelligence, deflationary wit, realistic judgment, candour in speech, coolness in crisis – that when it came to policy and speeches, they operated nearly as one."

After working for 18 months as a lowly government lawyer, Sorensen was taken on in January 1953 by the newly-elected junior Senator from Massachusetts, who even then was harbouring ambitions about a White House run. The first serious words Sorensen produced for his new boss consisted of an economic development programme for New England, which Kennedy expounded in his first three speeches on the Senate floor.

That, however, was merely the start. The partnership quickly grew close – so close that when the future president's Profiles in Courage won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957, Sorensen was alleged to have beenthe real author. Both he and the Kennedys flatly (and litigiously) denied the charge. But Sorensen's contribution was, to put it mildly, considerable, and Kennedy made over to him a large share of the royalties.

By then, of course, Kennedy's sights were clearly set on far greater things, and Sorensen accompanied him ashe travelled the country, preparingthe ground for his 1960 candidacy.In the early stages, it was often justthe two of them, alone on the road.But the process was crucial. "Everything evolved in those three-plus years," Sorensen would remember. "Hebecame a much better speaker, I became more equipped to write speeches for him."

And what speeches they would be. During his 34 months in the White House, Kennedy delivered some of the most memorable words of any president, including the immortal 1961 inaugural and addresses on the nuclear arms race and civil rights, as well as his speech in Berlin in June 1963. The final versions might have been Kennedy's, but the input of his speechwriter, with his uncanny instinct for language that seared an idea into the public imagination, was huge.

For Sorensen however, his most important text was a private one: the letter he drafted for Kennedy to send to Nikita Khrushchev at the most dangerous moment of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, as calls by hardliners for an invasion of Cuba, or an attack to take out the Soviet sites on the island, were becoming ever louder.

"Time was short," he later told The New York Times. "I knew that any mistakes in my letter, anything that angered or soured Khrushchev, could result in the end of America, maybe the end of the world." In the event, the letter, urging a peaceful solution, seems to have been pitch-perfect. The Kremlin leader agreed to withdraw the nuclear missiles and the crisis was over.

Barely a year later came even greater trauma, the assassination of the leader Sorensen idolised. He offered his resignation immediately, but was persuaded to stay on by Lyndon Johnson and in fact helped write the incoming president's first State of the Union address. On 29 January 1964, however, Sorensen became the first member of the former Kennedy team to depart the new administration.

He would spend most of the rest of his life as a senior partner at a leading New York law firm, but never lost touch with Democratic politics – and Democratic presidents. In 1965 he published a best-selling biography of his hero, entitled simply Kennedy, and three years later worked on Robert Kennedy's White House campaign until it was cut short by another assassin's bullet.

In 1970 he made an unsuccessful bid for the New York Senate seat once held by RFK, and was nominated by Jimmy Carter to head the CIA – until it emerged that after the Second World War, a youthful Sorensen had registered as a conscientious objector. Later Bill Clinton, trying to wrap the Camelot mantle around himself, sought out Sorensen. In 2007, however, the liberal elder statesman became an early supporter of Barack Obama's White House candidacy.

Nothing, though, compared to the past, and the years when he rose with a privileged but ill-starred family to the summit of American power. In Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, his elegant, searching memoir of 2008, Sorensen admitted that "when the Kennedy brothers died, it robbed me of my future."

Theodore Chaikin Sorensen, speechwriter, political adviser and lawyer: born Lincoln, Nebraska 28 May 1928; Special Counsel and political adviser, White House 1961-1964; married three times (three sons, one daughter); died New York City 31 October 2010.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape