THE BLOG
08/20/2008 02:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ted Sorensen - Unassuming Insider at the Center of Power

AUDIO BOOK: "Counselor, A Life at the Edge of History"

AUTHOR: Ted Sorensen ("Kennedy," "The Kennedy Legacy")
GENRE: Autobiography
LENGTH: 12 hours, abridged
PUBLISHER: Harper Audio
NARRATOR: Ted Sorensen

LOG LINE
Hardly at the edge, Ted Sorenson has been a central player in the history of Washington and the world for nearly half-a-century. This is his singular story and unique perspective on the highest levels of leadership.

COMMENT
Former White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry once told Ted Sorensen that "Everybody who comes to Washington wants to be Ted Sorensen" to which Sorensen replied, "No, everyone wants to work for John Kennedy." This kind of self-effacement is a signature ingredient in Sorensen on Sorensen. One of the more influential players in later 20th century affairs, he comes through these 12 CDs as a shy and humble man from Lincoln, Nebraska, whose sole goal was to serve his president and, later, his international clients. His detractors, however, saw him as arrogant and abrupt. Speech writer Richard Goodwin couldn't work with him. Kennedy confidant Kenny O'Donnell didn't like him. Sorensen attributes his seemingly anti-social behavior to his discomfort for gossip and Washington small talk. In spite of his cognitive manner and un-caffeinated exterior, the man's interior was roiled with ulcers.

Many view Sorensen primarily as a skilled writer, which he certainly is. This book is lean and clear. No excess. No ambiguities. He's very circumspect about taking writing credit, or identifying, who wrote what in JFK's book and speeches. But beyond speeches, this history puts the author at the vortex of Presidential politics and government during one of America's generational shifts from Eisenhower to Kennedy and beyond. Other than the President's brother, Sorensen, as Special Counselor to the President, was JFK's closest advisor and major participator in domestic and world affairs. It's fortunate for the listener that he's also an articulate witness to history. If you're looking for a gossipy, tell-all book, this isn't it. It is a tell-what-who-and-why account from an authoritative player.

The first half of the book is devoted to Sorensen's mid-West progressive roots and his 11 years with Kennedy, beginning as a young Senate staffer, then as Kennedy's primary aide during the four year build up to the 1960 presidential nomination, through the Bay of Pigs Disaster, the decision to go to the moon, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world came to the brink of nuclear war. A lot has been written about this seismic event and Sorensen reminds us that JFK resisted the intense pressure by some close advisors to invade Cuba, choosing an effective blockade instead. The author shudders to think what would have happened "...if the angry, neurotic Richard Nixon had been president" during those eventful 13 days. Possibly. A listener might also speculate that Soviet Chairman Khrushchev initiated the Cuban missiles believing the young President was inexperienced. Would he have done the same with the hard-line, anti-Communist hawk Nixon in the White House?

Sorensen makes no bones about his admiration for his boss. A President's team, he says, reflects its character. He sees the Kennedy years as an era of altruistic governance which now appears to be gone forever. No high level Kennedy appointee was ever indicted, flouted the law, accepted a bribe, lied to congress or a grand jury, and none were ever eased out for ethical reasons or scandal, says the author.

The second half of this vitalizing history, deals with Sorensen, the international lawyer, advising foreign governments, multinational organizations, and major corporations around the globe. You follow along as he becomes one of the go-to wise men in the mold of Harry Hopkins or Clark Clifford. He's does not pull any punches about the strengths and weakness of the domestic and foreign leaders he's worked with.

He's also revealing about his disappointing Senatorial rejection as Jimmy Carter's nominee to head CIA. Senator Joe Biden and former Illinois Senator Adlai Stevenson come out looking particularly deceitful in this account. The author also takes the listener through the wrenching experience following his 2001 stroke that left him legally blind.

Sorensen compares the Kennedy years with the current administration and, no surprise, finds the latter seriously deficient. By contrast, JFK talked publicly about the limits of American power "...in a world we did not, could not, and should not control." In a prescient 1963 American University speech, Kennedy describes making the world safe for diversity, not democracy. He wants each country to chose their own system and the U.S. would work together with them. In today's polarizing zeitgeist, some would characterize this as downright un-American. Sorensen believes that first-class leaders think strategically - building relationships based on mutual self-interest. The great ones, he points out, do not make events or opponents personal. Sorensen subscribes to Arthur Schlesinger's description of Kennedy as a cool man of reason - a quality, the author laments, that's sorely lacking in leadership today.

Sorensen provides his own narration with a rich and easy delivery that adds comfort and character to this outwardly reserved man.

BOTTOM LINE
Highly appealing and a valuable perspective from a significant American insider. A must listen experience for anyone interested in leadership, government and politics.