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TED SORENSEN: Wisdom, Wit, and Warmth

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The news of the death of Theodore C. Sorensen brought back vivid memories of the Kennedy era, in which he played so crucial a role. In the last few years, I had the wonderful opportunity to get to know Ted better. The more I got to know him, the more I realized how vital was his contribution - in well-known words and lesser-known deeds -- to politics and public service as a noble profession, and to sanity in the midst of the world's most dangerous crisis.

Of the many encounters I had with Ted, a few are uppermost in my heart in this time of sadness.

In 2008, I surveyed Democratic leaders and asked them to which emotions they believed the party needed to appeal to win the Presidency. Ted identified three. His first choice was "security - both national and family." His second was "confidence - in new leadership for new direction," which echoed John Kennedy's 1960 campaign theme, and portended Ted's eventual endorsement of Barack Obama. It was his third, however, that surprised me: "love - compassion for fellow humans." He was nearly alone among the respondents in identifying that emotion as a political winner.

A year later, I arranged for Ted to speak at an event in Manhattan to promote his candid and compelling book, "Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History." In addition to picking him up and taking him home, I facilitated the post-event book-signing, in which I whispered the name of each individual and whatever tidbit I came up with. Ted's eyesight had deteriorated too greatly for him to see much, although he was fond of saying that he had not lost any of his vision. Afterwards, we had dinner along with other veterans of the sixties. He regaled us with stories of the Kennedy Administration, some familiar, others heard for the very first time by those of us who have read just about every book written about those memorable years.

As I walked him home, I told Ted what it had been like to be a 13-year-old during the Cuban missile crisis. The day of President Kennedy's television address to the nation, the nuns at my grammar school in the Bronx told us to pray extra hard that evening as we might not see each other ever again. I fully expected the President to announce that Russian missiles were on their way to New York City. I felt compelled to thank Ted for being, along with Robert Kennedy, among the few voices of caution that saved millions of lives. (Indeed, he dedicated his last book to his grandchildren "so they can know what Grandpa Ted tried to do for their world.")

He seemed genuinely moved, but also immediately pointed out a very different response to the events of October 1962 - a sharp increase in births nine months later. "Apparently, men a bit older than you back then saw the threat as an major opportunity," he noted with his characteristic rise of the eyebrows and sly grin.

One of my last communications with him involved an anecdote from JFK's inauguration that David Frost had attributed to Sorensen. Richard Nixon approached Ted after President Kennedy's address and commended him, remarking that he could see himself speaking one of the phrases that JFK had uttered. "You mean 'Ask not what your country can do for you?'", Ted replied. "No," Nixon responded. "I mean the part that went 'I, John F. Kennedy, do solemnly swear...'" Alas, Ted confessed that he was in fact the source of this story, but it had not in fact happened. "Nixon could never have been that witty," Ted admitted.

I have so many more fond memories of this brilliant man, which I look forward to sharing at another time. For now, I will treasure most his signing for me of a photograph of him and Robert Kennedy as they met with Lyndon Johnson during the turmoil of 1968, his letter of endorsement of my effort to become Comptroller General of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, and above all his friendship in what were to be the last years of his extraordinary life.