BOSTON -- In honor of President's Day, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum gathered a panel of former presidential speechwriters to discuss what it's like to write for the chief executive. There was Nixon's Ray Price, Bush 41's Chriss Winston, and Clinton's Ted Widmer. But the big draw was undoubtedly Kennedy's own, Ted Sorensen.
Sorensen, as moderator Linda Wertheimer noted, is one of the most recognizable presidential speechwriters of all time. (Sorensen is quick to point out he ranks far behind one Abraham Lincoln.) During Kennedy's stint in the White House, Sorensen was widely regarded as the President's alter ego. They worked closely on speeches, and their collaborations were epic. In fact, when panelist Widmer put together two volumes of America's greatest speeches, he included five Kennedy/Sorensen compositions.Each panelist was asked to share an interesting piece of oration to discuss, and Sorensen chose Kennedy's famous Commencement Address at American University. Specifically the section where the President implores the nation to reexamine its foreign policy.
To Sorensen, this selection is not just an interesting discussion piece -- it is Kennedy's "most important speech," largely for the barriers it broke.
I have, therefore, chosen this time and this place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth is too rarely perceived -- yet it is the most important topic on earth: world peace.
What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children -- not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women -- not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.
Some say that it is useless to speak of world peace or world law or world disarmament -- and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it. But I also believe that we must reexamine our own attitude -- as individuals and as a Nation--for our attitude is as essential as theirs. And every graduate of this school, every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward -- by examining his own attitude toward the possibilities of peace, toward the Soviet Union, toward the course of the cold war and toward freedom and peace here at home.
A President had never called for a reexamination of American involvement in the Cold War. A President had never implored his fellow citizens to rethink America's relationship with the USSR. And no American President had ever asked the nation to redefine its understanding of peace itself. For all these reasons, it was Kennedy's "most important speech," and his "best speech."
Most remarkably, Sorensen told the audience that he hadn't seen the speech since he sat behind the President on the platform during its original delivery. He finds the President's plea for peace and reexamination to be even more salient now, as it is "the opposite of what our policy has been since 2001."
Sorensen cares passionately about the meaning of these words, just as he cared for Kennedy. He said he was often approached to write for others, but replied how the feeling would not be the same. Their relationship of president and speechwriter was of another era. There was no staff of writers and researchers -- just the two of them. He was Kennedy's constant companion. When Kennedy ate, he ate. When Kennedy traveled, he traveled. When Kennedy slept, he ... had to work. (That's one of the perks of being the President, he'll jokingly point out.)
A few years ago, I saw up close how deep their connection was. It was right after Sorensen spoke at a conference in Washington D.C. The crowd of foreign policy professionals filed out of the room, the noise died down, and a group of students ushering the event remained behind. I stood back as they greeted him and shook his hand. One talked about their shared Nebraskan heritage, and Sorensen's face lit up. Finally, I approached him for a handshake of my own. I was grinning ear-to-ear and offered, "I just wanted to shake your hand, sir."
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Jack. It's Jack."
He nodded and his smile turned to something else -- reflection, I now think. There were a few moments of silence, and I didn't understand why he looked at me the way he did. It struck me minutes later, and though I am not named for his friend, he might have guessed as much.
I'm sure it's a feeling he gets often. There he stood among young eager hearts touched by words written and spoken long ago. Generations on, Kennedy's torch -- their torch -- still burns bright.