As JFK's closest advisor for 11 years and then the first to prominently yoke Kennedy and Obama, Ted Sorensen's views are politically telling this month in our approach to Denver. But John Edwards' humiliating sex scandal is not for two reasons: it's a failing of person, not party, and John McCain did the same thing -- viz. have an affair while his wife was ailing.
This is not to say that the misconduct of both Johns should be disqualifying for president. If that were true -- and based on the best scholarship -- we wouldn't have had an FDR, IKE, JFK, LBJ or Clinton and we'd today be lionizing Nixon and W as top tier presidents. I recall once debating a religious conservative. Cal Thomas, on a talk show during the Clinton kerfuffle. "What could be worse than lying to your wife?", he said. "Nuclear war" was my reply. That is, looking back, who would we rather have had navigating the Cuban Missile Crisis when the world risked extinction -- a frisky Kennedy or a chaste Bush 43?
McCain has admitted to his misconduct. It hasn't come up in this contest and shouldn't. It should not be THE factor determining someone's vote but rather possibly a factor for those who choose to focus on bad behavior 30 years ago rather than his capacity to be president today.
Hear that, Republican mudslingers? Let us in this context urge rabid family-values Republicans and Atwater-Rove political operatives to stop their moralistic slandering when the shoe's on the other foot. Recall how most of those Hill Republicans hounding Bill Clinton over Monica Lewinsky in 1999-2000 had their own affairs -- Gingrich, Livingston, Hyde. Recall how so many anti-gay conservatives came out of closet later or were throw out.
I doubt that this high-minded plea will slow down the Morals Hypocrites. But as the McCain Team now travels the low road to distract voters away from issues and to alleged personal failings -- like Obama being too popular abroad and believing in personal energy conservation, heaven forbid -- here's one scandal they presumably will not exploit on the venerable principle that he who is without sin should cast the first stone.
AIR AMERICA'S INTERVIEW WITH TED SORENSEN, AUTHOR OF COUNSELOR: LIFE AT THE EDGE OF HISTORY, August 9, 2008
Green: As we enter the Denver-to-November final phase of the 2008 election, Air America thought it valuable to interview the author of a book about a relatively young, inexperienced, eloquent Democrat from the wrong side of the tracks - that is, Ted Sorensen on JFK. Ted, at your book party in Manhattan in May, which was also your 80th birthday, you said that some seven years ago you woke up seized with the passion to write this book. Why?
Sorensen: "Well, frankly, I had thought about it for years. I never had the time to do it because of an extraordinarily busy practice of law that took me all over the world. But after I had my stroke at age 73, I decided I wasn't going to be able to practice law any more because I couldn't read documents. Can't charge people for documents you can't read. And I thought, maybe now I will have time to write that book, if I could only read the files and documents that I want to discuss in the book. I was fortunate enough to encounter and retain a young Princeton senior who said he was willing to be my researcher and [colleague] for that project."
Green: That's interesting since you describe in Counselor how JFK spent months in the hospital early in his Senate career allowing him the time to research and write Profiles in Courage. But you begin your book with a narrative of Kennedy's decision-making during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when a wrong turn could have led not to the end of a campaign but of his country's existence.
Sorensen: "That is certainly true. The wrong decision then could have led to the destruction of the world. But the real John F. Kennedy behind doors was not that different from the John F. Kennedy people saw out in public. He was cool, he was calm, he had a sense of humor, he had a sense of purpose, he relied on his sense of history and he was a decision- maker with an analytical mind, unlike any other that I have ever encountered. At a later 'extraordinary reunion' of principals on both sides of that showdown, we found out that Soviet troops in Cuba, the number of which we knew, had also been equipped with tactical nuclear weapons -- most surprisingly, the authority to use those weapons on their own in the event of a US attack. So, had we attacked, they would have responded with nuclear weapons, to which we would have undoubtedly responded with nuclear weapons. An though they would have been tactical nuclear weapons at first, once you're on that ladder of escalation, you keep going up until both sides are exchanging untold numbers of strategic weapons, devastating the other side. Wind and water can spread radioactive fallout throughout the far reaches of the earth, until nothing's left of the earth but what they call 'nuclear desert.'"
Green: Kennedy has become mystical, mythical, mysterious to so many but you of course saw him intimately. What was he like as a boss to his staff?
Sorensen: "He was a wonderful boss. He was easy to talk to, full of compliments when I did something right but didn't get angry when I did something wrong. And we found that our ideas and our ideals meshed. He never asked me to write or do anything that was against my conscience."
Green: You write in Counselor that Kennedy didn't once rehearse before the now famous Nixon-Kennedy debates. So how did he prepare?
Sorensen: "I can still see it in my mind's eye. We sat on the roof of his Chicago hotel. I was accompanied by my deputy Mike Feldman. Mike had with him a file of little 2 by 4 index cards on which he had jotted down every possible issue that might come up, every question. He even had Kennedy's previous statements on them, what the Democratic platform said on it, what the Republican platform said on it, what Nixon had said on it."
Green: Did he predict a lot or most of the questions?
Sorensen: "Oh yes, they were included in that enormous batch. As we sat there on the roof, Kennedy was getting his usual sun tan - and, whether I wanted a sun tan or not, I was getting one too. [That's how] we would later do it in the White House -- prepare for a press conference. I would fire one question after another at him, and if he felt comfortable that he knew that, he would say 'fine, on to the next'.... He never rehearsed a speech, and he never rehearsed a debate."
Green: You were among the first to link Kennedy and Obama - before you endorsed Obama early in the contest. Your book says that JFK's Catholicism was his biggest hurdle in the 1960 contest, while your friend, the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr, concluded that his religion was a slight net benefit because it drew attention to him and gave him an electoral base of votes. Today, how do you think Obama's race will hurt or help him?
Sorensen: "With all due respect to my beloved friend Arthur Schlesinger -- whom I miss more all the time -- Kennedy's religion may have singled him out, yes, it certainly got a lot of attention. But since most of the attention was negative, in electoral terms it was not a net plus, it was clearly a net minus. He would've won by a much larger margin had he been a Protestant. Obama today has only a narrow lead over McCain, despite the fact that McCain is a member of the Republican Party that has seriously damaged our economy, our standing in the world, even the resilience of our military strength. Despite all that, Obama's lead, even after his triumphant international tour... is under 10 points. I can assure you that, if he were white, his lead would be would be 30 points."
Green: Is Obama responding the right way when McCain impugns his patriotism?
Sorensen: "First of all, I think Obama is counting on the American people to rise to that challenge because the American people are not going to fall for fake, phony negative attacks on Obama's patriotism. Look how he demonstrated what he is willing to do in the service of his country, when it would be a lot easier for him just to, you know, rest on his laurels as an A student at Harvard Law School, where he was head of the Law Review and then have a comfortable position as a partner at a big Chicago law firm. Yet he's out there breaking his back, risking his life, putting himself on the line, subjecting himself to the most scurrilous and nasty kinds of attacks from all the Republican right, from the swift-boaters, and even from McCain himself. I would call that true devotion to the country on Obama's part."
Green: You in effect sigh in your book over your prediction that your New York Times obituary will inevitably read "Ted Sorensen, John Kennedy's speechwriter." Ok, if you could write the headline, what would it say instead?
Sorensen: "When the Sunday New York Times Magazine, a few months ago in their famous Q&A column, asked me that very question, I immodestly replied, 'Ted Sorensen, age 103, servant of peace and justice.'"
Green: Counselor discusses the exciting Transition of 1960 after Kennedy won, and the sad Transition in 1963-64 to LBJ. When you have president-elect Barack Obama's ear, what advice would you give him then?
Sorensen: "The single most important decision he will make as president is the most difficult -- and that is picking a team. That team can make him or break him. The president can't know everything, he can't do everything. So during that Transition, he has to find and attract to public service despite the slings and arrows that are directed toward people in public service these days. It's not easy -- you try to judge men and women by their reputations, but some people are much better than their reputation, and some are not even half as good as their reputation."
PANEL DISCUSSION WITH ARIANNA HUFFINGTON, JOE CONASON & MARK GREEN
Green: Sorensen thought that Kennedy largely but not entirely defused the Catholic issue in 1960. Since a recent Pew poll had McCain ahead among white voters by only 47% to 40% -- which means that Obama is doing better with whites than either Gore or Kerry at this point in their presidential elections -- is Obama being vindicated in his original belief that race will not play a critical role in 2008?
Huffington: "I actually don't think race in itself is going to be a defining issue. But race becomes another element in the fear-mongering campaign that the McCain camp is running -- meaning, he's 'not like us'. He's not like us because he's lived in Hawaii, which is barely America, or he has a strange name, or he doesn't look like the guys on the dollar bill, as Obama himself said. So it's not so much race as such, but just the combination of somebody not your typical guy running for president. And they are now using that in subliminal ways, as well as directly, and I'm sure that's going to intensify as we get closer to the election."
Green: For all the talk last week about campaigns "playing the race card," no one did anything remotely like run a Willie Horton ad or link a White opponent to the Klan, as a Black Democrat did in a congressional primary this week in Tennessee.
Conason: "Well, even back in 1988, Mark, the first Bush campaign handed off the racial dirty work to other people and then denied that they had anything to do with it. So even 20 years ago, this was kind of a radioactive thing to do. Look, I think Obama is having a tremendously healthy effect...on race relations generally. The result in Tennessee is a good example. Steve Cohen didn't just win, he trounced Nicki Tinker after she did those ads [Cohen being the incumbent White liberal and Tinker his Black challenger in a majority Black district.] Obama came in and denounced her, and that was the end of that -- the Black community there rejected that and re-elected their White Congressman. And I think, and hope, that the reverse will be the same, and that White voters, and all voters, will look at these candidates for the content of their character, and the merit of their proposals."
Green: Has Obama's response to McCain's so-called "celebrity ad" been too soft, as The Washington Post implies, or should Obama let other people respond and, in a Reagan-esque way, stay above the fray?
Huffington: "If one of the candidates decides to bring us down to that pathetic, trivial level that the McCain campaign chose this week and last week, and the media follow, as we know inevitably they will, then that's where the campaign goes. That's really what happened in the last two weeks. In fact, when Paris Hilton responded, thanks to Adam McKay and his team that found her and taped this really funny ad, it really showed how dreadful it was that John McCain, of all people, turned the American presidential campaign into a kind of reality show. Now of course Paris Hilton -- and Britney Spears, if she wants to enter the fray -- has a legitimate reason to enter the fray. At this particular moment, honestly I really thought that because this is such a moment of crisis, both internationally and domestically, it would be much harder to trivialize this election. But I'm being proven completely wrong, it may be the opposite, that the more serious the problems, the more the media want to trivialize the election."
Conason: "[Staying above the fray] will work very well until the debates come, but at that point Barack Obama is going to have to wind up McCain as tight as he can and make him go off. And that may decide the election."
Green: In any other administration or year, author Ron Suskind's charge that this White House forced the CIA to illegally forge a document presumably linking Hussein and al Qaeda would be a bigger scandal than Watergate, which after all didn't start a war in the Middle East. But it appears that this may be a few day story because it's just more proof of their already well known illegal, lying behavior. Joe, what did you learn in your research for your Salon piece this week?
Conason: "Well, the interesting thing is that this forgery was in fact created by someone, because in December 2003 it was trumpeted on the front page of the conservative Daily Telegraph in London as a great discovery. This letter, supposedly from Saddam's intelligence chief to Saddam, claimed that Mohammed Atta [the lead hijacker on 9/11] was being trained in Iraq, and it was dated July 1, 2001. It also said that the Uranium yellowcake had arrived from Niger; it was sort of a shopping check list of things that would prove [a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda]. I mean, it's amazing that anybody believed that this thing was real."