Tavis: Finally tonight, during this week with so much attention focused on American politics, we say goodbye to one of the most influential political voices of the 1960’s, Ted Sorensen. As an adviser and speechwriter for John Kennedy and later Robert Kennedy, Ted Sorensen helped craft some of the most indelible rhetoric of his generation, including President Kennedy’s iconic inaugural address in 1961.
In 2008, Sorensen published his memoir, Counselor, and joined us for an extensive conversation about his time with the Kennedys. I began our conversation by asking him to recall a speech given by Robert Kennedy on the night of Dr. King’s assassination.
Ted Sorensen: I didn’t really write speeches for Bobby except on rare occasions. The most dramatic was the night of Dr. King’s death. Bobby called me from his plane and said he would call me back in an hour. Would I please have something ready? He had a great team of speechwriters, but in an hour, I wrote out something.
I was very emotional because both Bobby and I reacted to Dr. King’s death with the thought of Jack Kennedy’s death in our minds. I wrote a piece about the stupidity and folly of violence in America and, interestingly enough, the movie last year about Bobby or RFK – I forget the title of the movie now – it closes with the voiceover of Bobby giving that speech about violence.
Bobby Kennedy: “Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.”
Tavis: Since you mentioned that speech and Bobby being torn apart, of course, by the assassination of Dr. King, it is fair to say you were there, so you know this, that Bobby Kennedy had to work his way toward being regarded in the civil rights community.
For all that we do to remember Bobby as this great hero, and he was in so many ways, if we’re honest about this, he had a journey to take to become the kind of compassionate person he was around those issues and Black people in America, yes?
Sorensen: That’s very true. All three Kennedy brothers grew in office and Bobby grew, as Jack did, in their recognition of the way Black citizens had been treated unfairly for so long. And as he became more and more involved in the civil rights movement and a defiance by George C. Wallace and certain other southern governors, Bobby felt more strongly about it each year.
Tavis: Beyond the fact that he was more exposed to it and that helped him understand it and appreciate it and embrace it better, beyond just being exposed to it, was there something else particularly about Bobby that helped him to get that than just being exposed? Because you can be exposed to it and never get it. I mean, love isn’t necessarily contagious.
Sorensen: Very well said. You ought to be a speechwriter.
Tavis: No, no, no. I can’t do that as well as you can.
Sorensen: I had a background in the civil rights movement myself and I had some influence on Jack. Jack, of course, had a lot of influence on Bobby.
Tavis: How much influence did Jack have on Bobby?
Sorensen: Bobby would have done anything for his brother. They loved each other. They worked closely together and there’s no doubt in my mind that the day – I write about it in the book. The day after Jack’s assassination, Bobby came into my White House office. He just stood there for a moment. He was wearing dark glasses to cover up his puffy, red-filled eyes and we just looked at each other knowing that we had both taken a terrible blow.
Tavis: How much closer and why, in fact, did they become closer, Bobby and Teddy, in the aftermath of Jack’s death?
Sorensen: Now you’re asking a tough question on family psychology. Teddy was almost a different generation. He was enough younger that, although his two older brothers were very proud of him filling Jack’s Senate seat from Massachusetts, and the fact is Teddy has been a better member of the U.S. Senate than either Jack or Bobby was. But, of course, Jack’s death increased the unity of the family and Teddy was involved with Bobby’s campaign in 1968 along with Steve Smith, their brother-in-law, and with me.
Tavis: Has Teddy been a better Senator, to your earlier point, merely because he’s had more time or am I not drilling down deep enough on this?
Sorensen: More time has a lot to do with it, but the fact is that he has proven to be a good legislator. He’s proven to be very good about reaching across the aisle and working with the Republicans to get more done.
Tavis: This book is a dense book. It’s a wonderful read. But I’m glad I have you in person tonight to ask you on a personal level how it is that you navigate personally these kinds of anniversaries like the 40th anniversary of Bobby’s assassination.
Sorensen: It gets easier as the decades go by, but I’ll never forget those two terrible days, November 22,1963, June 5 and 6, 1968, when I couldn’t believe that it was happening all over again. I just couldn’t believe it.
Tavis: And in the middle of those two, as we referenced earlier, of course, April 4, the assassination of Dr. King. Having seen all of that and been as close to all of that as you were, how have you navigated a life where you’ve remained hopeful about America and about the body politic, quite frankly?
Sorensen: Number one, my parents raised me to care about this country and to try to make it a better country and a better world. And I learned from Jack Kennedy that almost anything is possible if good people will get behind it. I just made up my mind after Jack’s death that I wasn’t going to permit some lunatic who was a lucky sharpshooter to deter me from my life’s goals and the implementation of Jack Kennedy’s goals.
Tavis: And those life goals for you have meant what? Because it’s obviously more than just writing speeches, which is not unimportant when you’re doing it for a president. But what have those life goals been for you?
Sorensen: The New York Times a few weeks back asked me if Kennedy’s speechwriter doesn’t sum up my life as a headline for my obituary when that time comes. What would I like in its place? I thought for a moment and I said, “Servant of peace and justice would be okay.”
Tavis: As Ted Sorensen told me, even late in his life, he remained hopeful about the state of American politics, words we could all heed during one of the most contentious election cycles of the modern era. Sorensen passed away on Sunday at the age of 82, one of the last living links to the Kennedy era known as Camelot.
We’ll leave you tonight with part of what will likely be Ted Sorensen’s lasting legacy, John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address of 1961. Good night from Los Angeles and, as always, keep the faith.
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