Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Life at the Edge of History

The Wall Street Journal reviews “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History”, the long-awaited memoir from Kennedy speechwriter and confidant, Ted Sorensen.

In "Counselor," Mr. Sorensen describes his childhood in Nebraska (his father was a protégé of Sen. George Norris, a Republican Progressive) and his early commitment to liberal ideals, including civil rights. When he arrived in Washington in 1951, at the age of 23, Mr. Sorensen notes: "I had never drunk a cup of coffee, set foot in a bar, written a check, or owned a car." Fewer than 10 years later, he was the third most powerful man in the American government.

Though Mr. Sorensen, in "Counselor," is often trying to set the record straight about his own role in historical events, the book's overall tone is more candid than prideful. He is unsparing on the subject of his mother's mental illness (painfully evident when he was young), his brief and unhappy second marriage in the mid-1960s (he remarried again a few years later), his difficult early relationship with Robert Kennedy (they were rivals for JFK's attention, particularly during 1960 and 1961), and his own "arrogant abruptness" as a 32-year-old White House assistant. He had dramatic ups and downs with Jackie Kennedy, who lavished private praise on him but, both privately and publicly, also belittled and attacked him. Mr. Sorensen spares his readers none of the private hell he endured when Kennedy was murdered or the near-despair he felt when he suffered a stroke in 2001 and lost most of his eyesight.

The heroic effort it required to complete this volume in the wake of his stroke, and to do so in a style that remains masterly, is itself an inspiration. Even when he is describing 40 years of post-White House law practice, there is hardly a page that does not confirm our sense of Mr. Sorensen as a writer of the first rank. If his active service to Kennedy is now concluded, we are still left with the inescapable sense that the words that the two men crafted together -- however one divides the credit -- will live on.

1 comment:

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