Does America have a minister mentor?

As far as I know, Nebraska-born Theodore “Ted” Sorensen, who died this weekend, at 82, disagreed with me only twice. He was right both times, of course.

By Tom Plate (Pacific PerspectIve)

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Published: Fri 12 Nov 2010, 9:58 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:28 AM

The disagreements were memorable, for in my mind they illuminated why the influence of John F. Kennedy’s legendary right-hand man will remain enormous for decades. And why - not to put too fine a point on it—I am no Ted Sorensen.

The first occasion came at Princeton University when the then-visiting professor tendered this humble student a measure of advice on the art of writing.

“You’re a good talker,” complained JFK’s honoured speechwriter about my term paper, noting my conversational contributions to his seminar on US foreign policy and presidential leadership. “But writing is not just speaking.” It requires, he explained patiently, precision, discipline and careful organisation. “You must take your writing more seriously,” he admonished.

His invaluable rebuke was memorable precisely because no one took more seriously the need for discipline in the written word than Ted. His legendary emergency missive to Nikita Khrushchev in 1962 might have been the key element in the peaceful resolution of the deeply frightening Cuban Missile Crisis. The careful composition of the famous American University Cold War speech elevated the Kennedy Presidency globally—and perhaps eternally. And, of course, while great speeches are almost never great line-by-line throughout, just one sonorous and transformational line (“Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country”) can resound in history forever.

Sorensen’s work for the Kennedy Legacy (the latter standing in reputation far higher than the actual accomplishments of its scant two-and-one-half years merit), deserves some kind of posthumous prize. For without his contributed words to JFK’s legacy—in his later books as well as in his White House speeches and memoranda of the early sixties—it is hard to imagine the Kennedy Presidency celebrated that much more than Carter’s. The mere fact of its mainly majestic ranking suggests to me the awesome power of language in the hands of a master craftsman dedicated to the best possible articulation of a President’s dreams and visions.

No American President since JFK has come close to the JFK rhetorical level. Reagan was a masterful speaker but the speeches themselves do not remotely equal the Kennedy body of work. The clever Clinton gave not memorable speeches but long ones. The otherwise eloquent Obama has yet to find his true voice and transmit a clear, inspiring vision, as this week’s mid-term election results partly suggest.

Sorensen’s enduring influence resides not only in his words, however, but also his deeds. His career certainly didn’t need the boast of that dreary long train ride from Manhattan every Wednesday to offer his coveted Princeton seminar; but my recollection is that he never missed a class. His decades of law practice at a famous Manhattan firm gave him all he could handle - but he was rarely at a loss of time to serve as the avid, sagacious mentor, whether for a troubled student, a worried head of state or a confused journalist.

Sorensen’s invaluable role as mentor mostly escaped this week’s many adulatory obituaries but this was at the core of his continued influence, even after the assassinations of John Kennedy and his brother Robert. What’s more, those of us who benefitted from his mentorship will make sure that his heritage is not quickly forgotten.

Mentoring is, in fact, one of the world’s most under-rated processes, as Ted gently reminded me at a Manhattan literary party this summer. Holding forth on my new book on Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore who now holds the odd-sounding Cabinet title of “Minister Mentor,” I ventured the off-hand remark that Minister Mentor seemed such a silly hat for this giant of Asia to wear.

He was right, of course. Ted himself might have loved to be Minister Mentor in the current American government. But, of course, no such creativity exists in Washington for this. And just as Singapore’s Lee has been a mentor to so many people over the decades in his post as one of the wise men of Asia, so, too, has Sorensen, here in America, never tiring in seeking to elevate the level of American political discourse.

Once he asked me, after noticing some slight improvements in my prose, years after Princeton, why I had never been engaged as a speechwriter. It was a job in politics he felt could not be overestimated for influence. I answered him quickly, honestly and perhaps a little bluntly: “Because, unlike you, I never fell in love.” At that he smiled, for, as he was the first to admit, he did love John Kennedy, of course. But I never found my own JFK. And, as far as I can tell, neither has America.

Prof Tom Plate is the author of “Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew”

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