Years ago, my mother and father, brother and I spent our summer vacations at the Downingtown Motor Inn in Pennsylvania. To me it was Shangri-la; a place of enchantment and matrix to many happy memories.
One night, the hotel held a Jeopardy-type contest for kids that I wound up winning. From the several prizes available, I picked a record album—a collection of John F. Kennedy’s speeches.
His Inaugural became my favorite. No big surprise. After the Gettysburg Address, it’s probably the most quoted political speech in American history.
At one time I could recite the whole of it. A winning parlor trick for a kid who didn’t mind attention—so long as it wasn’t from the back of a nun’s hand.
The rhetoric of that speech served as wings to lift the young president’s native elegance to heights lofty and morally authoritative enough to stir the nation and world. It dazzled me.
In those days it never occurred to me that anyone but John F. Kennedy had composed it. Not until high school did I hear the name, Ted Sorensen. From there I began to learn of the role he played in the short-lived, much-romanticized Kennedy presidency. I was an instant fan.
In fall of 1999, my agent called to say I had an audition. A film called, “Thirteen Days.” I was aware of it—knew it was in pre-production—but I didn’t have high hopes of reading for it.
“What role am I going in for?” I asked. “Um . . . ” I could hear my agent flipping through her appointment sheets. “Um . . . the character of . . . Ted Sorensen.” I froze. This was a double-edged sword alright! On one side, tremendous excitement; on the other, lancing trepidation. What if I go in and blow it? Or, what if I they just don’t like me as much as someone else?
The next day I was in a room with director, Roger Donaldson, who kindly made the audition so much less than an ordeal—at one point even cajoling a producer to lend me the more Sorensen-esque pair of spectacles he had on.
It was one of those rare occasions when I heard back in the same week. A Friday, around dinnertime. I’d been hired to play Sorensen.
The first day of filming, I asked the bosses if I might be “introduced” to Mr. Sorensen. I was told, rather tersely, that this would not be possible. Not possible? How could that be?
A week or so later, one of the producers pulled me aside and, exhorting me to clandestine discretion, slipped Sorensen’s contact information into my palm.
That night I dialed New York City and got an answering machine. At the beep I stammered like Ralph Kramden and then hung up, certain I’d just wrecked my chance of ever speaking to the man. Next morning, his assistant called. I was given an appointment to lunch with him.
The first thing that impressed me was how youthful he looked. Lean, dapper, dagger-sharp, he appeared a quintessential gentleman of the old school. He’d been fighting a vicious cold he warned, but it didn’t stop him from leading our dash into the raw autumn afternoon with nothing over his suit jacket.
Once seated in his favorite lunchtime haunt, he began asking about the production. I discovered in short order that he was not pleased with the way things had gone; how he’d been kept away from the project, and why. For reasons not appropriate to dredge up here, it began to make sense.
Before the appetizers arrived, we’d moved beyond talk of the film. He now made himself available for interrogation and observation. As I drew a breath to pose my first question, he preempted with a raised finger followed by a singular non-negotiable.
“I will not talk about that day.”
His tone and gravity left no doubt that the day in question was, November 22, 1963.
I’ve run that through my mind many times since, groping for some definitive interpretation. Yet, I suspect my first hunch was right; despite all the years, it was simply too painful, Kennedy’s assassination too impossibly personal for him.
Chastened, I felt obliged to brief him on what seemed the pertinent basics of my own story. They included references to seminary training and, of course, those crowd-pleasing parlor performances for which he was in some measure responsible. In truth, I was trying to convey my admiration without coming across like Rupert Pupkin with a Kennedy obsession.
In turn, he spoke of how he came to be the “speechwriter”; how he’d ventured forth from the heartland to Washington, equipped with a Nebraska law degree, eventually landing a position on the staff of John Kennedy, then the junior senator from Massachusetts.
One particular spring, Kennedy had a commitment to speak in his home state before a Catholic audience on St. Paddy’s Day. According to Sorensen, the senator mentioned, rather casually, that he’d be needing a speech for the occasion. And, that he’d appreciate it if Sorensen would write it.
Across from me Mr. Sorensen took a sip of water. “I had no clue what to say to a Catholic crowd—in Boston—on St. Patrick’s Day no less. And I told him so.”
“What did he say?” I asked like a kid listening to the best bedtime story ever.
“He said, ‘Well . . . come up with something.’”
“And . . . ?” I asked, near tripping over myself.
After the briefest hesitation he said , “Well, I came up with something.”
Here he paused and smiled for the first time, adding, “Apparently it went over pretty well.”
So well it turns out, that immediately afterward, Kennedy informed him, “You write the speeches from now on.”
That was funny to me—and to him—up to a point. He followed quickly with the report of his protest that he was not a speechwriter.
Clearly, Sorensen didn’t view himself as such. Not first or foremost. I doubt President Kennedy did either. He was at the very heart of Kennedy’s counsel. He’d earned that remarkable degree of confidence. And it was this that seemed truly to matter to him.
In his last book, Counselor , he ruefully predicted that, upon his death, the headlines would likely misspell his name and misstate his role in history. Can’t say I blame him. Our national indifference to the past both shames and weakens us.
Sorensen’s days in Washington were dangerous ones. Keen sensitivity to the nuances of individual temperaments seems to have played a vital role in averting an unspeakable global horror. And I think it’s fair to wonder where things might have gone had Ted Sorensen not been in the Oval Office during the critical hours of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
At lunch he talked. I listened. And, of course, as an actor, I observed, humbled by the historic achievements of a man I was tasked somehow to approximate for moviegoers and a paycheck.
Mr. Sorensen spent two and a half hours with me that day. He had nothing to gain from it. On top of that, he really was sick with a cold.
One might be justified in opposing any number of his political convictions. So be it. I will, however, be ever grateful for our brief acquaintance and for those words I simply had to learn by heart all those years ago.
In Counselor , he poignantly acknowledged , “I became – with the exception of his (JFK’s) running mate, the vice president – virtually the first member of the Kennedy administration. Now I am almost the last.”
Theodore Sorensen died this week, on October 31, 2010, at the age of 82.
If indeed, “The torch has been passed,” I pray it is to those who will safeguard it with at least a modicum of his unyielding sense of honor.
May his memory be eternal.
This article first appeared in First Things Magazine