David Speedie Interviews Ted Sorensen

Nov 14, 2008

"A president who doesn't go to war may show more courage than one who does," said JFK. In a wide-ranging conversation, Sorensen discusses JFK, Cuba, and Vietnam; the 2008 Russia/Georgia conflict; McCain's idea of a League of Nations; and the promise of Obama.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Good morning. I'm David Speedie, Director of the program on U.S. Global Engagement here at the Carnegie Council.

I'm delighted to welcome as our guest today for our lecture series on the Global Engagement Program Mr. Ted Sorensen. Ted is the author of a wonderful recent book, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History. It goes into great and very moving detail on his relationship with President Kennedy and some other episodes in life thereafter.

Ted, welcome back to the Carnegie Council.

TED SORENSEN: I'm very glad to be here.

DAVID SPEEDIE: You're a welcome and frequent guest here.

On the book—let's just jump in—subtitle: A Life at the Edge of History. It seemed to me in reading it that that's—you might use this term—a Danish-Russian-Jewish-Unitarian-Nebraskan modesty at work. At the edge of history? I'd think you'd be a bit more involved than the edge.

TED SORENSEN: I've been very fortunate to have had an interesting life that has drawn me into a lot of fascinating and some rather historic activities. But I have tried to make clear that I had no power. I advised; I assisted.

The publishers wanted to call this subtitle A Life at the Edge of Power, and I said, "No, not power. History, yes, but not power." I did not make the decisions; I did not set the policies.

DAVID SPEEDIE: And yet, as I recall, you were essentially, at least in the beginning, a domestic policy adviser to President Kennedy.


DAVID SPEEDIE: Yet, barely two years into the presidency, you were thrust into this really pivotal role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, writing the memorandum to Khrushchev. So again, that wasn't a power position, but it certainly wasn't too far abstracted from it.

TED SORENSEN: No. That was clearly the most important message I ever wrote in my entire life, which is why I begin the book with that. People in publishing say to always begin a biography or an autobiography with the moment of highest pressure. That was certainly the moment of highest pressure. If I had messed up that assignment, you and I might not be here talking today.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Quite so, yes. You've described Cuba in the book as both JFK's greatest failure, in terms of the Bay of Pigs, and his greatest success, just 18 months later, with the handling of the Cuba Missile Crisis.

Is it true to say that the Bay of Pigs led to some quite extraordinary concentration by President Kennedy on the Cuban situation, in every sense? To use the term "learning experience" is hardly adequate. What do you see as some linear connection between the Bay of Pigs, the greatest failure, and then the greatest success 18 months later?

TED SORENSEN: Because John F. Kennedy, recognizing that it was his greatest failure, drew lessons from what went wrong, and they didn't go wrong again. It's not that he concentrated so much on Cuba. He regarded Cuba as an irritant, but not as a threat to U.S. security and survival. But when the authors of the Bay of Pigs urged him to get deeper into the hole by providing air cover and bombing or other air support for the Bay of Pigs invasion, he was smart enough to back away, realizing that he had been misled into that fiasco in the first place and he wasn't going to do any more and risk precipitating World War III.

By the time the Cuban Missile Crisis—which was not a Cuban initiative, but a Soviet initiative—came around a year and a half later, he had changed some of the personnel who had been responsible for the Bay of Pigs fiasco. He had changed the procedures by which he made decisions. He had changed the policies and realized that political problems did not lend themselves to military solutions. So in many ways—and I hate to call something as tragic as the Bay of Pigs a blessing, but in many ways it was a blessing with that particular president, because, unlike some others, he learned from his mistakes.

DAVID SPEEDIE: You pick up that also later. This really, in a sense, resonates in today's climate: "A president who refrains from going to war may be showing more courage than one who does go to war."

TED SORENSEN: Yes. In this country, which, whether it's because of the frontier cowboys or the early Minutemen, heroes are those who fight wars, not those who prevent them. A president who goes to war, as George W. Bush discovered, can, even for a wrongheaded, disastrous mistake, rally political support and win reelection.

So it takes courage to resist that temptation. When you have the mightiest military establishment in the history of the world, it's so easy to go to war against a weaker country, but Kennedy never did. Instead, he avoided war in Berlin, where they wanted him to go in and tear down the wall; in Congo, where the Soviet Union was trying to win an ally in the heart of Africa; in Cuba; in Laos. He never sent combat troops to Indochina, Vietnam, and, above all, when challenged by the Soviet Union, only 90 miles off our shore, he chose an option which put the ball in their court instead of launching a military attack. That took guts.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Absolutely. I want to ask you about Vietnam in just a moment. But you have foreseen a question I had. At another point in the book, you write, "Military leaders are more reluctant to go into combat to resolve international disputes."

Picking up on what you just said, how and when did the nonmilitary man hijack the policy debate here, with the swaggering, pseudo-toughness—and I'm thinking back to 2004 here, when a decorated war hero running for president was actually put on the defensive, John Kerry. When did all this happen? Reagan clearly was a bit of a John Wayne figure in some ways and has become a Republican icon.

TED SORENSEN: Yes, he was, based mostly on his memory of old movie roles rather than on his own combat experience.

John F. Kennedy had served in combat. He was a hero in the South Pacific in World War II and, as a result, had seen two of his best friends killed. His brother also died in World War II.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Right, Joseph Kennedy.

TED SORENSEN: He did not like war. He knew the brutal, tragic side of war. That's why he said, in what was actually his greatest speech, the American University commencement speech in June of 1963, "The world knows this country will never start a war." They don't know that today. But then he said, "This generation of Americans has seen enough of war." He was talking about himself.

But after that, because Lyndon Johnson, though Kennedy's chosen successor, was not an expert on international matters, did not like the military telling him that we were going to lose the war in Vietnam, vowed that he would never be the first president to lose a war—historians would argue about that—and therefore sent all these combat troop divisions into South Vietnam, which Kennedy had never sent, and started bombing North Vietnam, which Kennedy had never done. When, finally, the American people and the Democrats in Congress turned against the war, despite Richard Nixon perpetuating it year after year and widening it into Cambodia, the Republicans took up the idea that war was a desirable show of how tough an American president and party could be and thereafter derided the Democrats as "soft."

Nothing soft about John F. Kennedy. But they claimed that Democrats in Congress and Democratic presidential candidates were weak on security matters and made that their basic political theme. It has largely continued to this day, where John McCain has attacked his opponent, Barack Obama, because Obama is willing to talk with leaders who don't like us around the world. Of course he wants to talk with them. He should talk with them. It was Winston Churchill, who was no sissy, who said, "To jaw, jaw is better than to war, war."

DAVID SPEEDIE: Absolutely.

Perhaps the saddest part of that scenario you put out is that, essentially—and perhaps because they are painted into a corner—the Democrats have gone along with this. They have played defensive ball for the last decades, and now—you mentioned McCain-Obama—in the debates on foreign policy, I think, when Russia-Georgia came up—immediately after the Russia-Georgia war, Obama made some, I thought, very measured comments about, "Let's look at the historical perspective and how this unfolded—errors on both sides, Russian overreaction," and so on and so forth, and then was essentially forced to just go along with the "stand up to Russia," basically—I won't say a neo-Cold War posture—but the Democrats always seem to be on the defensive when it comes to foreign policy.

Are we breaking out of this, this time around, do you think?

TED SORENSEN: I think that Obama has been more internationalist and more willing to recognize diplomacy as the principal tool in our international/foreign policy toolbox, and not rely first on the military as a solution to the problems we face. But, as Franklin Roosevelt said, you have to get elected before you can do any of the good things you want to do. Obama is aware of the fact that there are large numbers of people in the country who want to be sure that our president is as tough and bellicose and mean as the rest of the world fears it might be. So he has used some language, to my regret. He was quoted in this morning's newspaper as saying that his administration would curb Russian aggression.

I haven't seen any Russian aggression in a very, very long time. I don't regard Russia's response to Georgia as aggression.

But curb? Yes. After all, aggression can be curbed by many ways, including sanctions, political isolation, United Nations pressure. So it does not necessarily mean that Obama is going to crank up the military and attack Russia.

He has been careful of his language. He has been careful throughout the campaign. He's a cool, prudent man, and I think that's the leadership he will present.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I want to ask you specifically a couple of things about the current situation in a moment. But if I may—sorry to go backward and forward a little bit here, but a couple of final things on Kennedy, one specifically on Vietnam.

At one point, you said, by contrast with Cuba, I suppose, he had "too many military advisers and too little attention in the first 18 months on Vietnam." But then you say, obviously—and you just mentioned this—that he would have looked for a negotiated way out, having seen the failure of military solutions in Southeast Asian political crises.

Clearly, you're in the camp that others have expressed, that things would have worked out differently in Vietnam had Kennedy lived.

TED SORENSEN: He never would have sent combat troop divisions. He heard that recommendation time and again, but he never did it. He never would have bombed North Vietnam. He received that recommendation time and again, but he never did.

You only quoted part of my sentence there, where I said that he recognized that political problems don't lend themselves to military solutions, not only in Southeast Asia, anywhere, even in Berlin, even the Congo. Those were essentially political problems, and he did not use U.S. military might to resolve them.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Finally, I've heard you say, when asked, "Do you ever tire of talking about JFK?" you reply, "Not as long as you do not tire of asking," which is a very elegant and moving way of putting it. It's obviously inadequate to say that you write very poignantly, with deep affection, and quite beautifully about President Kennedy, whom I think you see as both hyperinflated by "the Camelot myth, too heroic to be human," and yet "the revisionist detractors whose hindsight of his life and record have not lessened his hold on America's affectionate memory." Beautiful.

TED SORENSEN: Thank you. I think it's absolutely true, of course, that when anyone is built up in this country, there are those who must tear him down. That's an easy way to make a buck. But the people who remember Kennedy—of course, as time goes on, they are fewer and fewer—those who remember Kennedy know that he was a special person who brought about a special era in the lifetime and leadership of America, and the revisionists who say, "Oh, well, he built hopes up too high," or, "His personal life was not perfect," or otherwise haven't dented that basic well of affection and respect for John F. Kennedy.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Going back one further step, you had to interview him twice, as well as Senator Jackson, before you decided which one to work for. Is that right?

TED SORENSEN: That's true. I was new and young in Washington and hoping to get a job on Capitol Hill. I was interviewed by two new senators, John F. Kennedy and Henry "Scoop" Jackson. Both offered me jobs, largely because the wonderful senator from Illinois, Paul Douglas, had recommended me, based on his rather limited experience with me. I had a couple of mentors who knew the Washington scene, and both of them said, "Don't go with Kennedy. He's a young dilettante, playboy, too close to his conservative father. Go with Jackson. He had a great record in the House as a progressive, from the progressive Northwest."

But having liked Kennedy a little more in my brief interview with him, I decided I would resolve this dilemma by re-interviewing both of them and asking them what it was they wanted me to do. And that settled it.

DAVID SPEEDIE: A very reasonable question, and I think probably the better outcome, given the course of respective foreign policy positions of these two gentlemen.

Let me ask you a direct question about today. Clearly, you have expressed a favorable opinion of Senator Obama.

TED SORENSEN: From the start.

DAVID SPEEDIE: From the start, absolutely.

It's interesting. If I remember rightly, former President Truman said of JFK that he was not ready to be president.

TED SORENSEN: He was actually talking about Kennedy's religion. He wanted to add, "And the country's not ready for you." Truman, I'm told, not only objected to Kennedy's religion, but also to Kennedy's father.

But once Kennedy was nominated, Truman came fully on board. After Kennedy was inaugurated, he invited Truman for his first visit to the White House in eight years. Eisenhower, who succeeded Truman in the White House, had never once invited him back. Truman was very moved by Kennedy's generous invitation.

DAVID SPEEDIE: In contrast to that initial opinion of President Truman, Russell Baker, the political writer, in the current New York Review of Books, writes the following: "Obama seems to be very much like the Jack Kennedy who ran in 1960. Kennedy was a young candidate speaking for a younger generation, insisting it was their turn, pressing the old to get out of the way and let the Earth turn."

Of course, Baker, in talking about the comparison again, refers to Kennedy's "funny accent," his youth, his religion. He does bring in religion. He also mentions "elegant tailoring." I would think that after the Governor Palin episode of the multi-thousand-dollar wardrobe, that may have been somewhat mitigated in Obama's case, the elegant tailoring.

It's an obvious question. You see echoes of JFK in Obama, I would assume.

TED SORENSEN: First of all, I happen to be a great admirer of Russell Baker. He's one of the best journalists and humorists of my time in Washington. Frankly, I did not know he was still writing, and I'm delighted to hear that he is. I think what you just quoted sounds like the old Russell Baker at his best.

In any event, frankly, I am not going to make up my mind in this election on the basis of Mrs. Palin being given some fancy duds from expensive stores. Those are not what the campaign is about. The fact that Kennedy was well tailored or Obama is well tailored is irrelevant.

Obama looks presidential, there's no doubt about that, and he would if he were wearing overalls.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Of course, Baker brings these in as the extraneous elements that, unfortunately, sometimes are advanced as qualifiers or disqualifiers in a campaign. But, of course, you're absolutely right. They are the latter; they ought to be disqualified, so to speak.

We have this program at the Council called U.S. Global Engagement. It really picks up on one of the themes of the campaign, from the primaries on, where all candidates spoke of restoring America's moral leadership. A recent poll, I believe by Pew, indicated that 83 percent of the American public who were interviewed on foreign policy said that improving America's standing in the world was an absolute policy priority, given the past eight years.

Senator McCain has spoken of the—it's not a new idea—he has embraced the notion of a Concert of Democracies.

However one approaches this, clearly regaining some prestige in the world—multilateralism as opposed to unilateralism, cooperation and consultation as opposed to confrontation—is very much on the agenda. How do you see that being achieved?

TED SORENSEN: David, you have mixed two different subjects in there, and I don't think you realize it.

Yes, America's leadership in the world is way down. International polls have shown that we are no longer the most respected nation in the world. We are one of the most feared. We are one of the most resented. The rest of the world knows America for its military might. And there are those in Washington who think that's just wonderful; then they won't attack us. Well, how wrong they are. They are more likely to attack us if we are known simply for military might.

In Kennedy's day, the world not only admired and loved our president, but they respected our values. They listened when we sought to lead. We played an active role in the United Nations. Now we have gone through eight years of defying international law, ignoring international alliances and organizations, turning our back on the United Nations. That has sunk our standing in the world. A new president must address that question, for our own security. We are a safer nation when the rest of the world respects and admires us and our values.

But the second issue that you mixed into your question is this question about McCain's support for a League of Democracies. That is not a plus. That is trying to substitute a new organization of people we agree with for the United Nations—a right-wing idea that I first heard voiced by Pat Robertson when he was running for president, as he did, you may recall, back in 1988.

Of course the United Nations is an imperfect organization. It's an imperfect world. Of course it takes time for the United Nations to reach and implement decisions. It takes all of us time to reach and implement decisions in a situation as complex, as tangled and dangerous as the world is increasingly, almost every day.

But doing away with the United Nations, doing away with its principle of universality in which every nation, regardless of race and religion and ideology, is a part of that organization—that's why people listen to it. That's why it can play a role as a neutral mediator or intervene or whatever.

To substitute a so-called League of Democracies would start excluding people whom we don't like and excluding those whose system of government is not as perfect as ours—where a Florida recount can be stopped by a biased Supreme Court decision that puts in the White House a president who had actually been defeated in the popular vote.

Who would be in the League of Democracies? Would India be in? It's a great democracy. Would Brazil be in? It's a great democracy. Would Egypt? They have elections. And so on down through the list. It's a very, very tricky decision to start picking out who is going to be in the international organization and who is not. The best answer, for all its imperfections, for all these years, has been the United Nations.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Amen to all that. I completely agree. I brought in the League of Democracies idea, first of all, because it has been used as an example of engagement, not only by McCain, but by certain prominent scholars, who are not, I suppose, right-wing ideologues. But it is out there in the political discourse.

I completely agree, first of all, that the notion that all so-called democracies can come to some common understanding—Venezuela is a democracy—the notion that there is harmony among democracies is, of course, a flawed one, as you say.

TED SORENSEN: Both the Israelis and the Palestinians would claim they are democracies.

DAVID SPEEDIE: That's exactly right.

The second part is that there are some issues that—one would argue that one absolutely must have Russia, in terms of energy security and nuclear nonproliferation issues, and, of course, Russia would not appear, certainly, on Senator McCain's list or some of these other lists.

TED SORENSEN: What are the tests? Russians also have elections.

DAVID SPEEDIE: They have elections.

TED SORENSEN: They also have a parliament.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Yes. If I'm right, I think that the last Russian presidential election was a substantially lower plurality than that for President Saakashvili in Georgia, which was something like 95 percent. It seemed very Soviet to me, but there you go.

So you're right, it is a phony idea.

Let me ask, in closing, if I may, a couple of personal questions.

First of all, you ran for office yourself, of course, a 1970 Senate campaign.

TED SORENSEN: You had to bring that up.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Actually, it was one of the more—the whole book is wonderful—this was, I thought, a very engaging chapter. First of all, you quote your friend Senator Hollings, Fritz Hollings, of South Carolina, as recommending running hard, strong, and unopposed. You said, "Fine. That's great advice. But I'll run against three very strong opponents in the campaign."

Then I love the part—and I must confess, I would have been flummoxed—when you were asked the profound question by the lady, "Will you fix the nails in the boardwalk?"

TED SORENSEN: I remember that all too well.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Things that a senator must take care of immediately.

Back to this question of the edge of history, as opposed to power, do you regret the lack of personal elected office in your résumé at this point or is it something you have come to terms with?

TED SORENSEN: Of course I have come to terms with it. Once I discovered I was a failure at raising money—and to run in this state, you have to raise enormous sums of money—I knew that elective politics was unlikely to loom large in my future. So be it. I had a very interesting law practice, which brought me in contact with policy issues and government leaders all over the world. I also had a wonderful family to whom I could devote a lot more time than if I was going out every night to speak at political rubber-chicken dinners in order to beg for money.

I think I might have had some success in elective office, had the terms for reaching elective office been otherwise. But I can't complain. I've had a wonderful life.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Indeed you have.

You say at one point, "I came to politics as the arena in which both an ambitious young idealist could realize his highest ambitions and a greedy demagogue can exercise his worst traits." Does the more positive side of that ledger still apply, in your opinion, the young idealist coming in to elective office? Or is it really, with the money, the 24/7 media scrutiny—I've heard so many really good people say they would run for higher office but these two things particularly, the money and the constant round-the-clock—

TED SORENSEN: I don't want to denigrate those who do choose a political career. God bless them. They know what they're getting into. So do their families. If their hunger for applause and headlines compels them to put themselves through what a candidate must go through, and if they succeed and continue to do it year after year, they are playing very important roles in a democracy. I'm not going to denigrate them, or even politics, because that's what a democracy requires.

DAVID SPEEDIE: So good young people should look to public service?

TED SORENSEN: There are all kinds of public service. Political office is a form of public service.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Political office, I meant, yes.

TED SORENSEN: That is only one form. I've had an opportunity, not only in my 11 years in Washington, but in appointments to a number of commissions and boards, where I have been able to do some good. There are many ways of serving the public other than running for office.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Absolutely.

Finally—let's end at the beginning—you say you were fortunate for being born in Nebraska. We spoke a little bit before we started this interview about some other prominent Nebraskans—Doug Bereuter, the former congressman, of course. Senator Hagel is a fairly—

TED SORENSEN: So far you've only mentioned Republicans, but you've mentioned two good ones.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I thought we'd balance the ticket. And they are good. There are, I think, at this point, a few more Republicans than Democrats in Nebraska.

But regardless of this—coming from Scotland myself and being very conscious of roots and so on—tell me a little bit about your pride in being born in Nebraska, what it meant, what it continues to mean.

TED SORENSEN: First of all, Nebraska is a wholesome place to grow up. It is a home of independent thinking, progressives in the old days, but moderate and intelligent Republicans, such as Bereuter and Hagel, in more recent times, and a good many liberals over the years, in one form or another, going all the way back to William Jennings Bryan and George W. Norris.

But most importantly, I was very fortunate to choose two wonderful, brilliant parents who were both Nebraskans and both were proud to have been born and raised in Nebraska and gone to school there themselves.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Thank you, sir.

We've been talking with Ted Sorensen, the author of Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History.

It's always a pleasure to have you here, Mr. Sorensen.

TED SORENSEN: My pleasure.

DAVID SPEEDIE: We look forward to next time. Thank you.

TED SORENSEN: Thank you.

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