Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History

Jun 12, 2008

In this 2008 talk, Special Counsel and Advisor to John F. Kennedy Ted Sorensen recalls his life and times with JFK, including the dramas of desegregation and the Cuban Missile Crisis.


JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon. For those of you who don't know me, I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to thank you all for joining us as we honor Ted Sorenson on the publication of his book, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History.

Before I begin, I just want to thank Enzo Viscusi, who was very instrumental in arranging this lunch today.

Finding the right words to introduce Ted Sorenson, a man whose name is not only synonymous with eloquence but invokes within each of us memories of a more optimistic era, is not an easy task. As a legacy to a more idyllic moment in our nation's history, when politics championed ideas, there is something old-fashioned about Mr. Sorenson, in the very best sense of the word.

Ted Sorenson's career has been a testimony, not only to his character and intelligence, but to a time that was emblematic of ideas and ideals, which he brought with him to Washington from his earlier beginnings from his home in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Although the world that brought us Mr. Sorenson and JFK no longer exists, Mr. Sorenson's haunting words and poetic turns of phrase were instrumental in changing the climate of the time. As adviser and alter ego to one of the most memorable presidents in our nation's history, his views of the world came to be emblazoned on our collective consciousness. His thoughts stirred a nation and gave birth to those few brief shining moments that were known as Camelot. Today it is to this time and place that we wistfully return.

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to the man who was at the very center of so much that was important in American history and politics in the second half of the 20th century, our guest today, Ted Sorenson. Thank you.


TED SORENSON: Thank you, Joanne. That's very nice.

I remember the day that JFK and I were out on the road, somewhere in the west, and the microphone failed. He said to the audience, substantially larger than this, that Daniel Webster, one of his predecessors as senator from Massachusetts, used to speak to crowds of 15,000 from a hillside. Said JFK, "So I think you'll be able to hear me all right if I speak without a microphone." I hope all of you will be able to hear me all right if I remain seated, because the entire audience is also seated around this table.

I want to talk about the theme of my life, my book, John F. Kennedy's career, the Kennedy family's career, which is very much on our minds these days, and that's the subject of idealism.

I received a letter just a few days ago, which I will quote from. It is a thank-you letter for an inscribed book that I had delivered to him. In addition to the thanks and a couple of nice little remarks, he concludes: "Hopefully—and I underline that word 'hopefully'—hopefully, November will bring us the majority and mandate we need to start living up to your ideals again. Best as ever, Ted Kennedy."

"Your ideals." I am touched by his letter for many reasons. Of course, at the time he wrote that I did not know anything about his current illness. But yes, ideals do constitute what my life has been about and what my book is about in many ways.

It begins with my life in Nebraska, my two wonderful parents, who were idealists and who produced a family of idealists. I went to Washington and had the great fortune to meet and, strangely, be hired by a brand-new United States senator who had very little in common with me. We were from totally different kinds of families, religions, educational backgrounds, economic backgrounds, all the rest, but we had something in common, which we both discovered very soon: we were both idealists. That made working for John F. Kennedy and writing for John F. Kennedy very easy.

As I describe in the book, I wasn't originally hired to be a speechwriter. I never had any special training. I never took a course in classical rhetoric. But I had been a debater in high school and in college, as were my siblings. My mother had been an editor. My father was a politician, who had also been an editor of the law review, long years before I was, as well as a politician. And idealism was what life in that slightly overcrowded household was all about.

I soon found that John F. Kennedy was an idealist. It was during my first year working for him that he showed me a passage in a wonderful book by Herbert Agar, called The Price of Union, in which Agar described an act of courage by John Quincy Adams when he was a senator from Massachusetts. He broke with his party and all the business interests in his state to support his family enemy, Jefferson, in his embargo against Great Britain, which looked as though it might crush the seaports of New England, but he thought it was in the best interest of the country.

Senator JFK said to me after he showed me that passage, "Sometime I'd like to write an article, for maybe Harper's or The Atlantic or something, about senatorial courage, those who stand up against powerful interests, against what's popular, against political pressures, for the national interest. Keep your eyes and ears open. See if you can find some more examples."

Over the next year I did. Ultimately, we collected enough to draft first an article and later a book, called Profiles in Courage, which itself is an example of idealism at its best.

The big economic issue—and economic development for Kennedy was the big issue on which he ran for Senate and why he hired me to work—the big economic threat to New England they thought was the St. Lawrence Seaway. But the gentleman who came in to talk to me about the St. Lawrence Seaway made what I thought was a compelling case as to why it was in the national interest, why it would help develop the Midwest region by in effect giving it a seaport, access to the Atlantic trade routes.

Ultimately, I persuaded the young senator that this was in the national interest. He finally decided that he would not only vote for it but stand up and make a speech in favor of it. He told me he didn't sleep the night before he made that speech. He thought it was going to be the end of his career.

He received a phone call from a leading politician in South Boston, who said that if he dared to say anything favorable about the Seaway, when he marched in the St. Patrick's Day Parade that year through South Boston the longshoremen, the dockworkers, everybody else, were going to boo and jeer.

But he went ahead and he made the speech. It attracted enormous interest from his fellow senators. He was the first member of either the House or the Senate to support the Seaway, which had been a big issue. It had been around for 20 or more years at that time.

He did it, and the Seaway passed. Of course, it was built long ago. It has indeed revolutionized the interior of this country, and a good thing that the interior pays more attention to the rest of the world now. If only we could get more people in Washington to pay more attention. So that was another example of Kennedy's idealism.

I go into great detail in the book, which I will not repeat now, about how after he became an overnight sensation at the 1956 national convention—by then I had been with him only three and a half years. The invitations to speak came pouring in from all over the country. When he returned after a post-convention vacation to his home, I went over and spread out on his dining room table all these invitations, and we began to work out a rough sort of schedule, depending upon geography, calendar, priorities. Many were from local Democratic parties, many were from universities, many were from civic organizations.

After we had finished, he looked at me and said seven fateful words: "You might as well come with me." The next three or four years we traveled all 50 states together, just the two of us, no big entourage, until of course the very end, and not much in the way of press or other staff.

My job included everything from arranging commercial flights, until halfway through those four years—it's nice to have a rich father—his father gave him an airplane.

And also arranging for hotels, always telling them that the senator has a bad back and wants a bed board under the mattress. If they didn't have a bed board, sometimes he and I would move his mattress onto the floor.

Believe me, in that kind of travel you get to know someone very well. He got to know me very well. I got to know him very well. We found that we had a great deal in common, and idealism was an important part of that.

His interest in history far exceeded my knowledge of history, but it was one of his great attributes. We both had a sense of humor and enjoyed exchanging stories. We both disliked being bored, much less boring others, and I have to say that since the day in January 1953 that I went to work for him, I don't think I've had a boring day in my life. I can assure you of that this week and month, with my book coming out, and my eightieth birthday, and coming to nice little places like this, which is a famous institution in its own right, with a lot of people around this table whom I have met before in many aspects of my life.

Recently, when I am asked about Democratic politics—everyone knows that I am supporting Obama, and I take pride in the fact that I was one of his earliest supporters and compare him to JFK, with good reason.

I now throw it open to questions from the audience. Thank you very much.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: I want to ask you a question about around 1962-1963, when the Kennedy Administration I think really stepped up to the plate when there were real problems at universities in Alabama and Mississippi. People in this room may remember that. I ask it as a Southerner who grew up in those two states, and just share with you a perspective. That is, that without the firm, deft, and sometimes I know very difficult circumstances of the national government or the federal government at that time, I'm not sure we would have gotten through that locally.

Thanks. That's a very important question and an important chapter in the Kennedy Administration in which I was involved. I remember it very, very well.

It began in, I would say, roughly September of 1962, when James Meredith, an African-American, qualified, eligible citizen of Mississippi, who was an applicant, at first denied by the university, ultimately received a federal court order that the university must admit him. The attorney general of the United States, Robert Kennedy, believed that that court order should be enforced. And, under the Constitution, one of the jobs that the president of the United States needs to do is implement the laws, and that includes the judicial rulings of the nation. The two Kennedy brothers were determined that Meredith be admitted.

The governor of Mississippi, an old, very conservative scoundrel named Ross Barnett, was determined that he not be admitted.

The students, I'm sorry to say, at the University of Mississippi joined with the townspeople and others to try to prevent his being admitted. There was a mob. There was a riot. There was violence.

I had been in the hospital with ulcers and following this through the newspapers. Ultimately, I prepared a memorandum of my thoughts to the president regretting that I could not be on the scene.

On, I believe, the day before I was to be discharged, which was I think a Sunday, JFK called and said I should come down to the White House. I didn't actually check out of the hospital, but I never went back. I was getting good care at Bethesda Naval Hospital.

My first night out of the hospital turned out to be all night at the White House. I had had a few all-nighters in the first weeks of the administration drafting messages to go to Congress, but I'm not sure I had spent very many all-nighters there by September of 1962. The president and Burke Marshall, the wonderful assistant attorney general, and I were there. We were monitoring the situation.

Ultimately, the president went on the air with a short speech that has received comparatively little attention when people look over the speeches of John F. Kennedy. It was a speech about the rule of law. Not only has it not received much attention from historians, but it received no attention from those rioting on the university campus, because the riots did not stop in response to the speech.

Ultimately, the president sent troops, nationalized the Mississippi National Guard and sent troops as well, and ultimately order was—when I say "ultimately," by morning order was restored.

I thought of this a few years ago when on the Gulf Coast another kind of lawless disorder was taking place following Hurricane Katrina and there was a request for federal intervention and none came.

But in that instance help did come. I would immodestly commend to you, since so few people have read it, but you can look it up, you can find it—you can find anything these days on the Internet—the speech he made on the rule of law and the fact that citizens of the United States were free to disagree with the law but not to disobey it.

Meredith entered the university. Other universities began gradually to accept the fact. I think some in the Carolinas were the first to do it peacefully. But George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, had campaigned on the plank that he could, as they said in those days, "out-seg" any other Southern candidate. "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," was his battle cry, and he had vowed that he would stand in the doorway of any schoolhouse in Alabama that was in danger of admitting black students.

Two very fine black students' applications were directed by the court, and Wallace threatened to have a repeat, but this time we were better prepared. This time [June, 1963] an arrangement was made in advance. It was almost choreographed. It wasn't fake, I can assure you, but it was planned in advance.

Wallace would get his 15 minutes on television, standing in the doorway. Deputy Attorney General Nick Katzenbach—he's still around these days, a grand old man—would step up and inform the governor that he was in violation of a court order and that his own National Guard had been nationalized and were occupying the campus and would remove him unless he stepped aside. Wallace stepped aside and the two students behind Nick Katzenbach entered the university.

JFK and I were watching all this on television in his office. At that point, he turned around and said to me, "I think we better make that speech tonight."

I said, "What speech?" We had talked about a speech on civil rights for a long time because we had been preparing comprehensive civil rights legislation for a long time, but there was no speech.

Bobby Kennedy said, "Don't worry. We've got a lot of stuff at the Department of Justice," which didn't turn out to be that good, frankly.

Then the president called Pierre Salinger, the press secretary, and said, "Find out from the networks what time is the best time tonight."

He came back and said 7 o'clock. By then it was about 5 o'clock.

I went down to my office. Fortunately, I had, as the book will tell you, some background on civil rights myself. I had cared a lot and thought a lot about the issue.

One of the famous stories in Washington is McGeorge Bundy, the national security advisor, going to dinner at Joe Alsop's, a columnist for the Washington Post. When people said, "Let's tune in and hear the president," Bundy said, "Don't bother. There isn't going to be a speech. When I left the White House, Sorenson didn't have anything."

The president came in. It was probably the only time in my years in the White House that he actually came to my office. My office was very near to his, but he usually summoned me to his office. But this time he came into my office and said, "How is it coming?"

I said, "The third draft is just about to come out of the typewriter." You remember typewriters? That's what we used in those days.

He breathed a sigh of relief. He said, "I thought I was going to have to go on nationwide television off-the-cuff." He had actually jotted down on the back of a piece of paper some ideas that he was going to use.

The speech turned out to be historic and not too bad, if I say so myself. If you read it with care, you will notice that there comes about three-quarters of the way through a string of paragraphs that have a slightly different beat, and even repeat some of the things that he didn't know were already in the speech. Those are the results of what he had jotted down on the back of that paper.

In any event, what's more important than the speech was the leadership that he demonstrated.

Starting about—well, first of all, I'd say in a week, ten days, maybe two weeks, he sent the comprehensive legislation to the Congress, the most comprehensive civil rights legislation since Abraham Lincoln in Reconstruction days.

Of course there was resistance, and JFK and LBJ agreed that this was probably the death knell for the Democratic Party, which for generations had depended upon a solid Democratic south, even though it meant a certain amount of winking and compromise, a blind eye, on the part of the northern Democratic Party to what was going on with respect to the treatment of blacks in the south. And they were right.

Since Kennedy, we've had three Democratic presidents and they all came from the south: LBJ, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. The south, and even border states, have generally voted against the Democratic candidates since then.

Nevertheless, after the legislation had been sent up, Kennedy started calling almost every evening a special meeting. Frankly, I'm not sure whether they were held in the Oval Office or across the hall in what we call the Fish Room, because they were big meetings. They were meetings of the country's leaders. One evening it would be business leaders. The next evening it would be labor leaders. The next evening it would be education leaders. The next evening it might be religious leaders. And so on.

He asked each one of those meetings for help. "I can't do it alone," he said. "Congress is going to drag its feet. I need your help in changing not only the laws of this country but the attitudes of this country."

That was presidential leadership at its best. That was what Teddy Roosevelt called using the White House as a bully pulpit. I've seen no other comparable examples of presidential leadership.

Sorry for the long answer, but I hope that answers your question.

QUESTION: Maybe you could shift and talk for a moment about one of the many other dramatic chapters in your book. In this case it's actually the introduction. It's relating to the Cuban missile crisis and the issue of presidential leadership. I think in your book you reveal what I won't reveal—I'll leave it to you to reveal—some things for the first time about the way in which President Kennedy communicated with Chairman Khrushchev in that exchange of letters. It's just an extraordinary story. I'm just teeing it up for you. Thank you.

I warn you this is going to be another long answer.

QUESTIONER: Well worth it.

I remember it quite well. It's funny I remember the dates, even the days of the week. Tuesday, October 16th, the President called me in in the morning and told me that U2 planes, a relatively new development, masterminded by the CIA, which gets blamed for a lot of bad things in our history—but the very official at the CIA who masterminded Kennedy's fiasco at the Bay of Pigs was also the mastermind of that plane which could take pictures from 50,000 feet up. The photo interpreters, geniuses at the CIA, had interpreted the photos that came from the previous couple-days-earlier flight over Cuba as the beginnings of—just scratches in the ground as far as I as an amateur could tell—the beginnings of Soviet nuclear missile sites.

And, said the president, that couldn't simply be accepted, so he was calling a meeting. Not a meeting of the National Security Council, which had—everybody wants to be at an NSC meeting. It's a matter of status in Washington, and to prove their status they have to bring an assistant or a deputy. It was way too big a meeting for Kennedy to make the kind of crisp, clean decision he knew was needed and liked to make, and way too big to keep a secret. He wanted to keep it secret because he thought, as long as the Soviets don't know we know, we can have some time to formulate a response without their taking some preemptive act.

He asked me to attend the meeting. At that first meeting, he wanted to know every option possible. So different from the invasion of Iraq, which was decided without examining any other options. Kennedy wanted to know what were the options—military options, diplomatic options, combined military/diplomatic options, and what were the pros and cons of each one of them.

I won't repeat everything that's in the book. There have been lots of books about the Cuban missile crisis. Some of them have even been fairly accurate.

We haggled around that table almost day and night until finally on Saturday we called the president back from a political trip. Why was he on a political trip? Because he insisted that all of us keep to our schedules, keep to our commitments. Don't suddenly have a lot of cancellations and don't have a lot of limousines piled up in the driveways around the White House. "I don't want the press or anyone else to know there is a crisis meeting going on."

He came back. We had a very dramatic meeting. He had a draft speech from me, which ultimately was revised 11 or 12 times, more than any other speech I worked on with him, for him.

On the night of October 22nd—this started on the 16th—he went on nationwide television and announced to the country and the world that we had discovered these Soviet nuclear missiles and what our response would be.

An hour before he went on the air, a copy of that speech was handed by Secretary of State Rusk to Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin. That was our way of notifying the Soviets what we were doing.

It was also sent to every U.S. ambassador everywhere in the world. I don't know if he'll tell, but one of our most distinguished assistant secretaries may have had something—he would know more than I about the transmission. Every U.S. ambassador was instructed to deliver a copy of that speech to the head of state or head of government to whom he was accredited.

The day after—and this, by the way, was after Kennedy had resisted attempts by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to forget the idea of a blockade, or quarantine as we called it, and instead engage in a bombing of the missile sites followed up by an invasion, and when the congressional leaders were gathered, some flown in from other parts of the country for that meeting—they also thought that something tougher, something harsher, something more aggressive, something more belligerent, had to be undertaken to show the Soviets.

No doubt that would have been more popular. Americans sometimes at the very beginning like to go to war. They don't like it much after. But, no doubt, that kind of bombing would have rallied everybody behind the president. There was concern around our table that a quarantine or blockade would be so slow in having any results that it would turn the election against us, it would turn the country against us, it would help the hawks, as we called them, seize control of the government and they would start a war anyway; why didn't Kennedy just go ahead and bomb? No. He resisted.

At first, we thought that we were getting support from around the world, because Kennedy believed in the importance and power of world opinion, unlike some of his successors.

And he also believed in the UN. Our ambassador to the United Nations, known to many of you here, Adlai Stevenson, did a superb job of presenting our case to the Security Council. And U Thant, who was at that time the Secretary-General, tried to act as a mediator, contacting both sides, asking them to stand still and do nothing.

Then, finally, we get to Saturday, October 27th, the most dramatic day of the crisis, the day on which in a sense my book begins. The evening before the 26th we had gotten a long, somewhat meandering letter from Khrushchev. It was full of threats and denials. He kept saying that he had put long-range weapons of mass destruction into Cuba for defensive purposes; therefore, they were defensive weapons, even though they were clearly capable of offensive use.

If they were purely for defensive purposes, why had he rushed them in totally under cover of deception and secrecy? We had to assume the worst. We had to assume they were there to be used, used either to wipe out large sections of the United States or used as a form of nuclear blackmail to get the United States and the West to turn over West Berlin, a little island of freedom in the middle of Eastern Europe, to the East Germans and the Russians. So we had to assume the worst.

But he was saying in this long, meandering letter: "No. I put them there for defensive purposes." And he accused the United States—he called the blockade "high seas piracy," and he threatened that any shots fired by the United States would be more than redoubled by Soviet forces and we would suffer.

But hidden, mixed, buried with that long letter were at least a few hints of a possible peaceful solution and of a desire on his part for a peaceful solution.

And while we sat around the table—we called it the XCOM, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council; there was officially no such body, but we had to have some name, so that's what it was called—we sat around the table the next day discussing how to answer to that.

We had one draft that Stevenson's people at the UN had sent. Another draft the State Department had prepared.

Then a second letter came in. That second letter had a very different tone. Now it was cold and stiff and formal. It did not come through the personal channel that Kennedy and Khrushchev had established a year earlier—another interesting story that the book tells you about. No. This second letter demanded that the United States take NATO missiles out of Turkey. Certainly we couldn't do that in a short time, if we could do it by ourselves at all. NATO decisions are by consensus. What to do?

So our debate intensified because the longer we sat there debating, the worse the news got. The news was that a submarine now accompanied the Soviet freighters approaching the quarantine line. Only later did we hear, much later—we couldn't have believed it at that time if you had told me "decades from now you and the Russians and Cubans will sit around the table and have reunions reflecting on this crisis." I wouldn't have believed that for one minute. Though at one of those reunions we found out that that submarine had nuclear torpedoes. We didn't even know that there were nuclear torpedoes, much less that the Soviets had them. And we learned at one of those reunions how close we came to that torpedo being fired, thereby launching a nuclear exchange.

We also learned as we sat around that table that our U2 plane, trying to find out how far the Soviets had gotten—we'd already had a briefing when we started the day that the missile sites appeared to be completed and ready for firing once they loaded nuclear warheads, and that they were just about completed—that our U2 plane had been shot down.

That was the first and only death in the entire crisis. But the military had extracted a promise at the beginning that if our eyes, which the U2 planes were, if those planes were ever attacked, that we would have to retaliate against the Soviets' surface-to-air missile that had launched the attack. They wanted now to make good on that pledge.

Kennedy said, "No, no, let's wait. Let's see how this correspondence pans out."

What else? I'm trying to think. It was a day full of bad, grim news. We knew as we sat around the table that the Cabinet Room in those days, unlike today, was not a reinforced concrete bunker. So if the Soviets had so-called smart missiles, the way we had smart missiles, an attack right on the White House or the Cabinet Room would have finished everything off. But we were too busy to consider being scared.

We debated which letter to answer and how to answer. Maxwell Taylor, unlike the movie—Maxwell Taylor, our wonderful chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was the only member of the Joint Chiefs who sat in on these sessions. He was not a cowboy. He was a very thoughtful, intelligent, careful man. Nevertheless he represented the Joint Chiefs. He reported the Joint Chiefs as saying that their recommendation was to bomb the missile sites immediately, to be followed in two days by an invasion. To which Bobby Kennedy sardonically remarked, "Well, that was a surprise."

But I can't resist an anecdote. The other piece of bad news at that time—here we are on the very edge of war—was that a U.S. Air Force plane, I think based in Alaska, had been asked to go out and do an air sampling to find out if the Soviets were testing nuclear weapons, because the truth of the matter is, although we didn't announce it, we were testing our nuclear weapons. This plane's navigational controls had malfunctioned and he flew out over Siberia. It seems to me if you're at the North Pole there's only one direction to go, south. Nevertheless, there was a U.S. Air Force plane over Soviet territory, and the Soviets assumed World War III was started and they scrambled their jets.

That was the report that came in. There was a stunned silence around the table, broken by the president of the United States saying, "There's always one s.o.b. who doesn't get the message."

In any event, the wisest among us, Llewelyn Thompson, the senior Foreign Service man who had been ambassador to Moscow, suggested that we try answering the first letter and ignoring the second letter. Bobby Kennedy and I both supported that tactic. The president said, "Good. You go draft it."

So Bobby and I went down to my office, not far away, down the hall. That was the toughest letter I ever wrote in my life. I knew that it was an almost impossible assignment. After all, U Thant hadn't been able to get Khrushchev to change his mind. World opinion had not been able to get him to change his mind. Other communications from the president had not been able to get him to change his mind. How could something I write be of any use? But if it failed, that was a real failure. He might give a direction or push a button that would order the firing of those missiles and, as a result, the deaths of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people.

I go into some detail as to how I tried to make it a positive letter and convince Khrushchev that we wanted peace and that the germs or hints of a possible solution as we interpreted them—as I kept writing in the letter, "as we understand them"—could be, shall we say, converted into an agreed-upon arrangement. And then I said, "Other matters," referring to the second letter without saying so, "can be dealt with in a calm and orderly way."

That letter was cleared by the president. He asked me to clear it with Adlai in New York. It was circulated around the table of the XCOM, still in session. Bobby then took it off to present it to Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin, with a couple of oral messages that had been formulated in a secret subgroup of our group.

The next morning I woke up, and Khrushchev was, for reasons of speed, publicly announcing that the missiles were being withdrawn under a United Nations inspection only.

JOANNE MYERS: I think at this time we just really want to thank you for giving us the opportunity to recall a better time in our nation's past.

I thank you all for joining us.

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