Sorensen on the Obama Speech

Theodore Sorensen, who was John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter and one of his closest advisers, approves of the speech Barack Obama delivered yesterday to 200,000 Germans in front of the Victory Column in Tiergarten.

"I thought it was a magnificent, historic speech," said Sorensen, who helped draft Kennedy’s famous 1963 "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech. "It was a comprehensive declaration of new American foreign policy which will close the chapter on the nightmares of the last seven and a half years and hold out hope for sensible Europeans that America will once again be a collaborator."

Asked how Obama’s speech echoed Kennedy’s decades earlier, with its tone and repetitive references to freedom and Berlin, Sorensen said, "Of course there are parallels between two, young, aggressive internationalist-minded Democrats speaking in that historic place."

But he said there were differences too.

"Kennedy was making a much shorter speech in which he was trying not to speak either in detail or of the entire universe of foreign policy," he said. The Kennedy speech, Sorensen said, had the clear and single purpose of highlighting the "significance Berlin had for freedom as an outpost of communism."

Sorensen said there was a certain irony in Kennedy having assured Berlin that the United States "would stand by them and support them," while Obama was assuring Berlin that the United States would return to its side.

"In that sense Kennedy’s brief comments intended to reassure, congratulate and inspire the people of West Berlin, and had a very different purpose than that of Obama, who was trying to reassure Europe and Germany about the United States and the United States coming back into the community of nations."

Sorensen was dismissive of the criticism from the McCain campaign, and in The New York Times today, that Obama’s speech was vague.

"He’s not president yet. If he’s not president how can he offer detailed explanation about exports, how many divisions NATO should have in Afghanistan, specifics about this detail or that? I don’t think his audience wanted it or expected it."

Sorensen was equally opposed to the idea that the wide-ranging and broad-themed speech Obama gave was a premature victory lap, noting that the senator had deliberately avoided talk of any specific policy proposals that would have stood in opposition to current U.S. policy. "It would be presumptuous if a non-president of the United States tried to supplant the president,” he said.

Sorensen said it was too early to tell if any lines in Obama’s speech would prove as memorable as Kennedy’s speech. But, he said, "Obama’s wording was terrific. Just like Kennedy, he doesn’t speak down to people. He treats them as educated adults."

Sorensen has not been asked to work on any of the Obama speeches, but 26-year-old Adam Frankel, who worked with Sorensen on his memoirs and is described by Sorensen as a “protégé,” was on the Obama speechwriting team.