The Loyal Servant

Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History
By Ted Sorensen
HarperCollins, 556 pages, $27.95

IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO READ Ted Sorensen’s Counselor without thinking of Barack Obama. Mr. Sorensen, who was more or less John F. Kennedy’s closest aide for 11 years, worshiped his boss. His boss, some say, was the last president to break boundaries and set historic precedents, and he inspired people with words. The echo of Kennedy in Mr. Obama has been much discussed, but what Mr. Sorensen adds is some perspective on what made America love these two men with greater fervor than they have any elected official in the last 50 years—except maybe Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Sorensen’s description of the way Kennedy dealt with the issue of his religion necessarily calls to mind the way Mr. Obama dealt with race in his address two months ago. Also, the author writes of J.F.K. winning the nomination through the “grass roots” first, rather than political support from Washington. The theme of J.F.K.’s campaign, “We Can Do Better,” finds its echo in “Yes We Can”—both slogans acknowledge the current climate, but add sheer optimism. Kennedy was a president who thought Americans were smarter than many politicians do; ditto Mr. Obama. J.F.K.’s nonpartisanship, his youthful energy, the feeling that being around him was fun and yes, the cult of personality—all this comes through perfectly clearly in Mr. Sorensen’s writing.

Weirdly, most of his book reads like a breezy memoir—albeit of someone who happened to intersect with history again and again. The author here is always the outsider, the kid from Nebraska, even when he’s nearly single-handedly avoiding war with the U.S.S.R. Mr. Sorensen tells his story with a sense of detached awe, humility, even incredulity.

 

HE DECLINES TO STATE an opinion on many issues and controversies surrounding the Kennedy administration. For example, when addressing Kennedy’s assassination, Mr. Sorensen says both that he finds the conspiracy theorists hard to believe, and also that he finds it hard to believe there wasn’t some larger, more sinister actor involved. He is, in that sense, always the adviser, more accustomed to providing information than making decisions or rendering final judgment.

In his unabashed sentimentality for the Kennedy era (which starts to seem merited if only because here is an era named for a man who was president for not quite three years), there are some eye-rolling moments. Mr. Sorensen quotes one aide who transitioned from Kennedy to Johnson as noting, “‘There was something more fun in the Kennedy White House.’ How true,” Mr. Sorensen croons, “improving the world should be fun.”

But he doesn’t refrain from rendering judgment where he thinks it’s deserved: He makes no attempt, for example, to conceal his dislike for Lyndon Johnson’s style or policies.

What Mr. Sorensen doesn’t do—and this may come as a disappointment to some—is say anything the least bit sexy. He confesses the answer to many small mysteries: who contributed what to Kennedy’s first inaugural; which senator Kennedy was referring to when he wrote in Profiles in Courage that a colleague “acknowledged to me one day during a roll call vote that he voted with the special interests on every issue.” But these are minor clarifications of interest mainly to readers who know the Kennedy history well. “[A]nyone who hopes that this book will set forth names, details, or intimate secrets that have not previously appeared in print will be disappointed,” Mr. Sorensen declares.

He admits, late in the book, that there are actually many secrets he’s keeping. So this is really, then, an intellectual memoir. There are numerous pages devoted to how one speech or another was revised, how individual lines were substituted or modified. It’s mostly a book for Kennedy nuts and political wonks—or sentimentalists. That, of course, includes a fairly large number of Americans.

 

IT’S ALSO HARD NOT to see in some places an inverse reflection of George W. Bush. Mr. Sorensen quotes Charles de Gaulle, who, when offered satellite photos as proof of Soviet missile sites during the Cuban missile crisis, said, “No, the word of the President of the United States is good enough for me.” It’s hard to imagine Nicolas Sarkozy saying the same thing about Mr. Bush.

Similarly, in a section devoted to the Bay of Pigs, Mr. Sorensen admits that the episode was a great failure of the administration, but also mentions that Kennedy took personal responsibility for what happened. Mr. Sorensen provides a list, bullet-pointed, of things Kennedy learned from the crisis—things that made him a better president.

This is essentially a bible for the worship of J.F.K.—which isn’t to say it isn’t useful, or fascinating at times. It’s by a consummate insider, and in many ways it will be of most interest to other insiders looking for an intimate assessment of the Kennedy legacy—at a time when a presidential candidate seems eager to don the Kennedy mantle.

If Mr. Sorensen seems occasionally fawning, or nostalgic in a rote sense, it’s hard to fault him for it, just as it’s hard to fault him for reprinting numerous letters in which he himself is lavishly praised. One is entirely convinced by Counselor that J.F.K. was a great man and a great president. And who better to burnish his legacy and cherish memories of him as a leader than his loyal servant, Ted Sorensen?

Katharine Jose is deputy political editor at The Observer. She can be reached at kjose@observer.com.

The Loyal Servant