Kennedy speechwriter lauds Obama

President George W. Bush ’68 may have left an unimpressive foreign policy record, but President-elect Barack Obama is poised to restore the legacy of the John F. Kennedy years, Kennedy’s former speechwriter and adviser said Wednesday.

Theodore “Ted” Sorensen discussed topics ranging from present-day politics to the Kennedy administration’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis at a speech sponsored by Timothy Dwight College’s Chubb Fellowship Wednesday. During the 90-minute talk, Sorensen used humor and colorful anecdotes to bring his encounters with Kennedy to life for an audience that filled the Law School Auditorium.

Ted Sorensen, former special counsel, speechwriter and adviser to President John F. Kennedy, speaks in the Levinson Auditorium at the Yale Law School on Wednesday.
Grant Smith
Ted Sorensen, former special counsel, speechwriter and adviser to President John F. Kennedy, speaks in the Levinson Auditorium at the Yale Law School on Wednesday.

As a strong Obama supporter — Sorenson has called Obama the heir to the Kennedy legacy — he began by offering harsh criticisms of the Bush administration.

“When Kennedy was president, we were admired by the world, our president was admired by the world, and our values were respected,” Sorensen said. “That was much greater protection, and that protection is gone now. To live in this ugly, complicated world, and instead of being respected, be regarded by fear, anger and resentment, means that we are indeed a besieged nation.”

Despite the Bush legacy, the recent presidential election demonstrated that Americans are still “generous, passionate, peace-loving people,” Sorensen said, adding that along with a change in president comes a change in foreign policy.

For example, Kennedy — unlike Bush during the Iraq War — wanted to know all possible military and diplomatic options during the Cuban Missile Crisis before making a decision, Sorensen said.

Although he focused on serious issues, Sorensen maintained the sense of charm and humor for which Kennedy’s speeches were so famous.

“I still get thanked by many [men] for making Kennedy’s speech on the night of October 22 so scary that they were able to convince their college sweethearts that it was their last night on earth,” he said to laughs from the audience, referring to the night when President Kennedy informed the nation that the Soviet Union was building secret missile bases in Cuba.

Sorensen also poked fun at high-profile Republicans.

When asked by an audience member if constitutional protections could have prevented breaches of the Constitution during Bush’s presidency, Sorensen responded, “There’s one called impeachment, [but] I think neither the Democratic Party nor anyone in Congress had the heart to take that on, nor did they want to see Mr. Cheney become president, which is the same reason I think McCain was buying impeachment insurance for himself when he picked [Sarah Palin].”

Sorensen said he and Kennedy worked well together despite superficial disparities such as an 11-year age gap and few similarities in background. At the same time, both were raised by parents to care about the country and the world, shared an interest in public policy and had a sense of humor, Sorensen said.

Sorensen’s talk was attended not only by undergraduates and Yale Law School students, but also by local residents.

Mary Holmes, a 72-year-old resident of Hamden, described the talk as “incredible,” especially because she had lived through the Kennedy years.

Adam Grogg LAW ’10 said Sorensen’s speech was especially timely coming just a week after the presidential election.

“It was great to hear Kennedy’s mode of thinking, because my belief that Obama will replicate that mode of thinking is a major reason for why [I support Obama],” Grogg said. “It is interesting to hear people speak in the language of a different time, because it’s foreign, but it still resonates with us today.”

Sorensen published his memoirs, entitled “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History,” in May.


  • Tex

    "Unimpressive" foreign policy record??
    How about, no terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in the past 7 years?
    President Bush's predecessor could scarcely claim as good a record, and his successor too seems poised to put an end to the defense against terrorism.
    Time will tell, but I suspect that talk talk talk won't impressive those who wish us ill.

  • Alum '81

    Oh please. President elect Obama is heir to the Kennedy legacy only in that they were both young when elected and both had an adoring media that favored them over their opponents. The media did a good job covering up Kennedy's medical problems and heavy use of pain-killers, spying on Martin Luther King Jr., as well as his adulterous relationships. We'll see over time how the media treats the Obama presidency, but so far the "mainstream" media has done about everything it could to get him elected.
    In terms of policies, Kennedy would today be considered a conservative Democrat or moderate Republican--he favored lower taxes, more personal responsibility, strong defense, and the benefits of promoting democracy overseas. His policies would be much closer to those of President Bush than those of Obama.
    Regarding foreign policy, one must remember the Cuban Missile Crisis came about because the Soviet Union perceived Kennedy to be weak in his prior meeting with Krushchev. We see history repeating itself with Russia and Obama.Remember Joe Biden promised that Obama would be tested because of his perceived inexperience.
    I would disagree with "Ted" about the Bush foreign policy legacy. There has been much antipathy toward the US going back generations. Remember the cold war with the USSR, Iran hostages and Carter, Lebanon and Reagan, World Trade Center attack, the Cole, Somalia, the embassy bombings and Clinton, and 9/11 shortly after President Bush took office. President Bush has managed to thwart many enemy attacks here and abroad since then, liberated 53 million Muslims from oppression, gotten Libya to give up its nuclear program, improved relations with India and Pakistan, used multilateral support to put pressure on Iran and North Korea, made progress on a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and provided more treatment for AIDS and Malaria in Africa than all previous Presidents combined. Military force in Iraq was authorized by overwhelming bipartisan support in the House and Senate after all diplomacy was exhausted(remember all those UN resolutions). Hardly unimpressive.