As far as most Americans were concerned, Ted Sorensen belonged to the past, an icon of the Kennedy presidency who only briefly emerged from his law practice in 1976 for a short-lived nomination to be director of central intelligence.
But Sorensen, who died Sunday at age 82, was very much an influential figure in today’s Democratic politics, even stepping back into the national spotlight in 2007 to deliver an exquisitely timed endorsement of Barack Obama just when the young Illinois senator needed it the most.
It was an endorsement that Obama never forgot and it was mentioned in the president’s statement issued by the White House Sunday afternoon. “I got to know Ted after he endorsed my campaign early on,” said Obama. “He was just as I hoped he’d be – just as quick-witted, just as serious of purpose, just as determined to keep America true to our highest ideals.”
Endorsements often don’t mean much. But this one did. In this one, the man known as the primary guardian of the John F. Kennedy legacy draped the ultimate mantle on a young and untested candidate, calling him “the new JFK.”
Obama at the time was badly trailing then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and was in danger of being brushed aside even before the first caucus as too young and too inexperienced to be president.
Enter the almost-80-year-old Sorensen who took on a grueling schedule of interviews and trips to champion Obama’s cause, always comparing him favorably to Kennedy.
Obama, he told Charlie Rose, “has a wealth of experience” compared to Kennedy in 1960. And just as Kennedy was told that being born Catholic disqualified him from the presidency, Obama was being told being born African American disqualified him. “That is nonsense and Kennedy proved it nonsense,” he said.
“What counts most is not experience.... What counts most is judgment,” he said. “Well, Obama demonstrated his judgment a long time ago when before the war in Iraq had even been launched, he opposed it and predicted exactly what would happen.”
It was a message that Sorensen hammered away relentlessly, always attacking Clinton for supporting the war. For Democratic voters, it was a powerful message.
In a public letter days before Super Tuesday, Sorensen wrote that Obama “is more like John F. Kennedy than any president or presidential candidate in either party since that terrible day we lost JFK in 1963.” He noted that, “Despite my age and infirmities, I have campaigned for Sen. Obama in seven states, used my voice and pen repeatedly on his behalf, and have become more determined to see his nomination with each new passing revelation of the true character of his opponents.”
In interviews, he gushed, talking about Kennedy and Obama having “fantastically winning smiles” and about Obama's youthful energy that made Kennedy appear to be “an old geezer” in comparison.
As the author of some of Kennedy’s most famous rhetoric, he also praised Obama’s oratory, saying that he – like Kennedy – did not deliver speeches filled with “five-point plans for new health care programs, which is more Hillary’s style.”
That gushing stopped pretty soon after Obama actually took office. In one regard, at least, he came to conclude that Obama was not really “the new JFK.” A year after the inauguration, Sorensen confessed to disappointment with the new president’s speeches.
Obama, he said, was “clearly well informed on all matters of public policy, sometimes, frankly, a little too well informed. And as a result, some of the speeches are too complicated for typical citizens and very clear to university faculties and big newspaper editorial boards.”