By Pranay Gupte
(Published in The Hindu, India, November 1, 2010)
I’ve met several American presidents during my long journalistic career, but I never met John Fitzgerald Kennedy, one of my political heroes. I was a schoolboy in Bombay – now Mumbai – when he was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963. I was younger still when Kennedy was elected in 1960 as the 35th president of the United States. He was 46 years old, the first Roman Catholic president of the United States.
On Tuesday, it will be 50 years since that memorable election, which some historians still debate on account of alleged vote fraud in a few of the US’s 50 states (Kennedy got a plurality of just 118,574 votes over his Republic opponent, then Vice President Richard Milhous Nixon). But there is little doubt that the brief Kennedy presidency was a bright and shining moment in American and world politics, not the least because of JFK’s wit and sparkling personality. It was Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline, who opened up India in the minds of millions of Americans when she made a celebrated trip to the Subcontinent. Kennedy himself said how much Gandhi’s writings influenced him.
I write now about JFK not simply to draw on a distant historical memory but because one of the last real-time connections to the Kennedy Presidency lies gravely ill in New York. Theodore C. Sorensen, a Nebraska-born lawyer who was arguably Kennedy’s closest aide, has suffered a second stroke. He’s in his 80’s, and when I last saw him the night Barack Obama was elected as the 44th president of the United States in 2008, tears were flowing down his face as Sorensen witnessed on television the triumph of the first black man to occupy the White House. Just recently, Sorensen noted that while Kennedy wasn’t able to visit India during his presidency, President Obama would be traveling there this week.
Sorensen, of course, was one of several very capable men and women that Kennedy brought to the White House. The writer David Halberstam called them “The Best and The Brightest” in a best-selling book. There was the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and there was Robert F. Kennedy, who served as attorney general in his older brother’s cabinet. There was Dean Rusk, the secretary of state, and there was Robert S. McNamara, the former head of the Ford Motor Company, who became JFK’s secretary of defense.
They are all gone now, and only Sorensen remains. I was having dinner with him and his wife Gillian Martin Sorensen in New York a year or so before Obama’s election, and Ted – everyone called him Ted, not the more formal Theodore – predicted that the young senator from Illinois would win the 2008 presidential election over Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona.
And that’s what happened: Obama – he of the dazzling smile, the intellectual wattage and rapier wit, all JFK characteristics – became president. Sorensen had privately advised Obama on foreign-policy issues. When I heard Obama deliver his inaugural address in January 2009, I thought I detected some familiar cadences. I asked Sorensen if he’d contributed to Obama speech, and Ted shrugged. “The speaker wrote the speech,” he said.
He’d been asked many, many times in an earlier and since, if he’d crafted some of Kennedy’s most enduring lines, among them: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” He’d also been asked if he “ghosted” the biography that won Kennedy – then a senator from Massachusetts – the Pulitzer Prize, one of America’s two highest literary honors (the other being the National Book Award). As always, Sorensen’s modesty and wariness came through when such questions were put to him: “The speaker wrote the speech,” and “The writer wrote the words.”
I like to think that I know who really wrote most of Kennedy’s memorable lines, and who crafted his book. But that’s my intuition; Ted Sorensen is simply not the kiss-and-tell sort. His recent memoir, “Counselor,” drew attention not so much to himself as to JFK and his smart set. And quite rightly so. History celebrates – or condemns – leaders, not their factotums. Sorensen correctly believes that people like him are only bit players in a presidency.
I don’t want this to sound like a eulogy for Ted Sorensen. He’s a hardy man, one filled with more energy and zest than might be expected of an octogenarian. He’s suffered a major stroke before, and he pulled out of that one just fine, other than a diminishing of his eyesight. He has continued writing and lecturing. He has privately advised top Indian and Pakistani officials about the Kashmir imbroglio. He has traveled to conferences in places such as the United Arab Emirates.
I asked him not so long ago how often he thought of his prince, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. “Every day,” Sorensen said, “I miss him every day.”
I don’t want to miss Ted. He’s led a full life, of course, but I want him around longer – much longer – as a mentor and a friend. I want him around to write history, and not be relegated to it.
Some hours after this essay went to press, Ted died. What can one say?
(Pranay Gupte’s next book, about India and the Middle East, will be published in Spring 2011.)