So it has happened, and very early on the morning after history had been made, one of America’s authentic legends, Theodore C. Sorensen, was savoring it all in his lovely apartment overlooking Manhattan’s Central Park.
A score of close friends had spent the previous evening at his apartment, watching the results of the election that made Barack Obama the 44th president of the United States. The 80-year-old Sorensen, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s closest aide, was the man who helped craft some of JFK’s most memorable speeches. He almost certainly drafted that most enduring of the slain president’s lines from his Inaugural in January 1961, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” And on this morning, Sorensen was reflecting on how improbable Obama’s victory was -- the fact that, nearly 150 years after the Civil War that nearly broke this nation over the issue of slavery, a black man was headed to the White House.
It was almost as improbable as that of Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic to be elected president. Sorensen thinks of JFK every single day – he recently wrote a best-selling memoir of his years with Kennedy, “Counselor” – but on this morning I thought that I should ask him what he thought were the qualities that characterized great leaders.
“If there’s one quality that needs to be the hallmark of a great leader, it’s judgment,” Sorensen said. “Kennedy had it. I know that Obama has it.”
Sorensen, a native of Nebraska and, like Obama, a graduate of Harvard Law School, is close to the president-elect. There’s a beautiful photograph of the two of them in Sorensen’s living room. Obama has sought his counsel on a variety of domestic and foreign issues. I remember having dinner with Sorensen and his wife Gillian in New York a year ago before I left to live in Dubai, when he said, “Obama will be our next president.”
I admitted to being skeptical, even though Ted and Gillian are close friends. At that time, everybody thought that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton would win the Democratic nomination and, like her husband Bill, occupy the highest public office of this land of 300 million people. But I also implicitly trusted – and valued – Ted’s judgment. And now, 12 months to the day that we’d dined and discussed the 2008 presidential campaign, his prediction had come true.
As Ted smiled and savored Obama’s victory, various friends engaged in exuberant banter. It would be no hyperbole to say that all of them, in varying degrees, were well-known and accomplished people. There was Jeffrey Sachs, the economist and head of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. There was Maurice Tempelsman, the financier, and companion of JFK’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, during her last years. There was William McDonough, the former president of the powerful New York Federal Reserve. There was Robert Caro, who won Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies of JFK’s vice president – and later president – Lyndon Baines Johnson, and of Robert Moses, the man who helped build New York’s infrastructure – and who notoriously did not like blacks. There was Joan Ganz Cooney, founder of Children’s Television Workshop, which produces the world-renowned “Sesame Street” program. There was William vanden Heuvel, deputy attorney-general in JFK’s administration.
This was New York’s elite, they had come to be with one of their own and to pay homage to his prescience – but, even more importantly, they had come to witness history in the making. And when the television networks called the election for Obama, everybody applauded with an exuberance that one might have expected from such an august audience. I was standing next to Jeffrey Sachs, who joyfully kept repeating, “Oh my, oh my, oh my!”
Oh my, indeed. I was barely in my teens when John Kennedy was assassinated in 1964. Little could I have imagined then that, in a few short decades, I would be in a New York drawing room with some of the surviving members of the Kennedy Administration, that I would be cheering with them as a whole new era of American history suddenly dawned.
A new era, yes. But what kind of an era?
“One of hope,” Ted Sorensen said. “Hope – and the possibility of change.”
Sorensen smiled. He was, after all, a wordsmith, and he traded in nuance.
“The certainty of change,” he said, presently.
I asked Gillian Sorensen if she had truly shared her husband belief a year ago that Barack Obama would become president.
“I told Ted then, wasn’t it a bit early to predict that Barack would make it to the White House,” Gillian – a former under secretary-general of the United Nations, and now with Ted Turner’s UN Foundation – said. “But Ted was as sure as sure can be.”
Of course Ted Sorensen knew back then. He’s not a seer, but he’s a sage. He knows his history, his knows his politics, he knows the calculus of elections, and he knows how history is constructed – brick by brick, as Barack Obama said in his speech in his native Chicago soon after his election.
So would Ted Sorensen assist with Obama’s inaugural address when the 44th president is sworn some 70 days from today?
Another smile from Ted. He wasn’t about to tell. He wasn’t about to say if he had been asked by Obama. He knows his history, which records that great words by great orators can only have one proprietor.
I know my history, too, and that’s why I think I know what Ted Sorensen, living legend and master craftsman of words and ideas, would have said had he wanted to. But, of course, the words of an Inaugural Address are always uttered by the president of the United States. And it is Barack Hussein Obama who has been elected, not Ted Sorensen, it is Barack Hussein Obama who will deliver that address in January – just as it was John Fitzgerald Kennedy who spoke in that timeless language so many years ago when a new era had dawned, excitement was in the air on a very cold January day, and real change in American society was a very real possibility.
So much has happened in America and in the world since that Kennedy Inauguration, so much of it heartening and so much of it heartless. It is nearly five decades later now, but the promise of real change in America is no less true today. There will be a different man on that presidential podium in Washington on January 20, 2009. His political and international agenda is bound to be uniquely his own, as indeed it should be.
But the singular link between the Kennedy Inauguration and the incipient Obama Inauguration will be the idea of America – the idea that this nation is indeed one of rich diversity where anyone’s aspirations can be realized with honesty and hard work and dedication to the common good. That idea has been renewed with the election of Barack Obama.
Another link, of course, will be Ted Sorensen. As I watched him looking at the TV screen, I thought that his eyes seemed to be misting. They could have been tears of sorrow, remembering a great friend who’d been elected so very long ago in a different age of hope, and whose life was snuffed out before he could deliver on his promise for America.
But Ted Sorensen is an optimistic man, so I couldn’t help thinking that his eyes were misting in anticipation of what is to come. And as I looked at my good and valued friend, my own eyes welled up with tears. It was that kind of moment. It is that kind of time.