Ted Sorensen was so closely associated in his youth with a Massachusetts senator for whom he wrote historic speeches and in his later years with an Illinois senator he recognized as presidential timber before most other prominent Democrats had began to imagine the possibility that Sorensen is often seen as merely an extension of the great men with whom he associated.
But Sorensen, who has died at age 82, was more than the primary speechwriter for President John Fitzgerald Kennedy or an essential early endorser—in March, 2007—of Barack Obama’s presidential run. He was more than a key adviser to Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential run, more than the wise counselor who helped a young Ted Kennedy get focused on the work that would make him a great senator, more than the man Jimmy Carter wanted to have clean up the Central Intelligence Agency after the abuses of the 1960s and 1970s, more than the national co-chair of Gary Hart’s insurgent 1984 presidential run and more than the visionary who capped his long career by contributing notes and ideas to Obama’s inaugural address.
He was, to my mind, a unique player within the Democratic Party—its most ardent advocate not merely for liberal ideals but for an understanding within the party’s leadership that Democrats had to articulate ideals and put them into practice. It is ironic, almost painfully so, that his death came at the close of an election campaign in which Democrats struggled to get on message.
Sorensen recognized that politics needed to begin with the message. He was, as he frequently told me during an e-mail conversation that began some years ago and took off during the Obama campaign of 2007 and 2008, necessary for Democrats to be idealists.
Our conversation was about the Democratic Party in general, with a specific focus on the question of whether insider Democrats would allow theirs to again be a party that engaged and inspired the American people in the way that it had during the thirty-year arc of history that stretched from the New Deal moment of the 1930s to the New Frontier moment of the 1960s. Unlike so many liberals, however, Sorensen was not nostalgic for a more politically potent past. He believed that Democrats needed, always, to outline and articulate ideals that spoke to the better angels of the times. They could not merely be a slightly less cruel or self-serving variation on the Republicans. It didn’t work that way.
"Democrats masquerading as a kinder, gentler version of Republicans lack credibility," Sorensen explained in his important 1996 book, Why I Am a Democrat (Henry Holt & Co, 1996).
"Having served Kennedy when he was senator and President, I know that criticism of presidential compromises that bridge the divide between the parties on a particular piece of legislation comes more easily to legislators and candidates who would rather fight than enact,” he wrote.”But it is also true that a party loses the election, loses its way, indeed, loses its very reason for being if it becomes merely a pale imitation of its opposition."
There were places where Sorensen said the party could not compromise. Democrats needed, always, to make theirs "a national party of citizens” rooted in a bottom-up faith in the grassroots rather than a top-down reliance on Wall Street money and counsel. Democrats, he argued, had to remain a party of public interest rather than private; a party cognizant of the need of government and the danger of deregulation and anti-tax fantasies; a party of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public education and healthcare for all; a party prepared to guarantee civil liberties and civil rights; a party of jobs and justice—especially for those whose needs and rights have been neglected by the elites.
"Government must give priority to the needs of ordinary citizens, workers, consumers, students, children, the elderly and the ill, the vulnerable and the underdog, and not to the needs of those already sufficiently powerful and affluent to afford their own lobbyists," he explained.
Sorensen worried openly about Democratic leaders who had begun to begun "to back away from the party’s traditional concern for those most subject to deprivation or discrimination, and to join with the Republicans in delaying the reform of campaign finance and lobbying laws."
To the end, Sorensen warned his fellow Democrats against succumbing to the "vacuum of moral courage" that makes politicians "more interested in political contributions than political courage, in holding on by going along with whatever course was easy or popular."
It was a warning too frequently unheeded—to the detriment of the Democratic Party and the country.
But Sorensen never wavered. In 2007, the able Washington Monthly editor Paul Glastris (a former presidential speechwriter himself) asked JFK’s wordsmith to craft the acceptance speech he wished the next Democratic presidential nominee would deliver.
The key section of what Sorensen wrote was a defense of liberalism. In it, he imagined a Democratic nominee declaring: “In this campaign, I will make no promises I cannot fulfill, pledge no spending we cannot afford, offer no posts to cronies you cannot trust, and propose no foreign commitment we should not keep. I will not shrink from opposing any party faction, any special interest group, or any major donor whose demands are contrary to the national interest. Nor will I shrink from calling myself a liberal, in the same sense that Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, John and Robert Kennedy, and Harry Truman were liberals—liberals who proved that government is not a necessary evil, but rather the best means of creating a healthier, more educated, and more prosperous America.”
The speech was not presented as Sorensen hoped, even if the candidate he endorsed—Barack Obama—was the nominee delivering it. That was unfortunate, as Sorensen was not making a romantic case for the liberal ideal. He was making a pragmatic argument for a Democratic Party visionary enough, engaging enough, exciting enough to inspire voters in good times and bad. And he was right.