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).