A video recording of Sorensen's talk is available on the Brandeis website. Click here to view it.

Sorensen Reflects on JFK, Inaugurals



Theodore "Ted" Sorensen speaks at Brandeis on inaugural addresses.

January 14, 2009

Days away from an eagerly awaited inaugural address, renowned speechwriter Theodore “Ted” Sorensen reflected on his service for President John F. Kennedy and examined recent inaugural addresses before an overflow crowd in the Shapiro Campus Center theater on January 13.

The event, called “From ‘Ask not...’ to ‘Yes we can,’
 JFK’s Speechwriter on What Makes Inaugural Addresses Great,” was sponsored by the Ethics Center (Sorensen has served as chairman of the Ethics Center Advisory Board since its inception) and emceed by Center Director Daniel Terris, who noted: “No one has contributed more to the art of presidential rhetoric than Theodore C. Sorensen.” Jonah Seligman ’10, co-president of Brandeis’s General Education Now club, introduced Sorensen while Peniel Joseph, associate professor of African and Afro-American Studies, served as the faculty respondent.

After selections of three inaugural speeches were played, Sorensen criticized Ronald Reagan’s as too partisan and business-oriented, while he called Bill Clinton’s “derivative” of previous speeches. With a smile, he called Kennedy’s inaugural speech the best of the selections. Of course, he helped write Kennedy’s speech in 1961, which is celebrated particularly for the passage: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Sorensen detailed what he said were myths surrounding the speech, including that it is too often called a Cold When speech when in fact the president “held out a hand” to the Soviets.

Despite his role as a speechwriter, Sorensen contended that people concentrate too much over who wrote the speech rather than its substance. “A much more important question is not who penned particular words as a wordsmith, but why Kennedy’s values, principles, and policies that were stressed throughout that speech have been largely forgotten,” he said.

A supporter of Barack Obama since early in the presidential campaign, Sorensen said he won’t play a role in the president-elect’s inaugural – the torch has passed to a new generation of advisors, he quipped. But he did offer some advice on what makes a successful inaugural speech. The address should not be like a campaign or State of the Union speech nor should it be an opportunity for personality projection, he said. Rather, Sorensen expects that Obama will do what Kennedy did: focus on international matters.

“This is the speech that will define him and his presidency for the rest of the world,” said Sorensen.

After taking questions from the audience on topics such as the media and public service, Sorensen signed copies of his new memoir, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History.


Sorensen is joined on stage by (from left) Peniel Joseph,  Jonah Seligman ’10, and Daniel Terris..