Book Reviews

Theodore Sorensen and the Kennedys – A Life of Public Service

I am just about to start reading Dr Michelle Ulyatt’s book about Theodore Sorensen – one of President Kennedy’s speech writers – for the second time!

Even though I have not long finished the first read of ‘Theodore Sorensen and the Kennedys’ I already want to renew my relationship with this man who played his part in shaping and influencing not only a President’s career, but by so doing also the lives of people not just in the United States of America but throughout the world.

Nebraska and influences

Dr Ulyatt takes us back to the end of the 19th century to the rapidly growing and developing state of Nebraska, and the arrival there of Theodore Sorensen’s Danish and Polish grandparents. The development of Nebraska was to play a significant role in their political beliefs values, those of their son Christian, and consequently on his son, Theodore, born in 1928.

Theo was to follow his father into studying law as a possible career on the basis that it could open doors for him to enter public office. But influence wasn’t all on his father’s side, Theo’s mother Annis, was a keen advocate for equality, promoting it tirelessly through her passionate and skilled writings.

It was these beliefs which also fuelled Sorensen’s lifelong campaign for humanitarianism, egalitarianism and pacifism; whilst Senator George Norris, whom Sorensen idealised, was to inspire him to take these ideals into politics.

JFK and speech writing

But his career sights turned away from state politics to Washington DC where he joined the Federal Security Administration, which eventually led to him being offered a post working with a newly elected Senator – John F Kennedy.

Dr Ulyatt takes us through Sorensen’s time working on Kennedy’s campaign speeches, as well as his years at the White House dealing with both America’s domestic agenda and foreign policies.

As she says it was the Kennedy/Sorensen partnership that ‘went on to deliver some of the most memorable, and arguably greatest speeches in American political history’.

Political life behind the scenes

Following Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 Sorensen eventually left the White House but continued to work privately upholding his values and beliefs until his death in 2010. He also acted as an advisor to several Democratic candidates including Robert F Kennedy and Barack Obama.

We found the chapter dealing with the handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis rivetingly frightening reading, as indeed are the pages covering the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban, and the Vietnam problem.

A life of public service

Whilst this book is obviously destined for universities and academic studies, with its in depth account of the Kennedy era it also gives us a fascinating and readable glimpse into what went on behind the scenes during several key moments in latter 20th century world history. And, it is also a moving tribute to one man – Theodore Sorensen, who devoted himself to a life of public service.

It was arguably Sorensen who actually penned the phrase that JFK used at his inauguration -‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’. Sorensen certainly did exactly that.

Theodore Sorensen and the Kennedys – A Life of Public Service. Michelle A Ulyatt. Hardback £69.99. ISBN: 978-3-030-15795-1. Palgrave Macmillan.

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