x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Ted Sorensen, the dissenting patriot

As the official condolences roll in for a man who shaped the past, it's the Ted Sorensen who challenged conventions and defended American ideals that I will remember most.

I'll never forget how Ted Sorensen held his fork: tightfisted, prongs skyward, as if his buffet lunch before him was the last thing on his mind. With a plate full of conversation, I suspect it was.

When I saw him that day in 2007, military contractors, their prevalence in war, and the windfall of cash that followed them, was on the menu. Sorensen, John F Kennedy's presidential speechwriter and a self-described "moralist", was all ears. When his turn at the microphone came, he wondered aloud where the outrage was.

"I realise the basic subject is military contractors," Sorensen began that afternoon. "However, the state department uses enormous numbers of civilian contractors. Are they equally at fault? Is there an accountability gap there also?"

No suitable answer followed. At least the question was asked.

Theodore Chaikin Sorensen, whose "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" may be one of the most recognisable quotations in US history, died last week at the age of 82. He will best be remembered as a gifted strategist whose pen - and JFK's oratory - spoke directly to the American people during an era when thoughtful prose, not clipped Twitter feeds, had the power to rally a nation or put a man on the moon.

But as the official condolences roll in for a man who shaped the past, it's the Sorensen who challenged conventions, and defended American ideals, that I'll remember most.

Outside of government, Sorensen was much more than a talented writer and gifted presidential aid. He was a staunch defender of western liberalism, a trait I observed often during his frequent appearances at New York City lectures. Despite his advanced age, Sorensen rarely passed up an opportunity to remind even the most controversial leaders what he - and his country - stood for.

I remember one meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York where I was working, when Sorensen rose to address the Libyan leader Muammar al Qaddafi, who once accused Israel of assassinating JFK, his former boss.

Sorensen introduced himself politely. Then he fired: "You have been respectfully received by this large American audience and had a free and open discussion with the president of this organisation," he began. "If the chairman of this organisation, a distinguished Jewish-American, were to go to your country, would he be received with equal respect and have an opportunity to have a free and open discussion with a large audience?"

"I'm really surprised that such a question is raised," Col Qaddafi started, before launching into a defence of his country's policy of inclusion, which left out several key details.

Ted's reputation for speaking truth to power knew few limits. During a conversation in 2006 with Michael Chertoff, then-president George W Bush's secretary of homeland security, Sorensen delivered one of his trademark queries - platitudes first, followed up with biting critique.

"You impressively outlined the measures to prevent ... terrorists from getting into this country," Sorensen began. "Have you thought about measures to stop them from becoming terrorists in the first place?"

Mr Chertoff's reply - that such problems were "frankly a more serious question in Europe" - has clearly proven short sighted.

Sorensen could banter with the best of them. In a September 2007 talk with the French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, Sorensen challenged France "to welcome Turkey into the European Union" at a time "when the West is looking for more windows into the world of Islam, more bridges to Islam".

The question drew applause from those in the audience apparently critical of France's stance toward Muslims.

"Why are they applauding?" Mr Kouchner quipped. "I didn't say a word. Is it to you?"

This week, the US president Barack Obama remembered Sorensen as a man who was "determined to keep America true to our highest ideals". In a statement, Mr Obama said: "I know his legacy will live on in the words he wrote, the causes he advanced, and the hearts of anyone who is inspired by the promise of a new frontier." There was another side to the late speechwriter, which those who met him in New York may recall more vividly.

As the host of an event featuring the former Mexican president Vicente Fox said during a meeting in late 2005, Sorensen "can be utterly lethal" in his questions. "I want to prepare you," the host declared. Mr Fox appreciated the warning. I think Ted would have preferred a surprise attack.