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'Tim Russert' for Saturday, May 17

Read the transcript to the Saturday show

Guests: Ted Sorensen, Doris Kearns Goodwin

TIM RUSSERT, HOST:  John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Camelot.  We all look back and wonder exactly about his presidency, what he achieved, and what he could have achieved.  A new book called “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History,” written by John Kennedy‘s closest adviser, Ted Sorensen, is here.  And we‘re also joined by Doris Kearns Goodwin, a presidential historian and most knowledgeable of the Kennedy era.

We welcome you both.



RUSSERT:  Ted Sorensen, “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History.”  Tell me about John Kennedy.  How would you describe him to many in our audience who never had a chance to meet him or even observe him as president?

SORENSEN:  First, let me emphasize he was the same in private as he was in public—articulate, questioning, funny, and a really good guy.

RUSSERT:  When did you first meet him?

SORENSEN:  I met him soon after he had been elected to the Senate in 1952. 

He was looking for a staff.  I was looking for a job. 

And a wonderful senator before your time, Paul Douglas of Illinois, recommended me to two people, Kennedy and Jackson, both of whom had been to Congress, men that Douglas knew.

RUSSERT:  Scoop Jackson from Washington State.

SORENSEN:  Scoop Jackson from Washington State.  The senator from Bowling (ph), they soon called him.  And they both offered me jobs.  And I had a very brief interview with each and had to decide which to accept, and the rest is in the book.

RUSSERT:  You agreed to go to work for President Kennedy—Senator Kennedy...

SORENSEN:  Senator Kennedy, yes.

RUSSERT:  ... because he engaged you and wanted you to be involved in discussion of real substance and real policy matters.

SORENSEN:  Very much so.  He wanted me to chair a legislative program to revive the economy of New England, which is a pretty tall...

GOODWIN:  Small task.


SORENSEN:  ... Nebraska.  Compared to Scoop Jackson, who said that he had heard such good things about me from Senator Douglas, he needed somebody like that to get his name in the papers.


SORENSEN:  It didn‘t take a real genius to pick between those two.

RUSSERT:  Doris, Ted Sorensen writes when he came to Washington in 1951, he had never tasted coffee.  He had never been in a bar room or a tavern, he hadn‘t written a check and he never owned a car.

Now, much better use than I have, I guess.


SORENSEN:  I still haven‘t had a cup of coffee.


Well, you know, what‘s so amazing about that is that that kind of a person could connect so closely to Jack Kennedy, who had had a cup of coffee, had had a few drinks, had had a few women.  But he was able to become so close to you even though you were together in ideals, together in what you hoped for, together in a lot of things, but temperamentally very different in terms of background, obviously.

I remember when my husband, Dick Goodwin, was in the campaign.  You obviously knew about cows coming from Nebraska.

SORENSEN:  No I didn‘t.

GOODWIN:  But my—he didn‘t either.  But my husband came from Brookline.  Kennedy came from Brookline.  And one time Dick was working on a farm speech, and Kennedy looks over and he said, “OK, Dick.  We‘re both Brookline farmers.  Have you ever seen a cow?”

So you at least brought something different to Kennedy, and obviously it clicked.  And it was wonderful.

RUSSERT:  When you first met John Kennedy, Ted Sorensen, did you have a sense then that he would be a presidential prospect?

SORENSEN:  No.  Nor did he.

I once approached him on the Senate floor to give him some advice about a farm bill—going back to Doris‘ point—because Massachusetts farmers were in a completely different position than the people for whom farm bills were intended.  And I said to him, “Now, from the Massachusetts point of view”—economics in Massachusetts was my specialty—“you should vote against this bill.  But if you ever have any national ambitions...”

And he shook his head and said, “No.  If I start thinking that way, I‘ll be no good around here.”

RUSSERT:  Doris, Joe Kennedy, his dad, always thought that there would be a presidential run in the future.

GOODWIN:  Yes, there‘s no question, I think, from understanding Joe Kennedy that once his own ambitions were thwarted—because he himself was a huge figure in the 1930s and ‘40s.  And then his ambassadorship to the Court of St. James ended any hope of that future run.  But then came the dream that one of his sons would breach that Catholic barrier and become president.

Joe Jr. dies in World War II.  And he never thought Jack would be the one to do it.  That‘s what‘s so interesting, because Jack was shy, not as easily able to speak.  But boy did Jack come through. 

And Joe was always on his side.  I mean, I love the thing that you tell in the book about the idea that Joe Kennedy—he called up Joe Kennedy right after the debate, Jack Kennedy did—“How did I do, Dad?” 

And then you said, well—you know, “How do you know?  How do you know?” 

He said, “I don‘t know how I did from him, because if I fell down, he would

say, ‘It‘s terrific the way you pulled yourself up.‘”

So that father was a huge influence on this young man.

SORENSEN:  That phone call which I can see in my mind‘s eye to this day, one slight correction.  He didn‘t need to say, “How did I do, Dad?”  He just said, “Hi Dad,” and his dad started talking.

GOODWIN:  Oh.  And this was after the first Nixon debate, right? 


GOODWIN:  Yes, indeed.

SORENSEN:  And it showed however different their philosophies were—and they were very, very different—there was a real bond of affection between father and son.

GOODWIN:  Absolutely so.

RUSSERT:  Nothing more important.

Ted Sorensen, you started traveling the country with John Kennedy, 1956.


RUSSERT:  You went to all 50 states together.

SORENSEN:  In the four years.

RUSSERT:  That‘s extraordinary.  And now we see these entourage campaigns. 

It was just the two of you in the...

SORENSEN:  Just the two of us.  Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the great ladies of the 20th century, had a column.  And she would write about Joe Kennedy trying to buy the presidency for her son.  And he has this huge entourage and this huge political machine.  And there was just the two of us traveling the country.

RUSSERT:  How did you get around?  Just airport to airport?

SORENSEN:  Yes.  Yes.  About halfway through that period his father—it does help to have a rich father.

GOODWIN:  He got a plane.

SORENSEN:  His father gave him an airplane.


RUSSERT:  That‘s the answer I was looking for.

What did you learn about John Kennedy when you were on the road in those empty moments in an airport terminal or in a hotel lobby?  What did you talk about?

SORENSEN:  We didn‘t spend a lot of time waiting in the lobby, Tim.  But sitting on the planes together and having all our meals together, that was the period when I got to know him best and he got to know me best.

I found out what an interesting man he was who knew so much about American history, about foreign affairs.  And he had this wonderful sense of humor.  And we found that, despite the great difference in our backgrounds on the surface—he was the son of a millionaire, he was big in the Catholic Church, he was a Harvard graduate, a Northeasterner—those were just surface, because underneath that surface we thought very much alike about public service, about national interests, about world affairs.  And that four-year period is what truly cemented the relationship.

At the end of that, I could finish his sentences.  I could tell any journalist—I could answer to any question he had about what John F.  Kennedy thought on any issue.  And if I didn‘t know the answer, then John F. Kennedy hadn‘t made up his mind on that answer.


RUSSERT:  We‘re going to take a quick break.  We‘re talking to Ted Sorensen.  His new book, “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History.”  And presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

A look back at the presidency, the life and times of John F. Kennedy, right after this.


RUSSERT:  And we‘re back.  The book is “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History.”  The author is Ted Sorensen, close advisor to John Kennedy for 11 years.  And we‘re also joined by Doris Kearns Goodwin, the noted presidential historian.

Doris, when you hear Ted Sorensen talk about his relationship with John Kennedy, how important is it that a political figure, a president, have someone as so trusted as Ted Sorensen as a sounding board?

GOODWIN:  It‘s huge.  I mean, I think what Ted Sorensen was able to do with John Kennedy was to be an alter ego the way Bobby Kennedy also was, which means somebody who can tell you the truth. 

I mean, as you say in your memoir, you know, he didn‘t want you to be there saying yes. 

So he could trust him in that way.  And also, because he knew him so well -

as you were just saying—you could finish his sentences, you could write speeches that were, in truth, a collaboration with him in a way that it wouldn‘t be.

I think nowadays, the speechwriters in the White House, they‘re off in a separate place.  They have their own little speechwriting group.  They‘re not involved in policy and politics the way that you were, and that‘s what makes a great speechwriter.  You have to know your guy.

I‘m sure...

SORENSEN:  Tim, you‘ll be interested to know that there was either a review or an ad which compared me to Wilson‘s Colonel House, Roosevelt...

GOODWIN:  Harry Hopkins.

SORENSEN:  ... Harry Hopkins, and so on, right through Karl Rove.  A young lawyer friend of mine clipped it out, underlined “Karl Rove,” and said, “I‘m ready to represent you in the libel.”


RUSSERT:  Ted Sorensen, could you disagree with Jack Kennedy?  Could you tell him no?

SORENSEN:  Of course.  My favorite way of telling him no was, “That sounds like something Dick Nixon might propose.”


RUSSERT:  You write extensively about “Profiles in Courage,” the book President Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for.  Tell us—tell our audience about what‘s in the book, about your role in help drafting that book.

SORENSEN:  Senator Kennedy very early in his first term and my first year or two with him showed me a passage in a history book about an act of political courage by John Quincy Adams when he was a senator.  And he said, “We ought to collect several of these and put them together in an article about courage in the Senate.”  And I said, “I‘ll keep my eyes open for some more examples.”  And over the period of the next year, collected them. 

He went to the hospital for back surgery.  When he came out, he wanted a draft of that article because he thought it might be a good article for “Harper‘s” magazine. 

One thing led to another, and he‘s now calling me from Palm Beach saying, “They think we might be able to make this into a book if it would be at least 50,000 words.”  And we had just worked long and hard on an article for the Sunday “”New York Times” magazine which was 1,500 words.

GOODWIN:  Fifty times.

SORENSEN:  And I said, “As long as you understand that‘s 30 or more “New York Times” articles.”  “Oh, he said, well...”  “OK,” he said.  “Get started.”

And I began to get some research, and we delegated research to all kinds of people.  But I want to emphasize again, as I have for all these years, the book was his idea, the theme was his idea, the message was all his writing.  Even the selection of individual senators—though I did recommend Senator Norris from Nebraska as one of them.

So the wordsmith is not the author.  The man who comes up with the idea the theme, the examples, the basic contents, is the author.  And that‘s why I‘ve always said John F. Kennedy was the true author of “Profiles in Courage,” no matter how much hard work I put into it.  And he‘s the one who deserved the Pulitzer Prize.

RUSSERT:  There obviously was concern at that time about your role.  You said that privately you had talked about your role in writing the book because the Kennedys did provide you significant amounts of money to say this is a recognition of the hard work you put in.



SORENSEN:  I wouldn‘t say that.  When I first went to work for Senator Kennedy, he, like Paul Douglas, Wayne Morris, comparatively few other senators, wanted to make a mark by writing articles for publications ranging from “The New York Times” magazine to “The New Republic.”  And Paul Douglas‘ deal was that he would split his magazine fees with whoever on his staff helped him write it. 

And Kennedy agreed that he and I would have the same deal.  And I got maybe a $50 check once in a while for helping on a lot of articles. 

And then when “Profiles in Courage” turned out to be a bestseller, that was far beyond what we had ever contemplated.  And finally, I think maybe lawyers in his father‘s office thought they‘d better do something to keep me there.  They didn‘t need to do anything to keep me there.  I would have stayed with John F. Kennedy the rest of my life for free.

But they drew up a contract under which I would get a yearly payment.  And that was very nice, but it certainly wasn‘t necessary to buy either my loyalty or my silence.

RUSSERT:  Nicely said.

Doris, the works of John Kennedy, the published works, are in stark contrast to some of the things we see politicians in the modern era—certainly Barack Obama, a beautifully written book.  But not many—not many of our senators are in that same caliber, same league.

GOODWIN:  Oh, I know.  I mean, I‘m now working on Teddy Roosevelt, and it‘s astonishing to realize that he had time to write 40 books when he was this great public figure.

I mean, I think it‘s partly just the frenetic pace of life today, that these candidates think about this campaign trail they‘re on—I loved what you were saying, that even then, in the 1950s, it required somebody who was either a fanatic or an egomaniac, or a superbly fit athlete, which makes the whole idea of Kennedy‘s back and the pain that he suffered even more extraordinary, that he was able to go through that extraordinary marathon.  But today, the pace of our life is such that they don‘t have time to think, much less to write. 

And this is what‘s so extraordinary about the two books that Obama wrote, because they‘re deeply thoughtful books, which you very rarely see.  You get these books come together from a staff that puts things together, but they never go down to that level.  And I think it‘s because they don‘t have time.

They‘re running around too much.  They‘re on television.  They‘re on...

RUSSERT:  And raising money.

GOODWIN:  And they‘re raising money.  That‘s the real problem.

RUSSERT:  And to this day, Caroline Kennedy presents the Profiles in Courage Award...

GOODWIN:  Right.  Right.

RUSSERT:  ... to politicians who make difficult decisions.

We‘re going to take a quick break. 

We‘re joined by Ted Sorensen, President Kennedy‘s closest adviser.  His new book, “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History.”  And presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

We‘ll be right back.


RUSSERT:  And we are back talking to Ted Sorensen, “A Life at the Edge of History.”  “Counselor” is the name of the book.  And presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

One of the—of so many interesting stories in your book, Ted Sorensen, the censure of Joe McCarthy.  And you write about it in such a candid way, where President—Senator Kennedy—excuse me—his family had a relationship with Joe McCarthy.  He was ill at the time.  You prepared a statement supporting the censure of Joe McCarthy, but Senator Kennedy never issued it or never voted.

SORENSEN:  Unfortunately, I was very—I took my role as being in charges of his office very seriously.  I knew he would favor censure because he had been willing to give that speech before the Senate decided to have a special committee instead.

I did not feel it was right for him as an absent juror who had not heard the debate, much less read that special committee‘s report, to cast a vote. 

And I did not think I should cast it without him.  I waited for

instructions, but they never came.

RUSSERT:  And you say that you regret that to this day.

SORENSEN:  I do, because I thought Joe McCarthy was a despicable public figure who brought shame on the Senate.  I remember standing in the back of the Senate talking with a wonderful human being and senator, Mr. Hill of Alabama.

GOODWIN:  Oh, I remember him.

SORENSEN:  And he pointed at McCarthy.  And I was just a young kid, a Senate aide.  And he said to me, “Some day we‘re going to have to do something about that man.  And then we‘ll all have to answer the call of the role.”

RUSSERT:  Doris, the McCarthy era was one that our country now looks back at in a very conflicted way.  Here‘s John Kennedy, whose family was close to McCarthy, and yet Senator Kennedy knew the right thing to do in terms of censuring him for his behavior.

GOODWIN:  And I think also what was on Senator Kennedy‘s mind was that a lot of his constituents in Massachusetts would have been pro-McCarthy, pro-Catholic, pro the kind of worries that he had about what‘s going on in the country, and security and military.  But as we look back on that era, it‘s so important to remember it, because it just showed—it was almost like, you know, a fever came over the country, and McCarthy helped to stoke that fever by all his talk about disloyal people who were never disloyal.

And people lost their livelihoods.  They lost their reputations.  And this man was responsible.  He must be remembered by young people to show what can happen when the country doesn‘t have vigilance against such a person.

And he was despicable.  And he was terrible.

RUSSERT:  Why?  Why would...

GOODWIN:  Because what happened is he would start talking about people in various professions, whether they were Hollywood script writers or whether they were journalists, and by the mere mention of their name coming up in any of these circumstances, they could be blacklisted.  They could not get work again.  Their livelihoods were taken away from them.

Plus, the whole thing was over-exaggerated in the first place.  And the idea that he was able to look at marshal people, the great generals, and cast aspersions on them, I mean, it was a bad moment in our history.  And that‘s precisely why we have to remember it, so it doesn‘t happen again.

SORENSEN:  He kept saying he had a list of...

GOODWIN:  Right.

SORENSEN:  ... hundreds of...

GOODWIN:  This list, yes.

SORENSEN:  ... communists in the State Department.  He had no such list. 

He was just...

GOODWIN:  He just made it up.

SORENSEN:  ... posturing, making it up.  But interestingly enough, not only did Kennedy when he became president appoint to higher officer some of the people whom McCarthy had singled out for criticism, including even Edward R. Murrow, of broadcasting fame, and several others, but during a Kennedy press conference a lady correspondent rose to ask him a question about why he wasn‘t doing something, and she had the gall to name two people in the State Department whom she said were suspect...

GOODWIN:  Disloyal, yes.

SORENSEN:  ... disloyal, whatever.  And Kennedy from the rostrum reprimanded her for naming their names on national television.  And of course they were completely loyal citizens.

RUSSERT:  Supporters of McCarthy will say, well, but there were, in fact, some people who were not disposed to be loyal to the United States.

GOODWIN:  Yes, but then what you do is you figure out who they are, you work on some sort of security basis, and you bring out the evidence against them.  He cast a net that was so wide that it caught up so many other people who were anything but disloyal.

They were loyal.  They may have been liberal.  They may have wanted to have some sort of peaceful negotiations going on.  But it had nothing to do with what McCarthy was talking about.

RUSSERT:  And to have a president of the United States call out a reporter for naming or identifying people, that‘s a pretty interesting moment.

GOODWIN:  And I‘m sure that President Kennedy wanted to go back to making up in a certain way, because he felt bad about that censure as well.

RUSSERT:  Another quick break.

GOODWIN:  Or lack of it.

RUSSERT:  The book, “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History,” by Ted Sorensen, President Kennedy‘s closest adviser, and Doris Kearns Goodwin, presidential historian, right after this.


RUSSERT:  And we‘re back.

“Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History,” by Ted Sorensen is the book we‘re talking about today.  And we‘re also joined by Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential historian.

I remember as a little boy in January of 1961 watching a flickering black and white TV set.  And John Kennedy, the first Irish-Catholic president, speaking to the Irish Catholics of South Buffalo.  He was our president, saying to the country and the world, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

Ted Sorensen, what a speech.

SORENSEN:  It was not his best speech, but certainly his second best.  And an extremely important speech because it gained him respect all over the country and the world.

RUSSERT:  Where did that phrase come from?  Many people, and you in your book, suggest Oliver Wendell Holmes and others had different variations on the them.  But where did that idea, that theme, come from?

SORENSEN:  Basically, it was the theme that motivated his campaign.  He had campaigned the country not pandering to people‘s pocketbooks, the way most politicians always have and still do, but instead, telling people that this was a tough time in the midst of the Cold War.  And citizens were going to have to shoulder their responsibility, which meant some self-discipline, some self-sacrifice, and above all, public service.

GOODWIN:  You know, and I think what made the inaugural work and why it‘s so memorable is that he came at it at a time in history when that‘s what was happening already bubbling up.  You had the civil rights movement in the late ‘50s.  You had young people that were anxious to be part of something.

These things occur every 30 years, according to Arthur Schlesinger, and it was happening then.  Suppose Patrick Kennedy—Patrick Henry, actually—came to a chamber of commerce speech and said, “Give me liberty or give me death.”  It wouldn‘t work, right?  But it worked because you had those telling times.

And so it was in the 1960s.  And the reason that speech I think is so important, too, is it harbored then the beginning of these young people caring about government, going into the Peace Corps, later going into in the Teacher Corps.  And you had that citizen activeness where great public events cut into their private lives, and people felt larger.

When you‘re actually running and worrying about your country, as well as your private life, you‘re an expanded person.  And that‘s one of the great legacies that he left behind.

RUSSERT:  You know the line I remember most as a little boy?  “Let us go forth asking his blessing and his help, but knowing that here on earth, God‘s work must truly be our own.”


RUSSERT:  That struck a chord in me.

SORENSEN:  I hate to tell you this, Tim.  And I hope Cardinal Cushing, if he‘s up looking down, will forgive me.  But that tends (ph) to be good Unitarian doctrine.


RUSSERT:  Doris, how does the Kennedy inaugural address rank in history with other presidential inaugural addresses?

GOODWIN:  Well, I think, you know, it may be that the words of some others are more extraordinary.  When you think of Lincoln‘s second inaugural, obviously that‘s an historic moment because the war is coming to an end, the beauty of the language.

But the fact that the inaugural coincided with this young man coming in with all of that fervor to make things better, and that it was also so short, his life and his presidency, and that was such a time of hope, I think that‘s why it‘s emblazoned in our memory.  So it‘s clearly up there in terms of the inaugural address, because a lot of them are completely unmemorable.  That‘s when you forget.

You know, they just go on and on and on.  And they have this list of programs.  This one had a theme.

RUSSERT:  Ted Sorensen, you write that Jackie Kennedy asked you to destroy your original handwritten draft of the inaugural address.

SORENSEN:  Not quite.  When I was researching my first big book, “Kennedy”...


SORENSEN:  ... I came across in my files my first handwritten draft, which was very different from the final speech that emerged on Inauguration Day.  But I thought historians 50, 100 years from now, discover this and they‘ll think that Sorensen wrote the inaugural address, that he was the author.  I was not the author.

Most of the best phrases in that speech came from earlier Kennedy campaign speeches or from Kennedy‘s own pen and dictation.  Neither one of us had read it from Oliver Wendell Holmes, I can assure you, or, for that matter, Kahlil Gibran, whose followers thought we stole it from him because we could read Persian.


SORENSEN:  And no, it was—what I try to stress over and over, the ideas in the speech, the policies in the speech, which were much more important than the words, those were all Kennedy‘s.  And when two years ago a couple of good authors wrote a couple of good books about the inaugural, they emphasized on who was the author of particular words.  The Times called me up and I said, “Don‘t you think by now we should be worrying more about what‘s happened to those principles that he emphasized—particularly world poverty, for example, instead of emphasizing 10 particular words?”

No, that‘s why it‘s a great speech.  Not because of nice, eloquent words, but because...

GOODWIN:  The ideas.

SORENSEN:  ... of the ideas that were conveyed.

RUSSERT:  It would still be nice to have that handwritten draft.


SORENSEN:  No, I thought it would be misunderstood.  And every now and then the archives calls me and says, “Somebody‘s offering a handwritten draft of the inaugural on eBay and they‘re asking big money for it.”  I say, “I can assure you it‘s a fraud.”

GOODWIN:  You know, the one thing that made me sad, speaking of Jackie Kennedy asking you to do this, possibly, is that...

SORENSEN:  No, I told her I thought it would be a good idea.

GOODWIN:  Oh, I‘m not talking about that.

SORENSEN:  And she didn‘t ask me.

GOODWIN:  What I‘m saying is you later talked...

SORENSEN:  She agreed with my idea.

GOODWIN:  ... you later talked about the fact that she wanted you to exercise (sic) from the book—excise from the book the nice things you had been saying about LBJ.  And given my old buddy relationship with LBJ, he deserved credit for what he did, to be able to take a lot of those programs that John Kennedy cared so much about and get them through Congress.  And it seemed ungenerous of the Jackie Kennedy that I knew, that she would not even want him to get credit in that way.

SORENSEN:  I don‘t think she denied his largeness of spirit in picking up that torch after Kennedy was killed.  And especially facilitating the passage of the Kennedy civil rights program.  That was very important.

But Jackie, for one reason or another, didn‘t like LBJ‘s style, which we all agree was totally different from JFK‘s style.


RUSSERT:  Ted Sorensen, before we take a break, you piqued my curiosity. 

You said the inaugural was the second best speech.  What was the best?

SORENSEN:  The best was his American University commencement address on June 10, 1963, the first speech ever to call for a reexamination of the Cold War, for a reexamination of our relations with the Soviets, and for a reexamination of what we want and mean by peace itself.

RUSSERT:  Right across the street from where we‘re talking today.

GOODWIN:  Right.

RUSSERT:  American University.

We‘re going to take a quick break and come back and talk about the Cuban Missile Crisis and Ted Sorensen‘s central role in helping to manage that crisis, right here after this.


RUSSERT:  And we‘re back, joined by author Ted Sorensen, President Kennedy‘s closest adviser.  His new book, “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History.”  And with presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

The Cuban Missile Crisis, I can remember it like yesterday.  Sister Mary Lucile (ph) telling us how to duck and hide under our desks.

GOODWIN:  Like the desk was really going to save you.

RUSSERT:  We believed that there was going to be a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.  The freighters, we were told, were heading towards Cuba, loaded with nuclear materials, or potential nuclear materials, and were not going to turn back.

All eyes on the White House, where John Kennedy was with Ted Sorensen.

Tell us what was going on in the White House.

SORENSEN:  Well, on the final day, or, I should say, (INAUDIBLE) day of what historians still call the 13 most dangerous days in the history of mankind, because the whole Earth could have been extinguished, we were debating around the cabinet table—“we,” meaning what was called the EXCOMM, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council—how to respond to two conflicting letters that had come in from Soviet chairman Khrushchev.

The one that came in Friday night, the 26th, was full of denunciation, denial, excuses.  But no promises to do anything favorable.  And yet, buried in there were the seeds of a possible resolution of the crisis.  And the second letter that came on Saturday, the 27th, along with a lot of other bad news in terms of the military developments, that second letter insisted that the United States take NATO missiles out of Turkey, which they knew there was no way we could unilaterally do, and certainly not in a matter of a few days. 

And finally, when the most brilliant of our group, our former ambassador to the Soviet Union, Llewellyn Thompson, suggested that we ignore the second letter and answer the first, and Bobby Kennedy and I immediately joined in on that, the president said, “OK, you go draft the letter.”

And Bobby and I went down to my office, not far from the cabinet room.  And it was the toughest letter I ever had to write in my life.  I knew that if I wrote a letter that angered or provoked or even disappointed Khrushchev, he could get an order for those missiles to be fired.

The cabinet room in those days, unlike today, was not a reinforced concrete bunker.  So if they had missiles as smart as our missiles, and aimed one at the cabinet room, that would be the end for us.  But we were too busy working too hard to be scared.

And I tried to make that letter positive, adopting, as I say in the book, a technique from my high school debate days in which you adopt the other side‘s case.  And I would extract from his letter those few seeds of possible solution, and I would say, “As we understand your proposal”—

Khrushchev may have not thought he had proposed it quite that way—“and as we interpret your proposal,” and so on.  And we agreed, yes.

It turned out that—or I should say the letter ended up agreeing to his proposal with the sequence altered so that he had to carry out his part of it because we carried out our part of it.  I took it to the president.  He liked it.  He had me call Adlai Stevenson, our ambassador to the U.N., and he liked it.

It circulated among the other members of EXCOMM, around the cabinet table.  Bobby then took it off to hand it to the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Dobrynin, accompanied with a couple of oral messages that were at the time kept private.

But it worked.  And the next morning, Khrushchev withdrew those missiles under United Nations inspection, and the world heaved a sigh of relief.

RUSSERT:  Doris, here‘s a young man from Nebraska.

SORENSEN:  What‘s worse, I was only 34 years old.

RUSSERT:  Thirty-four years old.  Relying on lessons he had learned in high school debates.  But putting it all together in a letter to Nikita Khrushchev, which very well could have saved the world from nuclear holocaust.  It‘s an extraordinary moment in history.

GOODWIN:  But, you know, what I think Ted is so important, is what he learned in that debating lesson, by being empathetic to understand the other person‘s point of view, that‘s what good politicians should always do before you just go screaming at them.

The other thing that‘s so important in “Counselor” is you talk about how the people that were around the table with JFK at that time were different from the people at the Bay of Pigs, because he learned—he learned from the Bay of Pigs.

As you say, I love the phrase “An error is not a mistake unless you refuse to correct it.”  So he learned from the Bay of Pigs.  He learned he needed different people in the room, he needed to have new policies.  He couldn‘t have the secrecy that had so surrounded the Bay of Pigs, and he needed new advisors.

And he brought in you, he brought in Bobby.  He had a group there that could make these decisions so well.

So that‘s one of those cases where the Bay of Pigs, as bad as it was, was the great forerunner for making the decision-making right on the Cuban Missile Crisis.  And that‘s pointed out in here so well.

SORENSEN:  Well said.  Well said.

RUSSERT:  Did you believe that there was going to be a war?

SORENSEN:  None of us knew because none of us knew what Khrushchev would do.  He had never previously put nuclear weapons outside the borders of the Soviet Union. 

He had swiftly and secretly put them into Cuba, and only the genius of the CIA‘s U-2 plane was able to photograph them from 50,000 feet up and alert us in advance to that threat.  And that‘s when Kennedy first called us together and began to formulate an answer, and insisted from the outset that we give him every option he had—military, diplomatic, combined military/diplomatic, and what were the pros and the cons of each one of those options.

How different that is from a unilateral invasion of Iraq, where no other alliterative was considered.

RUSSERT:  And you write about the pressure from some in the military, Doris

Ted Sorensen writes—about we have to do something now.  We have to strike.  Let‘s respond with military strength.  And President Kennedy kept saying, wait.

GOODWIN:  Absolutely.  And think about other presidents who might feel, I have to show myself being tough.  I mean, that‘s what American people want.  And worrying that the military could then say, you were weak-willed at this incredible moment.  But he had the inner strength, the inner confidence to not take that route, which was huge.

RUSSERT:  And it underscores how important words are.  The written word can be such an important art weapon for any president.  In this case, a response to Nikita Khrushchev, drafted by Ted Sorensen.

On November 4, 1962, Ted Sorensen came on “MEET THE PRESS,” in effect, to report to the nation.  And he was asked about John Kennedy, what he had witnessed, what he had learned about his president, our president, at that time.

Here‘s Ted Sorensen, 1962.



SORENSEN:  The president has come through it very well.  I very often went home at night feeling even more grateful that we had in the White House the man we did, because he was calm and he was cool.  He was not taking a vote among his advisors, but reserving his own judgment until the facts and opinions were in, and then making the right decision himself.  And at the same time, he retained his own sense of humor, which is important in times like this.


RUSSERT:  Calm, cool and a sense of humor.

After that interview was completed, the phone rang in the studio of “”MEET THE PRESS.”  Who was on the line?

SORENSEN:  We had already turned off the microphones.  The lights were being shut down.  Everybody looked a little startled.  They didn‘t know there was a phone in the room.

Somebody picked it up and said to me, “It‘s for you.”  I picked up the phone, and there was JFK on the other end saying, “They didn‘t lay a glove on you.”


GOODWIN:  Is that great?  Don‘t you love a guy like that, who can do that?

RUSSERT:  We‘re going to take a quick break.  Another important moment in the history of “MEET THE PRESS.”

We‘ll be right back.


RUSSERT:  And we‘re back with Ted Sorensen.  He is the author of “Counselor: A life at the Edge of History,” and presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Doris, having read “Counselor,” and hearing Ted Sorensen speak with us today, what do you believe is the lasting legacy of John F. Kennedy?

GOODWIN:  I think what John F. Kennedy will be remembered for is for trying to inject a new spirit into the country, just as Ted said earlier, to make people feel that citizenship was something that they should have as an obligation, that they wanted to be active in their government.  And at the same time at that Cold War, I think you‘re right, the American University speech was the beginning of what might have been a whole different look at the world after the Cuban Missile Crisis toward a more peaceful resolution of problems.

And will always be remembered as somebody young who was connected to a decade when people felt good about themselves.  They felt good about their country, they felt good about fighting for the problems that the country was facing.

As I was saying before, that‘s when you feel expanded.  Your life becomes bigger.  It‘s not just your family, not just your work.  But you‘re working on behalf of the country.  And somehow he connected to that.

I mean, there will always be questions about, could he have done something different, what kind of mistakes he made.  Of course.  He only had three years.  But it‘s an amazing thing that he‘s remembered so well in that short period of time.

Bobby Kennedy used to worry that those three years meant that there wasn‘t enough time and it wasn‘t fair.  But it‘s amazing.  Here we are, so many years later, and he‘s still in people‘s minds.

When people ask, who are the great presidents?  The country will often say JFK.

SORENSEN:  A friend my age said to me just the other day—a man—“It was the first time a president of the United States had ever asked me to do anything except kill people.”

RUSSERT:  Ted Sorensen, you gave 11 years of your life to John Kennedy, in service to him and our country.  What do you believe the lasting legacy of John Kennedy is?  How do you remember him and how should the country remember him?

SORENSEN:  Well, I remember him first, as Doris said, the theme of public service, of people paying back to society all that‘s been given to them in this fortunate country.  I also remember him giving hope to people at the bottom of the economic ladder, to minorities, to students who thought they faced a lifetime of military service, but also to people in other countries.

I had the good fortune to be an international lawyer.  I traveled to probably 70 countries.  I always encountered people who said John Kennedy was important in their lives and got them interested in public service, and gave them hope for their lives and their country.

RUSSERT:  One of the most memorable speeches, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” which I remember crowds cheering, “Kennedy!  Kennedy!  Kennedy!”

And now I read “Counselor,” and the literal translation of “Ich bin ein Berliner” is?

SORENSEN:  According to some German speakers, a Berliner is a jelly donut.


SORENSEN:  To which I now reply, “‘The New Yorker‘ is a great magazine, but

anyone who says, ‘Ich bin ein New Yorker‘ is not saying, ‘I‘m a magazine.‘”


RUSSERT:  But Doris, I think John Kennedy would love the laughter about “Ich bin ein Berliner,” “I am a jelly donut.”

GOODWIN:  Oh, absolutely.

RUSSERT:  Because he—Ted Sorensen underscores in this book and on “MEET THE PRESS” the sense of humor, how vital that was for President Kennedy in dealing with the pressures of his job.

GOODWIN:  Yes.  A sense of humor allows you to laugh at yourself.  I mean, Dick tells the story of being in West Virginia with President—Senator Kennedy running for the presidency.  Nobody showed up at some breakfast, it was freezing. 

And Kennedy was obviously disappointed.  But he looked at Dick and he said, “I wouldn‘t come to see me either.  Let‘s go have some bacon and eggs.”

You can laugh at yourself.  It was the trait that Lincoln had, it‘s the trait that John F. Kennedy had.  We‘ve got to look for that in our presidential candidates.

RUSSERT:  And also...

SORENSEN:  Do we have time for me to explain the humor I had in mind on “MEET THE PRESS” the week after...

RUSSERT:  Please.

SORENSEN:  ... the missile crisis?

RUSSERT:  We have 30 seconds.

SORENSEN:  In the—with the worst, most tense moment on that Saturday, when it looked as though war was on our doorstep, word was handed in to the cabinet room that an Air Force pilot who had been sent out to sample the air to see if the Soviets were testing their nuclear weapons—we were testing ours—had lost his navigational controls and had flown out over Siberia, an Air Force plane.

The Soviets scrambled their jets.  There was stunned silence around the table, broken by Kennedy saying, “There‘s always one son of a bitch who doesn‘t get the word.”


RUSSERT:  That‘s amazing.

Ted Sorensen.  The book is “Counselor.”

Doris Kearns Goodwin, thanks very much.


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