How have politics changed since JFK’s presidency?
Theodore C. Sorensen, former special counsel and adviser to President John F. Kennedy and a widely published author on the presidency and foreign affairs, practiced international law for more than 36 years as a senior partner, and now of counsel, at the prominent U.S. law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. The former chairman of the firm’s International Practice Committee, he has represented U.S. and multinational corporations in negotiations with governments all over the world and advised and assisted a large number of foreign governments and government leaders, ranging from the late President Sadat of Egypt to former President Mandela of South Africa.
Mr. Sorensen and his team at Paul, Weiss have advised U.S. corporations on factories in Russia and Africa, pipelines in the Caribbean and Latin America, and disputes in the Middle East and North America, and negotiated on their behalf with government officials at the highest level in dozens of countries. He has advised foreign corporations from five continents on investments in the United States and elsewhere, foreign governments on problems with the World Bank, the United Nations, the U.S. government and foreign investors, and on changes in their respective mining, petroleum, investment and election codes, and constitutions.
In 2002, Mr. Sorensen was a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Mr. Sorensen is on the advisory board of the Foreign Policy Leadership Council, a director of the Council on Foreign Relations (until 2004) and the Century Foundation, a member of the advisory board of the Partnership for a Secure America and an honorary co-chair of the ABA Commission on the Renaissance of Idealism in the Legal Profession. Mr. Sorensen is the author of the 1965 international best seller Kennedy, seven other books on the presidency, politics or foreign policy and numerous articles on those subjects in Foreign Affairs, The New York Times and other publications. As an active figure in the Democratic Party, he has participated in 10 of the last 12 Democratic Party National Conventions and served in a number of governmental, political and civic posts. Appointed by President Bill Clinton, he served on the boards of the Central Asian-American Enterprise Fund (covering Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) and the Commission on White House Fellows. He is experienced in the ways of Washington, the United Nations and the multilateral (World Bank, IFC, etc.) and U.S. (AID, OPIC, etc.) financing institutions.
Mr. Sorensen was born in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1928. He is father of three sons, one daughter and is married to Gillian Martin Sorensen, a former New York City commissioner, a former United Nations under-secretary general and current senior advisor and national advocate at the United Nations Foundation. Mr. Sorensen's memoirs, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, were published by HarperCollins in May of 2008.
Question: How have politics changed since JFK’s presidency?
Ted Sorensen: I would say it’s changed in two ways. First to stick to public speaking, the age of eloquence has disappeared. We now have a president who barely knows the language. We have speeches from political candidates and leaders which are pedestrian at best. They are not inspirational. They have very few new substantive ideas. Some are substantive and not new. Some are new but not substantive. So it’s too bad, and I think television gets part of the blame. Television is supposedly the cool medium that comes into the living room, the bedroom. For people to sound like John F. Kennedy today would seem old fashioned. And now it’s such an informal, casual era in the way we talk; the way we dress; the way we communicate with each other. There are almost no standards. There are some of course, but our leaders are not held to them. So in terms of eloquence, a lot has changed. Secondly, in terms of relations between the parties, a lot has changed. John F. Kennedy is the man who, when he refused to support the nominee of his own party for governor in his home state of Massachusetts, said, “Sometimes party asks too much.” Well today party seems to ask everything of everybody. And the candidates – even on the Senate floor – have forgotten what comity . . . and not comity. There’s a little of that going on unintentionally. But comity meaning relations of respect and looking for reasons to agree with others and find harmony with others. That kind of comity has disappeared. And it’s all too rare that debate between members of opposition parties find a common ground for the interests of all the American people. That prevailed under Kennedy’s leadership. It’s all too rare today except in the speeches from Senator Obama.
Question: Who is to blame?
Ted Sorensen: That’s a very, very good question, and probably a so-so psychologist would have to answer it. In the Congress, the language of comity disappeared when Mr. Gingrich became the Speaker, and he was . . . He was so fiercely partisan that he engaged in name calling of Democrats and ideas voiced by Democrats that it could only be considered vituperation. It certainly cannot be considered a reasonable debate of the kind that I witnessed back in the days when I was a young assistant to the United States Senator from Massachusetts. And the proliferation of media . . . We now have news cycles 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And we have not only the major television networks, but we have dozens if not hundreds of cable networks. And we have as well the Internet, which we are now using, and all of the bloggers all competing for the attention of people. And to be heard over that din, people find it . . . or think it’s necessary to shout; to use more extreme words and phrases; more absurd and ridiculous demands and proposals. That’s very unfortunate. Sad to say, maybe the three assassinations in the 1960s of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King – all three of whom made beautiful, memorable, eloquent speeches in the course of public debate. You can’t lose three people like that and expect the world to go on as it was before. Sometimes an individual makes a difference. And for three of them to be taken savagely that way I think wounded the American psyche.
Question: What’s the worst you’ve heard recently?
Ted Sorensen: The worst I’ve heard recently was Bill Clinton, who knows better . . . He’s an intelligent man. For him after his wife lost in South Carolina to Senator Obama . . . for him to say, “Well Jesse Jackson won in South Carolina. It meant nothing.” That was Mr. Clinton’s devious way of making people think that Barack Obama is another Jesse Jackson, when that is not even remotely true. And Mr. Clinton knows it’s not remotely true. He knows that Jesses Jackson was never a serious national candidate, and he certainly knows by now that Barack Obama is a serious national candidate. So why can’t Mr. Clinton go back to the ideals that characterized him when he was first running for the presidency in 1992 and stop this trash talk?
The era of eloquence and comity has passed, says Sorensen.
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