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Sunday, Nov. 7, 2010

The life and times of an American 'mentor'

LOS ANGELES — As far as I know, Nebraska-born Theodore "Ted" Sorensen, who died last week at 82, disagreed with me only twice. He was right both times.

The disagreements were memorable, for in my mind they illuminated why the influence of John F. Kennedy's legendary right-hand man will remain enormous for decades. And why I am no Ted Sorensen.

The first occasion was at Princeton University when the then-visiting professor tendered this humble student a measure of advice on the art of writing.

"You're a good talker," complained JFK's honored speechwriter about my term paper, noting my conversational contributions to his seminar on U.S. foreign policy and presidential leadership. "But writing is not just speaking." It requires, he explained patiently, precision, discipline and careful organization. "You must take your writing more seriously."

His invaluable rebuke was memorable precisely because no one took more seriously the need for discipline in the written word than Sorensen. His legendary emergency missive to Nikita Khrushchev in 1962 might have been the key element in the peaceful resolution of the deeply frightening Cuban Missile Crisis. The careful composition of the famous American University Cold War speech elevated the Kennedy presidency globally — and perhaps eternally. And while great speeches are almost never great line by line throughout, just one sonorous and transformational line ("Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country") can resound in history forever.

Sorensen's work on the Kennedy legacy deserves some kind of posthumous prize. For without his contributed words to JFK's legacy — in his later books as well as in his White House speeches and memoranda of the early '60s — it is hard to imagine the Kennedy presidency celebrated that much more than Jimmy Carter's.

The mere fact of JFK's mainly majestic ranking suggests to me the awesome power of language in the hands of a master craftsman dedicated to the best possible articulation of a president's dreams and visions.

No American president since JFK has come close to the JFK rhetorical level. Reagan was a masterful speaker, but the speeches themselves do not remotely equal the Kennedy body of work. The clever Bill Clinton gave not memorable speeches but long ones. The otherwise eloquent Barack Obama has yet to find his true voice and transmit a clear, inspiring vision, as last week's midterm election results partly suggest.

Sorensen's enduring influence resides not only in his words but also in his deeds. His career certainly didn't need the boast of that dreary long train ride from Manhattan every Wednesday to offer his coveted Princeton seminar; but my recollection is that he never missed a class. His decades of law practice at a famous Manhattan firm gave him all he could handle, but he was rarely at a loss of time to serve as the avid, sagacious mentor, whether for a troubled student, a worried head of state or a confused journalist.

Sorensen's invaluable role as mentor mostly escaped his many adulatory obituaries, but it was at the core of his continued influence, even after the assassinations of JFK and his brother Robert. Those of us who benefited from his mentorship will make sure that his heritage is not quickly forgotten.

Mentoring is, in fact, one of the world's most under-rated processes, as Sorensen gently reminded me at a Manhattan literary party last summer. Holding forth on my new book on Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore who now holds the odd-sounding Cabinet title of "minister mentor," I ventured the offhand remark that Minister Mentor seemed such a silly hat for this giant of Asia to wear.

Sorensen would have none of it. It's wonderful, he argued back, feisty as ever, in that unforgettably sonorous mellow voice of the windy Midwestern plains. It's rich with meaning and importance and imagination.

He was right, of course. Sorensen himself might have loved to be minister mentor in the current American government. But of course no such creativity exists in Washington for this.

Just as Singapore's Lee has been a mentor to so many people over the decades in his post as one of the wise men of Asia, so, too, has Sorensen, here in America, never tiring in seeking to elevate the level of American political discourse.

Once he asked me, after noticing some slight improvements in my prose, years after Princeton, why I had never been engaged as a speechwriter. It was a job in politics he felt could not be overestimated for influence. I answered him quickly, honestly and perhaps a little bluntly: "Because, unlike you, I never fell in love."

At that he smiled, for as he was the first to admit, he did love John F. Kennedy. I never found my own JFK. And as far as I can tell, neither has America.

Syndicated columnist Tom Plate, distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific studies at Loyola Marymount University, is the author of "Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew," the first in the Giants of Asia series published by Marshall Cavendish Asia. © 2010 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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