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One week before inauguration Sorensen compares Obama, JFK

Published: January 16, 2009
Section: Front Page


<i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

In anticipation of Inauguration Day, former John F. Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorensen spoke last Tuesday about the role of inaugural speeches at an event titled “From ‘Ask not…’ to ‘Yes we can.’”

The event, co-sponsored by the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life, Gen Ed Now, and the Student Union, attracted a crowd that filled the 250-seat Shapiro Campus Center Theater, with some students even sitting on the floor or standing in the back in order to hear Sorensen speak.

“There is such an excitement coming off the Obama win and running up to the inauguration that people were very enthused about the event,” Gen Ed Now co-president Daniel Gillman ‘10 said.

Sorensen, who has chaired the advisory board of Brandeis’ International Center for Ethics since 2000, was an early supporter of President-Elect Barack Obama.

In a conversation with The Hoot before his presentation, Sorensen explained that while Obama may not have had as much executive experience as other candidates.

“The key quality in the White House is not experience. The White House requires judgment,” he said.

Sorensen said he supported Obama in part because he saw parallels between the judgment shown by Obama when he opposed the Iraq War and spoke of the importance of communicating with foreign leaders and judgment shown by President Kennedy.

“I think he is the first president since JFK who has had that ability,” Sorensen said.

Throughout his talk, Sorensen reviewed why the presidents who have come after Kennedy have failed to live up to Kennedy’s legacy.

While presidents such as Ronald Reagan focused on the economy and other domestic and partisan issues in their inaugural addresses, “JFK was talking about the need to push back deserts, tap the ocean depths, and engage in negotiations without fear.”

Sorensen also gave his take on what he called “myths” about Kennedy’s inaugural speech.

SPEECHES: Ted Sorensen, speech writer for President John F. Kennedy speaks Tuesday to a full crowd in the Shapiro Campus Center Theater.  In his speech Sorensen detailed his experiences as a speech writer for JFK; however he did not disclose who was responsible for writing the line: “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.<br /><i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

SPEECHES: Ted Sorensen, speech writer for President John F. Kennedy speaks Tuesday to a full crowd in the Shapiro Campus Center Theater. In his speech Sorensen detailed his experiences as a speech writer for JFK; however he did not disclose who was responsible for writing the line: “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

He addressed the question of who wrote the speech, and in particular, who wrote the words “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” saying “the question is not who penned particular words, but why Kennedy’s values and policies that were stressed through that speech have been largely forgotten.”

He also deflected claims that the inaugural was a Cold War address, noting that Kennedy said that America must unite “against the common enemies of man” – a phrase that “doesn’t sound like a cold war speech.”

As to whether the speech was Kennedy’s most important, Sorensen disagrees, citing Kennedy’s commencement address at American University as the most important, because it “called for a reexamination of the cold war and relations with the USSR.”

After debunking myths, Sorensen discussed his expectations of Obama’s own inaugural address, saying that he believes that Obama’s inaugural address will follow Kennedy’s non-partisan tradition.

“An inaugural address should not be a campaign speech…I predict that Obama will not attack the Republican party or George Bush in his inaugural address,” he said.

Sorensen also explained that just as Kennedy “wanted to emphasize foreign policy” in his inaugural as a way of “[defining] him and his policies to the rest of the world,” Obama will “focus on international, global matters.”

After Sorensen’s address, Professor Peniel Joseph (AAAS) responded to the talk, adding that he expects that Obama, like “the best American presidents” will ask “the nation to look beyond its current paradigm.”

Both Joseph and Sorensen see the Obama’s inaugural speech as a first step for Obama to lay out such a vision, just as Kennedy did 49 years ago.Sorensen, though, will not play a role in implementing Obama’s vision.

When asked by the Hoot whether he would play a role in Obama’s administration, Sorensen invoked a line from the beginning of Kennedy’s inaugural speech:

“The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, and I am not part of that generation.”