inTouch: Was JFK’s Speechwriter Really His Ghostwriter?
The role of John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter in writing some of Kennedy’s most well-known texts was one of the smaller stories that came out as a part of the news blitz surrounding Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy. The book includes transcripts from previously unreleased 1964 interviews that Jacqueline Kennedy recorded with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. after John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
News outlets teased out some of the surprising details to get people interested, including Jacqueline Kennedy’s unfavorable opinion of Martin Luther King, Jr., but Caroline Kennedy gave those comments some context in light of the fact that FBI honcho J. Edgar Hoover may have spread falsehoods about King.
Richard J. Tofel wrote in The Washington Post that “…historians will need to be careful about putting too much stock in what Mrs. Kennedy said…Mrs. Kennedy portrays her husband as the principal author of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, as well as his inaugural address,” but historical details indicate otherwise.
Theodore Sorensen, who Kennedy said was “his intellectual blood bank,” is referred to as a “research associate” for Profiles in Courage when apparently, he actually wrote the bulk of the book. Sorensen was paid for his work and given an increased amount of money after Profiles in Courage won the Pulitzer.
The details of what Kennedy did and did not write, along with President and Mrs. Kennedy’s actions to, in a sense, rewrite history, make quite a tale. In 1961, Kennedy drafted his inaugural address longhand in front of a reporter and read it aloud, neglecting to mention that most of the speech had already been drafted by Sorensen.
The notion that Kennedy did not write Profiles in Courage was floated around in 1957 and was denied by Kennedy and Sorensen. Tofel also writes that Sorensen wrote “the most famous phrases” in Kennedy’s inaugural address and that: “The surest indication that Mrs. Kennedy had a strong sense of this being the case was her request…that Sorensen destroy his own, handwritten first draft of the inaugural address — a request with which Sorensen complied.”
Apparently, Sorensen spoke in private about being Kennedy’s ghostwriter and word likely got back to Mrs. Kennedy and this may have contributed to her zeal to burnish her husband’s legacy.
As a ghostwriter myself, I know that while you work out payment agreements, there are no deals when it comes to credit, fame or glory. Agreeing to be a silent partner is part of the deal–and these days it is written into contracts, but it might not have been spelled out back then. Kennedy was a president who inspired loyalty and Sorensen didn’t seem to mind being in the background but commenters on The Washington Post article debated over whether or not Sorensen should have destroyed his drafts.
Sorensen is a great contrast to Jon Lovett, a former Obama speechwriter: he was profiled in the press when he left the administration to pursue a career as a screenwriter.
As for the President and Mrs. Kennedy, the glamour of Camelot and their combined legacies are not likely to be eclipsed by these revelations, but they can be added to the roster of notable people who took deliberate action to put their own narrative stamp on their biographies.
READ and WATCH John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech.
Do you think Sorensen got a raw deal? Thrown under the bus?