A Voice that Defined a Presidency and Set the Gold Standard for Political Eloquence
Just short of half a century to the day when John F. Kennedy became the 35th President of the United States, his last remaining counselor, Ted Sorensen, passed away. He was 82. To be picked by President Kennedy, a man of great letters and literary appreciation himself, to be a speechwriter and advisor at a young age was high praise itself. But Ted Sorensen went on to give the young president and the world soaring prose that illuminated that presidency in a way that has been matched by no other since. He was a master of words — yes — but like all truly great speechwriters, he had a gift for understanding the innermost timeless yearnings of people for truth and justice, hope and opportunity, fairness and the freedom to accomplish. Mr. Sorensen knew, as well, that while ordinary people can do much, they can do even more with leaders who shine a beacon to point the way forward.
Neither his sense of optimism nor his capacity to craft thoughts that inspire dulled with time, as his concluding remarks in Counselor, one of his last books, eloquently testify:
I still believe that the mildest and most obscure of Americans can be rescued from oblivion by good luck, sudden changes in fortune, sudden encounters with heroes.
For the immortal words and ideas he created that became the gold standard for political eloquence half a century on, Ted Sorensen was one of our heroes. We will miss him.
William Safire died this past week. He started in public relations and had a stint writing speeches for Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s corrupt and discredited vice president. But what gained him admiration from well beyond the fringe of the left or the right was his reverence for the English language. He demonstrated that skill in his New York Times columns for over three decades. He was also a living illustration that whatever one’s politics, it is character and personality that ultimately define the individual. Do you touch those around you with a special magic? Do you lift those in defeat and in despair to a higher place, regardless of their political leanings or even their public offences?
In his columns, Mr. Safire took on many interests and causes that frequently belied his avuncular tweed jacket and Hush Puppy attire. Some he hit rather hard. But it was not uncommon to see him later having lunch with the object of his occasional acerbic pen –and footing the bill for the privilege. Why did he do that? “Only hit people when they’re up,” was how he explained it to a Times colleague. It takes an uncommon person to understand where the battle of the office ends and where human compassion begins. Bill Safire was one of the rare gems in that department. He was his own man. He understood the value of words and placed a high value on living a life of meaning.
He will be missed
How grand and ineffably uplifting are these larger-than-life comets that streak across our lives and illuminate our journeys from obstacles and oppression to happiness and hope. When they pass, and the light of their life dims, we find ourselves in a much better place than we otherwise would have thought even possible. Whether it was Ted Kennedy’s destiny to be such a figure or whether he earned it by dint of hard work, good nature and, yes, more than his share of errors in judgment, the tributes that flow to his name today demonstrate that he was one of the more remarkable figures of our time.
It is perhaps never terribly surprising so see men and women who are blessed with name, wealth and family connections follow a path in pursuit of more wealth. What is surprising is when such people put their career and professional treasure in the service of the less blessed, the poor and the people who may not even have known a parent. In his quest for universal heath care, education reform and a better minimum wage for the working forgotten, Senator Kennedy was an uncommon champion.
In the 1970s, I had an interest in a survey research company based in Toronto. The company decided to poll university students across Canada for their views on the most popular leaders at the time. Ted Kennedy topped the poll. We were delighted after the results were published to receive a call from the Senator’s Washington office asking for a copy. We hoped it gave him a chuckle to know that he touched so many youthful minds even beyond the American border.
He was a political touchstone for at least one generation. It will be interesting to see who for the next emerges in that role. Someone will. For in the cause of great achievement and noble deeds the words of Ted Kennedy will always illuminate and set the course:
The work goes on. The cause endures. The hope still lives. And the dream shall never die.
He was a man of principle, but not to the extent of forgetting that others have principles too. He was a politician, but always showed he understood life outside Washington and among those who still have to struggle to get by. And when he grabbed the ball in politics, just as he did when he was the quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, he did it with style, grace and civility.
Former congressman and one-time Republican vice presidential candidate, Jack Kemp, died today at 73 from cancer. He was the same age my grandfather was when he was taken by the disease. Jack Kemp had a distinctive voice and way of making a point. Few ever claimed to have been offended. But he could still make his point. And he was, in later life outside politics, a fierce advocate for the power and potential of the individual. Societies are great. But so much in life is advanced, whether by innovation, invention or standing up for some cause, by one individual at a time.
His death comes at a time that nearly marks the first-year anniversary of the passing of another tireless booster of the common man, and of all things Buffalo: Tim Russert. What made these fellows so memorable is that they were unique. They had a distinct personality. They always seemed to have a sparkle in their eyes. And they understood that there is something precious about every individual. They connected with us in a personal way, not just as part of a huge, faceless society.
These are the kind of people we miss so much, and why we still look desperately for their successors to lead, inspire and illuminate us again.
Well done, Jack.
We like occasionally to take a break from the deafening cascade of crises and disasters punctuating daily life and turn to some other pursuits that make the world better. Music features prominently among them. The artists, composers and musicians who have come this way and left so much behind that has inspired and brought often indescribable joy deserve to be remembered.
Musician, arranger and composer Neal Hefti passed away last week. At a young age, he played the trumpet skillfully enough, but found his musical skills soon taking him into the world of arranging. He did key arrangements for Woody Herman and Count Basie. For Basie, he composed and arranged the classic Li’l Darlin’, a popular big band staple even today. (more…)
The foot soldiers and ordinary stakeholders of the political process, which is just about all of us, lost a stalwart champion when Tim Russert, NBC’s Washington Bureau Chief and moderator of Meet the Press, died suddenly on Friday. To me, he was one of those who believed that to make democracy a reality you needed politics that worked. He made it more interesting. But there was a larger purpose to his mission. Holding the powerful to account, believing that those who aspired to the public trust had a sacred duty to explain themselves, was what Tim Russert stood for. He did his job without being trivial or nasty, and without shouting and invective. He wanted to get to the real story and deliver the truth to the public. He loved what he did and you could tell that he saw it as a trust and a privilege. These attributes, already rare in today’s institutions of journalism (and elsewhere, for that matter) will become so much more diminished by his absence. I liked the fact that, with all his inside connections, Tim seemed very much in the corner of the average voter. Why don’t we have more politicians like that?
Then there was the dimension of the dutiful son to his aging father, Big Russ, as they called him. That was an inspiration to those of us who also honor our parents, and helped us remember why we do. His home town Buffalo Bills had no better fan; nor did “the Sisters” who guided his education.
The older I get, the more I see the men I have admired as figures who have lived their lives by the game of baseball in many respects. They practice and work hard. They compete fiercely. But they also play by the rules, and they never, never stop acting like gentlemen. The best among them are authentic individuals with something that is rather rare these days: a personality defined by a true generosity of spirit and a larger-than-life embrace of the world and the people in it. Every Sunday, I always got the impression Tim was on my team. It was a good feeling.
Tim will be operating at a much larger bureau now, and I suspect there are going to be some big changes. The boss in charge may be in for quite a grilling, given certain inconsistencies between what He said in the Old Testament versus His more recent positions. I can already see the graphics on the screen, complete with detailed scriptural passages and dates.
But Tim will do it with his customary grace and fairness. He taught that well to generations of journalists and viewers because he had been taught well himself. Which is why, if it’s Sunday, there will always be a moment to think about Tim.