PHOTOPHILE- JFK memories: Sorensen lived long enough to tell
Moving slowly to the podium and wearing a thick pair of glasses, the 80-year-old confidante to and speechwriter for John F. Kennedy announced, "Don't worry about my eyesight, folks; I have more vision than the president of the United States."
"So much for the non-partisan spirit," whispered former Virginia delegate Paul Harris, a Republican, in apparent reference to the mission of the host organization, the Sorensen Institute, which trains citizens to become political leaders.
Indeed, what ensued at the Farmington Country Club Monday, September 8– besides some lively JFK-in-Virginia anecdotes and the joys of growing up in Nebraska– was a mix of further attacks on President George W. Bush inserted amid hair-raising, fly-on-the-wall scenes from the Cuban Missile Crisis, when, for 13 days in October 1962, nuclear war loomed.
Sorensen pointed out that hawkish congressmen were urging the president to blast the Russian missile launchers that U.S. spy planes discovered on Castro's island nation, and he admitted that a military strike was very much a White House option– "until we found out from the Air Force that we'd only get half of them and that the other half would wipe out much of the country."
Sorensen claimed that today's presidential advisors gave their commander only one option for dealing with Iraq– unlike the "ExComm," the secrecy-shrouded 14-member group JFK convened to deal with the missile crisis.
Sorensen, speaking to invited guests of the UVA center named for his late benefactor brother, alternated between defending "his president like a Rottweiler refusing to let go of a pant leg," as the Washington Post recently put it, and prompting guffaws (as did his sister, Institute board member Ruth Sorensen Singer, in her introduction).
For instance, the televised address Sorensen wrote for Kennedy did much more than explain the American naval blockade of Cuba. In recent years, Sorensen said, myriad men have approached him "to thank me for making that speech so scary that they could convince their girlfriends it was their last night on earth."
Earlier in the day, UVA Commerce School prof Rob Patterson– who, like the guest of honor, attended the University of Nebraska– screened a video of JFK delivering the famous Houston Ministerial Association speech. There, with words penned by Sorensen, Kennedy navigated another crisis, this one religious, on his way to the White House.
"What an insider's take," exclaimed Patterson after Sorensen's talk at Farmington. "To hear it from the guy himself."
Sean O'Brien, the former director of the Sorensen Institute who now directs the Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier, said Sorensen reminded him of the nation's fourth president, whose notes of the Constitutional Convention revealed history.
"Like James Madison," said O'Brien, "he lived long enough to tell the whole story."
Note: This story has been amended to reflect the correct date of the event.
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