Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History

In This Review

Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History

By Ted Sorensen
Harper, 2008
576 pp. $27.95
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In his long-awaited memoirs, the John F. Kennedy adviser, collaborator, and speechwriter Sorensen balances two apparently conflicting demands: he continues his long record of unswerving loyalty to the charismatic president he served while giving readers a full and rich sense of his own complex personality. To those who challenge his objectivity as a chronicler of the Kennedy era, Sorensen responds, persuasively, that historians have one set of duties but that his own duty of loyalty to the administration he served and to a man he loved must come first. Even so, Sorensen has eschewed hagiography, and on the whole his account of his tragically brief time at Kennedy's side offers a rich and generally well-balanced, if perhaps not always objective and dispassionate, description of a political career that electrified the nation.

This is also a strong and memorable statement of faith in one of the classic forms of American liberalism: a belief in the possibility of progress and in the ability of society, acting through government, to make basic improvements in the human condition. The source of Sorensen's political loyalty to Kennedy and of his lasting loyalty to the Democratic Party is his belief that they stand for this faith. Long unfashionable, the old liberal faith seems to be coming back in style in 2008; Sorensen's loyalty to his convictions is as honorable (and almost as rare) as is his loyalty to the president he served. However, the real surprise in this book, and it is a very pleasant and welcome one, is the degree to which Sorensen succeeds in revealing himself. He tells the story of his own Midwestern origins as the son of Unitarian parents (his father a refugee from evangelicalism, his mother a lapsed Jew), steeped in the culture of progressive reform. Honest to a fault, deeply committed to the struggle against machine politics and to the construction of a government strong enough and clean enough to act in the public interest, Sorensen's father exemplified the virtues and taught the political philosophy that the younger Sorensen has followed through his long and distinguished career. Sorensen's account of his mother's harrowing battle with mental illness is at once gracious and brave, as is his description of his own battle to overcome the consequences of a serious stroke.

Niebuhrian critics of American optimism will find Sorensen's credo a bit optimistic and naive. There is no room in Sorensen's Unitarian faith for the dark Augustinian reflections on original sin and human limits that many observers believe are needed to complicate and qualify the American liberal outlook. But Sorensen's optimism has been tested -- by the tragedies of the Kennedy family and by the vicissitudes of American politics. That American society is capable of producing public servants like Sorensen is one reason that American optimism is perennially renewed.