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Ted Sorensen
Ted Sorensen
Why I Am a Democrat
ISBN: 0805044140
Why I Am a Democrat
Ted Soreson discussed his book, "Why I Am a Democrat," published by Henry Holt and Company. The book focuses on the Democratic Party's basic principles on several public policy issues and how these differ with Republican principles. He also talked about why people should still be proud to be true Democrats in an age seemingly dominated by Republicans.
Why I Am a Democrat
Program Air Date: July 14, 1996

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Ted Sorensen, why a book about "Why I Am a Democrat"?
TED SORENSEN, AUTHOR, ""WHY I AM A DEMOCRAT" I started this book last year, obviously, when the Democratic party was at a very low ebb. Democrats were speaking out only to announce their retirement or that they were switching parties. Very little was being said about what the Democratic Party stood for. Some was being said about what they were against. I decided that I would write "Why I Am a Democrat."
LAMB: You said your father was a Republican.
SORENSEN: Yes, my father was a Republican in the days when the Republicans had a strong moderate wing. Those days are over. My father's heroes were Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. You don't hear much about their philosophy in the Republican ranks today.
LAMB: When did you first call yourself a Democrat?
SORENSEN: I started working for, well, let's put it this way. I really wasn't interested in politics at all until I was age four, when my father, who was a Republican and running for attorney general, introduced his children from the Fairbury County state fair stage.
LAMB: In Nebraska?
SORENSEN: In Nebraska. And the first time I worked for a Democratic candidate was when I was in high school.
LAMB: In Nebraska?
SORENSEN: In Nebraska. All my education was in Nebraska.
LAMB: Thirteen years, you say in your book, you worked for government somewhere. Where were they?
SORENSEN: After I graduated from law school, I came to Washington to look to look for a job, and I literally walked the streets of Washington in a hot July, and mostly government agencies, although some private law firms as well. I ended up working in the Office of Legal Counsel of what is now Health and Human Services.
LAMB: What year?
SORENSEN: And that was July 1951. And I worked there for about six months, when almost by accident, I heard about and was hired by a temporary congressional committee. It had only been set up for six months, and I guess I had worked at the other place for a year. So after that first year, another six months for a congressional committee. And then the executive branch put on a freeze, because Truman was giving way to Eisenhower. And so I looked on the Hill for jobs, and two newly elected United States senators offered me posts. And I picked one of them, and his name was John F. Kennedy.
LAMB: Who was the other one?
SORENSEN: The other one was Scoop Jackson.
LAMB: Of Washington.
SORENSEN: Of Washington state.
LAMB: Both Democrats.
SORENSEN: Both Democrats.
LAMB: Why did you pick John F. Kennedy?
SORENSEN: Well, that's a long story, but you've got plenty of time, so I'll tell it. All my friends, when they heard about this, said, “Don't go with Kennedy.” He was a dilettante in the House and he won't be anything more as a senator. He's too close to his father, a right wing reactionary. Jackson, on the other hand, had a great record in the House. He's one of the new progressive champions. He's got an unlimited future.

So, having liked Kennedy on my first interview a little bit better than Jackson, I couldn't make up my mind, and I decided I should go back and interview them both again. So I said to Kennedy, “Why do you want to want to hire me?” And he said, “I ran on a platform, ‘He'll do more for Massachusetts.’ Terrible slump in the New England economy. Lost textiles and shoes; we're about to lose fisheries.” He said, “As soon as you get settled in here, I want you to go up to New England, talk to the leading public officials and labor officials and business officials, Professor Seymour Harris at the Harvard University School of Economics, Alfred Neil, the head of the Boston Federal Reserve Bank. I want you to put together an economic program for the revitalization of New England.” Well, that was pretty tall corn for a boy from Nebraska. I went to see Scoop Jackson. I said, “Why did you want to hire me?” And he said, “Well, Paul Douglas” -- senator Paul Douglas was the chairman of this congressional committee I had served.
LAMB: From Illinois?
SORENSEN: From Illinois -- wonderful human being. “Paul Douglas tells me you're a very smart lawyer, and I need somebody like that to get my name in the newspapers. Besides, you've got a Scandinavian name, and that'll be great back in Washington.”
LAMB: Was that when you made the decision?
SORENSEN: That's when I made the decision.
LAMB: Do you remember what you felt about John Kennedy the first time you met him in that office?
SORENSEN: Yes. He had not yet taken his Senate office, and his House office was being taken over by his successor, and so we perched two chairs in the door of his House office building -- that's where we sat and conducted the first interview -- and I was struck from the beginning how this extraordinary man, with his wealth and his education and his family and his World War II heroism and all the rest, had all the attributes of an ordinary man. He didn't try to overwhelm me with his handshake or his clothes or his boasts or anything else. He was a good guy and a good guy to talk with then, and he proved to be a good guy to work with for the next 11 years.
LAMB: Now would that have been '53 -- early '53?
SORENSEN: That was early '53.
LAMB: How old were you?
SORENSEN: Well, I was 24 years old, and Kennedy claims that a year later, when he asked me that same question, that I had led him to believe I was much older than I was.
LAMB: Where was your law degree from?
SORENSEN: University of Nebraska.
LAMB: And what did you call him in those early days?
SORENSEN: “Senator.”
LAMB: Did you ever call him by his first name?
SORENSEN: Yes. Between '56 and '60, he and I traveled to every single state of the union together, most of the time just the two of us for the first three years. There was no vaunted Kennedy machine; it was just two young fellows traveling around the country. And I was trying to handle press and political relations and speechwriting and logistical arrangements and chartering the planes, all the rest. So there could not possibly have been a closer relationship between two people, and I did get to call him “Jack” during that period. And as soon as he was elected president, I called him “Mr. President” at all times.
LAMB: What was it like in those -- what were the years you were doing all 50 states?
SORENSEN: '56 to '60.
LAMB: '56 to '60. Had he already tried to get the vice presidency in '56?
SORENSEN: That's correct. That's what helped launch him nationally. He had this exciting contest for the vice presidential nomination, when Adlai Stevenson said, “Let the convention choose who my running mate will be.” Estes Kefauver was the other strong contender. And it went back and forth, back and forth. He made a very gracious withdrawal statement when it was clear that Kefauver had won, and asked the convention to make it unanimous. And he looked good and he sounded good and people just thought he was wonderful. And he then left for Europe, half relieved that he had not become the vice presidential candidate, because he felt it would still be a losing ticket, and then his religion would be blamed for it. Well, while he's away in Europe, I'm back at the senatorial office, and invitations are pouring in, pouring in, and when he came back in -- I guess in August, a month or so later, I had put together those that I thought made some sense, and also a possible schedule. And we went over to sitting in his dining room with all these invitations stacked on the table, worked out a schedule. And he said, “You should come with me.” And that's how it began.
LAMB: What was a day like out there, when you were going to all 50 states?
SORENSEN: Well, first of all, we traveled on every imaginable kind of transportation, including a lot of little planes that I'd be happy not to travel on again. Sometimes we were met at the airport and sometimes we were not. Sometimes we had big crowds and sometimes we did not. But JFK had this knack for building bridges and making friends wherever we went, and people started becoming interested in him as a national candidate. He had not decided to run for the presidency yet. He thought that his youth would be as much of a handicap as his religion. But more and more people kept expressing interest, and I kept jotting down their names and addresses and sending them Christmas cards at Christmastime, and so it grew.
LAMB: Did he ever say to you, when you were heading out there, “I'm running for president, and that's why you're by my side”?
SORENSEN: He said -- I still remember it quite well, because I had assumed the decision had been made. It was just implicit, it seemed to me, in everything we were doing. But he said to me in a hotel room in Indiana, as we were getting ready for another Democratic dinner of some kind or another, he said, “I've pretty well made up mind. I'm going to go for it.” I said, “I thought you'd made that decision long ago.'
LAMB: We'll come back to that in a moment or so. This is your eighth book, if I count right.
SORENSEN: I think that's right.
LAMB: Why, at this stage in your life, do you want to make such a strong statement about being a Democrat? I know you said earlier about, you know, the Democratic Party, but what else? Is there anything else going on here? Are you going to run for anything?
SORENSEN: No, I'm not running for anything and I'm not likely to be named to anything. But I believe very strongly that all of us have an obligation to make this a better country, and I believe very strongly that politics is one of the most appropriate ways to do that. And I believe very strongly that politics is not merely for politicians and candidates and officeholders; it's for every citizen to do his bit, and this book is one way I can do my bit.
LAMB: You say in the book that you're an angry white male. Why?
SORENSEN: I'm angry -- first of all, it's clear that I'm a white male, and I am angry that the Republicans have distorted the race issue for political purposes in a way that is probably going to gain them votes. There's no doubt about the fact that racial prejudice continues in a substantial degree in many parts of this country. There's no doubt that there are a whole lot more white voters than there are black voters. But for them to take a moral as well as constitutional issue of that kind and twist it -- and by the way, while they're doing it, ignore the fact that affirmative action is also tremendously important to women in this country -- for them to engage in that kind of distortion makes me angry.
LAMB: You mention another Republican a lot in your book, Fiorello La Guardia. Why?
SORENSEN: Well, La Guardia, first of all, was another example of a Republican who turned independent and started supporting Democratic candidates when the Republican Party kept drifting to the right, but the second reason I mentioned him is because La Guardia is the one who said something to the effect, when he was the independent or non partisan mayor of New York, “There isn't a Republican or a Democratic way of picking up the garbage.” Well, I agree with that. And I don't think there is or should be a Republican or a Democratic way of fighting wars or fighting terrorism or fighting narcotics flowing into this country, and a whole lot of other issues that I don't think are issues. And I try to get those issues out of the way early in the book so that I can focus on why I'm a Democrat, which are the fundamental differences between the two parties.
LAMB: When you look back on your life and you look back on your experience with John Kennedy -- how many years in the White House for you?
SORENSEN: Well, three years in the White House with Kennedy. That was all he had.
LAMB: Did you stay after?
SORENSEN: Three months.
LAMB: How did it change your way of looking at life -- that experience?
SORENSEN: The White House and the years with Kennedy?
LAMB: Yeah.
SORENSEN: Well, it changed my life a great deal. He was a mentor as well as an inspiration. I learned so much working with him, traveling with him. He had this -- he called himself at one point an idealist without illusions, and I think that's what I'd like to say I am, an idealist without illusions, somebody who thinks big thoughts with high goals and the best of motives about what can be done to make this a better society, a better country, a better world, but who, at the same time, is realistic, who knows that the perfect can be the enemy of the good and who knows that sometimes, in a democratic society, we have to settle for the best we can get and not always hold out for perfection.
LAMB: What do you think he would think if he saw the way people treat him now and that administration and all the books that have been written?
SORENSEN: Well, I assume he would be angry about some of the revisionists who have tried to exaggerate rumors about his private life to overshadow what he accomplished in public life, which is how a presidency ought to be measured. I think he would be amused that his old golf clubs were selling for some outrageous sum at an auction at Sotheby's. I think he would be gratified to see all the black mayors and black congressmen and black businessmen and black professionals, because they were virtually non existent when he first made his strong declarations about civil rights in this country. He would be so pleased to see that the Peace Corps is still alive and well and that 7,000 or 8,000 Peace Corps volunteers, including my daughter, are out there serving their country and helping people in the less fortunate parts of the world today. I think he'd have very mixed feelings, but on the whole, I don't think he would take anything back.
LAMB: A lot of people who have sat in that chair have written books about him. One of the most recent ones we talked about was the Kennedy and Nixon book by Chris Matthews. Have you read that?
SORENSEN: I've read portions of it, and I know Chris. He's a good fellow.
LAMB: But because you were there and in and around that office, what was your perception of the relationship between Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon?
SORENSEN: It was both a mixed relationship and it evolved over the years. They were friends in the House of Representatives, as Chris has pointed out. There's no doubt about that. I first met Nixon, in fact, at a social event in Kennedy's home. Nixon as vice president had his office immediately across the hall in the Senate office building from the Kennedy office, so he would pop in once in a great while. When Kennedy was very ill with his back operation, Nixon called me in to say that he wanted me to know and wanted Kennedy to know that if, in the 1954 election, the ratio in the Senate changed in such a way as to make control in doubt, he would not take advantage of Kennedy's absence to throw the decision in favor of the Republicans, which I thought was very good of him. But as the election campaign continued and they became direct adversaries, I think that relations between them deteriorated.
LAMB: You know, when you read the history and you talk to folks about it, it seems that both Richard Nixon, according to the history books, and Lyndon Johnson both constantly twisted and turned over the Kennedy family. Was that your perception?
SORENSEN: Well, I'm not sure what twists and turns you're referring to.
LAMB: Well, that they were always, you know, trying to overcome the glamour or trying to -- they were always fighting against the family, and that was their nemesis in some ways.
SORENSEN: Well, I think there's probably some truth to that. Both of them feared rivalries from within the family, but both of them, for good reasons or bad -- I think bad -- resented the kind of polish and allure that Jack Kennedy had. I mean, Lyndon Johnson was a great man in his own right and he should have not worried about Kennedy's appeal but developed further, strengthened his own.
LAMB: One of the items in several books is this whole issue of "Profiles In Courage" and your role in that, and I remember -- and correct me if I'm wrong -- that your sister had something do with it, according to Chris Matthews' book. Is that right?
SORENSEN: My sister? No, that's the first I've ever heard of that.
LAMB: I may have that wrong. I thought that. I should have checked it before we sat down here today. But was your sister ever involved -- do you have a sister?
SORENSEN: I have a sister, and she's a wonderful, bright lady, and the only thing that I know that she was involved in -- and I'm not sure we've ever revealed this on the air before -- Kennedy felt that Time magazine was filled with negative references to him in his first year. And somewhere around the end of that first year, early in the second year, he had a meeting at the White House with Henry Luce. Henry Luce was coming in. So he said to me in advance, “Just make a comparative study of how Time has treated me.” So I had a lot of other things to do besides read a year's worth of Time magazines, and I asked my sister to make a content analysis on how many of the references were positive or negative and how they compared with, I guess, Eisenhower's first year in the White House, something like that.
LAMB: What was she doing then?
SORENSEN: So she was the -- well, she's been overseas most of her life. Her husband has worked with CARE and Peace Corps and AID, and she was in that cycle then. I don't remember -- she may have been in Washington at that time.
LAMB: What about "Profiles In Courage"? How much did you have to do with it?
SORENSEN: Well, it's all been precisely spelled out -- if anything, generously spelled out -- in the acknowledgments written by John F. Kennedy in the front of the book, which says “I am,” to the -- something to the effect, “I am deeply indebted to my assistant, Theodore Sorensen, for his work in assembling and organizing and analyzing the materials on which this book is based.” That's a very good description of exactly what I did.
LAMB: Well, the reason I bring this up is because George Norris, a former senator from Nebraska, was someone I think you admire.
SORENSEN: Absolutely.
LAMB: And he was a Democrat, or he's Republican.
SORENSEN: No, he was a Republican -- another Republican who turned independent and, in 1940, was National Chairman of Independents for Roosevelt.
LAMB: Did you have anything to do with getting the president -- or, at that time -- how old was he when he wrote "Profiles"?
SORENSEN: How old was he?
LAMB: Yeah. Or what year was it?
SORENSEN: He wrote it in 1954 '55.
LAMB: I mean, were you responsible for getting George Norris in that book?
SORENSEN: Of course.
LAMB: Was it hard to get it in? I mean, did he know him?
LAMB: What year did George Norris die?
SORENSEN: George Norris died in the middle 1940's, as I recall.
LAMB: What was so special about him?
SORENSEN: Norris? Because Norris was someone who stood for the truth, whatever the consequences. He was a progressive. He was a battler. And I quote Norris or invoke Norris more than once in this book, including the fact that it isn't necessary to win every election, much less every vote. Norris was on the losing side during his years in Congress many, many times, but he said -- and I quote him as saying -- "Some of the most important things that I accomplished, I accomplished on that losing side." Decades later, that work paid off.
LAMB: You have one reference to "Profiles" in your book.
LAMB: It says -- you're talking about the president's book, his book "Profiles In Courage." John F. Kennedy recalled a senator, quote -- "retired," in quotes -- you put in the book, and then you say, “He fibbed, lest the identity of his source be guessed, who had acknowledged to him one day during a roll call vote that he voted with the special interests on every issue, hoping that by election, all of them added together would constitute nearly a majority that would remember him favorably, while the other members of the public would never know about it, much less remember his vote against their welfare.” Who is he talking about? What senator is he talking about here?
SORENSEN: He is still alive, so I think I'll ...
LAMB: He is still alive?
SORENSEN: ... I think I will not reveal that.
LAMB: Well, what's the point of putting that -- what was that point?
SORENSEN: The point here is that -- and one of my great concerns about politics today is the role of the special interests and the role of their money in political campaigns. And I had almost a sense of relief when I read last year that all the special interest money was now flowing to the Republicans, because I don't think the Democrats can be the party of the special interests and the party of the people at the same time, and I used this quotation from John F. Kennedy's book to illustrate the cynical approach which the Republicans have now adopted to a T.
LAMB: Go back to what you said about George Norris, and he's a representative of someone who always told the truth. As you know, in some of these books that come out, they suggest that John Kennedy didn't always tell the truth. The most recent one would be Dick Reeves, talking about things like, you know, when he was asked if he had Addison's disease, he said he didn't. Were you there?
SORENSEN: Well, I wasn't in the room, but we get into semantic questions there. I had something to do with that discussion, and his doctor said to me that, “John F. Kennedy has an adrenal insufficiency. The classic Addison's disease has that plus A, B and C. He doesn't have A, B and C.” So I said, “Let's call it an adrenal insufficiency.”
LAMB: Well, what about the whole business of -- you know, one of the things that we hear on this network all the time are people calling up and accusing politicians today of lying. I mean, there were days when you wouldn't ever hear that word.
LAMB: And that seems to be out there, about all politicians lying. Do you see that? Are they lying? Is that something that bothers you?
SORENSEN: Yes, frankly. Sometimes it's merely a partial truth, not the whole truth. Sometimes it's merely an exaggeration, which is easily forgiven. But I think frequently, politicians in both parties state what they know is not true.
LAMB: When did it start? When did you first notice that that kind of thing was in politics?
SORENSEN: You know, I think that politics has been on a downhill road, with some ups and downs, for a generation or more. When I first came to Washington, first went on the Hill, for the most part -- let's just say a senator now, because I worked on the Senate side -- a senator's word was good. It didn't make any difference which party he was; it didn't make any difference what his ideology was; it didn't make any difference what his region of the country was. And as a result, vote counts meant something and party unity meant something. And today up there, it's every man and woman for himself or herself. And everybody -- they're afraid of the big contributors and the PACs and afraid of media moguls like you, Brian, and it's a fearful existence where they will break their word or change their mind on a moment's notice.
LAMB: Why are they afraid?
SORENSEN: Because they fear defeat, and therefore, winning at any price has become all important, because they're not sure what they'll -- some of them are not sure what they'll go back to.
LAMB: But where did this come from? Was it like that back in the 50's and 60's?
SORENSEN: No. Of course there's always been money in politics. Look at the biographies of Daniel Webster. But I don't believe that the special interests, the lobbies, the PACs, had one tenth of the role in 1960 that they have in 1996.
LAMB: What changed it?
SORENSEN: Television had a lot to do with it, because television costs a great deal of money and television has become the way to reach the voters. All these negative advertisements cost a lot more money, and so they have to raise that money. The amount of money they have to raise is incredible. And therefore, they become more and more dependent upon pleasing the hand that feeds them.
LAMB: When did you run for office?
SORENSEN: Well, you had to bring that up. I ran for the United States Senate in New York in 1970, and getting the party endorsement was something I knew how to do. It was like those old days of crisscrossing the country from '56 to '60 with Kennedy. But once I had the endorsement, which didn't matter much, I had to get the party nomination in a primary. And one of my opponents -- his mother gave him $3 million for the primary, back in the days when $3 million was a lot of money.
LAMB: Who was that?
SORENSEN: That was Dick Ottinger. He was a congressman, a good fellow, but $3 million just wiped me out. I wasn't very good at raising money.
LAMB: Who won the 1970 election?
SORENSEN: Well, then Ottinger lost in the election, not to the Republican candidate, but to the third party candidate, James Buckley.
LAMB: Who's now a judge here in this town.
LAMB: What did you do after that?
SORENSEN: I did what I've been doing before that as well as after that, and that is, I have a very interesting law practice at a very prestigious New York firm.
LAMB: The name?
SORENSEN: The name of the firm? Well, that's wonderful. It's Paul, Weiss, Rifkin, Wharton & Garrison.
LAMB: And what does that firm do?
SORENSEN: They do everything. Just give us a call, whatever your problems are. But my own work is international, and so I travel all over the world on behalf of both American and foreign clients solving their problems and arguing their matters, and I really have had a lot of fun doing it.
LAMB: How often does a client or when you meet somebody around the world want to make the Kennedy connection?
SORENSEN: Often. Very often. You'd be amazed how many government officials -- some of them still relatively young -- who come up to me and say, “It was John F. Kennedy or a speech I heard of John F. Kennedy's or a television program I saw. That's what got me interested in politics and public affairs.” It's so gratifying.
LAMB: How do they know that you were there?
SORENSEN: Well, I guess that's reasonably well known.
LAMB: One of the things that Dick Reeves says in his book is that the -- if I remember the quote -- Kennedy's goddess was history and that he was always on the phone with you, wanting short takes on history. Is that accurate?
SORENSEN: Yes. He ...
LAMB: “His mistress was politics, and his goddess was history.” The quote was right.
SORENSEN: Well, it's very well written, like Dick's book is. I don't know about always on the phone looking for short takes, but it is true that he was extremely interested in history and particularly American history -- American political history. And it was not an accident that many of his speeches invoked precedents from earlier senators and presidents. And I ...
LAMB: Did you write those?
SORENSEN: I think the phrase is, “Did I assist with those speeches?” Yes, I did.
LAMB: Let me ask you about that because today, for instance -- recently Bob Dole, you know, left the United States Senate. He made his speech. And within a day or two after that, the fellow who wrote the speech was being quoted all over the news, pictures in the paper, story about him. Would that have happened back in your day?
LAMB: Why?
SORENSEN: I just felt very differently about it, and I'm sure President Kennedy or even Senator Kennedy felt differently about it. When the idea of White House administrative assistants was first introduced in a commission report in the 1930s under Franklin Roosevelt, it was said that they should have a, quote, "Passion for anonymity." I'm not sure I met the passion for anonymity test, but I came as close to it as I could. I felt privileged to have the opportunity to have -- among many other duties for the president, the opportunity to help him prepare and present his speeches. The public understands that.

They know that a president is torn from pillar to post and he's got commitments morning, noon and night. He isn't going to have time to sit down and draft every word. But every Kennedy speech was the result of a discussion between him and me as to what points he wanted covered, what particular theme he wanted to hit. And, secondly, I had the great advantage, which speech writers today do not have, of participating in those decisions. Great speeches reflect great decisions. And I could participate as his counsel and as his policy adviser in all of those decisions, listen to the same arguments, see the same evidence, notice what impressed him the most, and then when the decision was made, go down to my office a few steps away and put into words what I'd just heard.
LAMB: How many people were on the White House staff in 1961?
SORENSEN: I have a picture on my office wall in New York of the entire professional White House staff. We're standing on the back steps of the White House. There were about a dozen of us. Today you could probably assemble them in RFK stadium, but that might not hold them. We literally had the smallest White House staff in modern times, and I personally think it's a great mistake that the numbers have multiplied so much.
LAMB: Tell me if there's another one, but the most famous quote is the famous “Ask not what your country can do for you,” and tell me when I'm wrong here -- “but what you can do for your country.” Is that close enough?
LAMB: Where did that come from?
SORENSEN: Where did it come from? It was a distillation of a statement that he had made several times during the campaign. Sacrifice, discipline, contribution, giving something back -- that was the theme of the Kennedy campaign in 1960.
LAMB: Is there a quote somewhere in history like that that you found, and you started...
SORENSEN: No, no, but it's interesting that you say that because you can't imagine how many people have said to me, “Well, I read something by Warren G. Harding that was very much like that,” or “Oliver Wendell Holmes.” I even had a call a couple of years ago from the Khalil Gibran Foundation, and they said, “Well, Khalil Gibran had written something like this in the 1950s. Is that where you got it?” I said, “Well, I don't think so.” They said, “It's true it hadn't been translated into English by '60, '61. We thought maybe you arranged to have it translated, and put it into Kennedy's speech.”
LAMB: But you never personally saw a quote like that?
SORENSEN: No, never.
LAMB: Were you -- do you have any plans at some point to leave your papers or whatever that show how much involvement you had in these speeches directly?
SORENSEN: Well, I've put all of my papers in the Kennedy Library now. They're available now.
LAMB: And when it comes to the art of writing, where did you first start writing, in your life?
SORENSEN: My first published work, I was, I think, in kindergarten or first grade, and a local organization had a Christmas party poetry contest. And I entered the following prize winning couplet, which shows not very much about my writing ability, but something of how I had a very hard working father, and it was: “I always know when it is Christmas because Daddy stays home from business.”
LAMB: Did you go on to be taught how to write?
SORENSEN: I was on the debate team in both high school and college, which I found to be very useful in honing one's analytical and organizational skills. I was editor of the law review in law school, and my mother was an amateur writer, and I guess I've always written.
LAMB: When you sat down to write this book, "Why I Am a Democrat," how did you go about it? I mean, this is a short book. I mean, the ...
SORENSEN: It's easy for you to say that.
LAMB: Well, but your Kennedy book ...
LAMB: ... I mean, called "Kennedy," was -- what? -- 1,000 pages or something like that?
SORENSEN: Well, no, it wasn't 1,000, but it was a very fat book. That's true, and this is, by comparison, a slim book. But I found trying to do this while practicing law at the same time was very difficult. At first I thought, “Well, I'll just dash off a quick list of reasons why I'm a Democrat.” But the more I got into it and the more the Republicans began to squash the principles and the ideals that I feel very strongly about, and the more that Gingrichism began to run amok in Washington, the more I felt I had to present in some depth why I'm a Democrat, why the Democratic philosophy is important for this country.
LAMB: All right, if we were able to hang around Ted Sorensen, just watch you go about writing, what would we see?
SORENSEN: Well, you'd see me, first of all, using pen and pad. I'm sorry to say I have not yet mastered the computer. As I write, I edit and I circle and I cross out, and it becomes impossible for anyone to read other than myself. You would see me at times get up and go and get the dictionary, or even the thesaurus, in order to get exactly the right word. It's a very inefficient use of my time, but I feel very strongly about the English language, which I think is a beautiful, expressive language, and having exactly the right word is important to me.
LAMB: Do you write at home or in the office?
SORENSEN: It's impossible to write anything at length in the office because of all the phone calls and distractions and meetings and so on. When I write something of any length, I immerse myself in it. I bury myself in the papers, in the books, in the research notes and all the rest. So most of this book was written at home.
LAMB: Is there a time of day you like to write?
SORENSEN: Well, I wish I could choose, but I'm sorry to say on this one it was mostly written at night, including very, very late at night.
LAMB: Is there a time during the process that you spent the most amount of hours or days writing this book? I mean...
SORENSEN: You mean, time...
LAMB: ...did you have a non stop period of 10 days, or did you write this...
SORENSEN: No. It wasn't completed in 10 days either. No, this was off and on, and after a while mostly on from June until December.
LAMB: You begin and end each chapter the same way. I mean, roughly the same way.
SORENSEN: Yes, because the beginning of each chapter is trying to expose the hypocrisy of people who say, “Well, if you're white, and if you're well off economically, and if you're well educated and so on and so forth, then you must be a Republican.” So each chapter I try to show, Well, I am each one of those items, but I'm a Democrat, and let me tell you why. And that's why it's -- and therefore, each chapter ends with something to the effect, “And that's why I'm a Democrat.”
LAMB: Here you say, “I'm committed to the rule of law and order in our society.'“
SORENSEN: Well, that's right. I'm a lawyer. My father was a lawyer. My brother's a lawyer. My son is a lawyer. And I am committed to the rule of law and order. And I feel strongly, as I think Democrats feel strongly, about the rise of crime, and particularly juvenile crime, in this country. It's not an issue on which the Republicans have a monopoly. But it also makes me feel strongly about the flood of guns all over in this country. It makes me feel strongly that the Democrats are the ones who are trying to attack not only crime, but the roots of crime, whether the poverty and the slums and the ignorance and all the rest. And as a lawyer concerned about the rule of law, I respect the Constitution. And the idea that the Republicans met last year, and there are immediately 70 some amendments introduced to a Constitution that, since the Bill of Rights, has only been amended 17 times, that offended me.
LAMB: You finish every chapter by saying this -- I'll read the end of this chapter. It says: “Democrats want all US citizens treated like they are persons. As a believer in the rule of law, I am a Democrat.” Now would a Republican not be able to say that?
SORENSEN: I think that if -- you'd have to read it all in context. That quote, that reference to being treated like persons, I'm quoting a woman who -- whose daughter needed a Legal Services Corporation lawyer to get justice from her landlord, and she said, `Without a lawyer, you're just not treated like a person.' And I thought that said a -- a lot as to why we need Legal Services Corporation, why we can't permit the Republicans to abolish that agency, as they've been trying to do for so long, and why we need the Democratic Party.
LAMB: Are you a Clinton Democrat?
SORENSEN: No. Well, I'm for Clinton for re election, and I say so in the book. I make it very clear on page one that I am not a hyphenated Democrat of any kind. I'm not a new, old, liberal, moderate, conservative, Northern, Southern or anything else Democrat. I'm a Democrat, and I think that's enough.
LAMB: What do you think when you hear people get upset with being called the -- when you hear a Republican call it “the Democrat Party”?
SORENSEN: Well, that's so petty that it doesn't upset me at all, and I hope they continue to do so because when Bob Dole referred to “Democrat Wars” in the campaign of 1976, it did not help him.
LAMB: The CIA job -- what happened?
SORENSEN: Gee, I thought I was coming here to talk about my book. The...
LAMB: You are.
SORENSEN: The president -- President Carter asked me to be director of Central Intelligence. And while it was not the job I would have normally sought, for a variety of reasons, including the fact that I'm a lawyer and have some moral qualms about much of what the CIA has been doing, I accepted. I felt citizens should accept a post that the president of the United States asks them to accept. There then began flowing together a lot of polluted streams, some of which was based upon the fact -- probably the most important was the fact that I had given, at their request, an affidavit to The New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case as to what was, in my opinion, the real situation of overuse of classification in connection with Washington documents.

And because I gave that affidavit in The New York Times case, I was required to give similar -- obligated to give similar testimony in the Ellsberg case. Well, you can imagine how the die hard advocates of the CIA felt about someone becoming Intelligence director who they felt wouldn't keep the secrets. I've kept more secrets and will continue to keep more secrets all my life than all of them put together, but that was one of the charges that was raised against me. Another charge was that when I had registered for the draft at a time when there was no war, I had reflected my mother's pacifist outlook, not by saying I was a conscientious objector to military service, but by registering for non combatant military service. Well, the fact that I wasn't willing to kill people, they thought, was a disqualification for being head of CIA. And there were a number of other similarly strong objections which boiled down to the fact that they thought if I became CIA director, I might make some changes. They're right. I would have.
LAMB: What year was that?
SORENSEN: That was -- Carter was elected in '76, so that was January of '77.
LAMB: In Chapter 10 you talk about being married for 27 years.
LAMB: Where did you meet your wife?
SORENSEN: Well, I met her at Bobby Kennedy's house, as a matter of fact. She was the assistant producer of a telethon sponsoring Junior Village here in Washington, a social agency, and Bobby asked me to come to the dinner. He said he'd put me on the telethon, although he never did, but who cares about the telethon? I met Gillian.
LAMB: How many children?
SORENSEN: I have three children by a previous marriage and we have the daughter who's now serving in the Peace Corps.
LAMB: Four grandchildren, you say.
SORENSEN: That's right.
LAMB: Then you go through a litany of things like no alcohol, no cigarettes, no profanity, no pornography. What's that? Where did that come from?
SORENSEN: Well, first of all, the reason it's there is not to make any boast to being a prude, but to reassure Newt and others that I am not engaged in an alternative lifestyle, and that it's possible to be a Democrat who is opposed to the intrusion into privacy that the religious right wing and other Republicans now want to foist upon this country without being a -- somebody who is trying to protect a so called alternative lifestyle, counterculture and all that. But the strict upbringing came from my parents.
LAMB: How much of that did you -- you adopt all the same basic way of living? No alcohol -- that's your lifestyle now?
SORENSEN: That is my lifestyle.
LAMB: You've mentioned that...
SORENSEN: I didn't say no alcohol, by the way, but...
LAMB: OK. You’ve mentioned Newt Gingrich a couple times. Does he get under your skin?
SORENSEN: No. On the contrary, I finally met Newt and listened to him make a speech, and I was quite impressed with his intelligence and his skillfulness in handling questions. And I happen to believe -- and I think I say it in the book -- I happen to believe that Newt Gingrich did this country a favor by forcing us to confront these basic issues, the basic differences between the two parties. He did the Democrats a great favor, also, in my opinion, because I think Democrats win on those issues. But prior to Newt Gingrich becoming speaker of the House, too many politicians in both parties were evading or blurring or running away from those issues. So I think -- and Newt should be commended for putting them foursquare in front of the country.
LAMB: What do you think the biggest problems are in the United States?
SORENSEN: Well, the biggest problems in the United States...
LAMB: I mean, if you were in that White House right now, what would you put at the top of your list?
SORENSEN: I'd say the single biggest problem facing us today, unfortunately, is the perpetuation of racism in too many quarters, and all of the other ills that flow from that, including its effects on business, education, crime, housing, cities. I think that the political system, as I said, badly needs reforming in some way to bring the influence of big money under control in that system. I think that our public education system is foundering, and needs a lot of support -- not necessarily financial support from the federal government, but more support from parents and from local communities.
LAMB: What would you do...
SORENSEN: Those are just the three at the top of my head.
LAMB: What would you do to improve the race situation?
SORENSEN: Well, I certainly wouldn't abandon or dilute affirmative action, as the Republicans are suggesting. I think it continues to play an important role, provided it's defined as the way it was intended to be. And I might add, it began under the Kennedy administration with an executive order in which I was involved. But I think that we miss John Kennedy's leadership on that issue. He was the first president to really put himself at the front of the drive to stop racial segregation and discrimination, and he didn't do it just by sending legislation to the Congress. He called meeting after meeting in the White House of educators and clergymen and business leaders, lawyers and others because he knew that the minds of men and women in this country had to be changed, the climate had to be changed, and we haven't had much leadership of that kind since his death.
LAMB: You know, another question that's come up here many times is: Would President Kennedy have gotten out of Vietnam? Do you know anything about his mindset, and do you feel that he would have gotten out of Vietnam had he lived and been re elected?
SORENSEN: To put it another way, I believe he would not have plunged us wholeheartedly into Vietnam. There were 15,000, 16,000 advisers in Vietnam at the time of Kennedy's death. That was a commitment that Eisenhower had made, which Kennedy reinforced and to some extent expanded. But almost from the beginning of his administration he had been urged to send -- not advisers, but combat troop divisions into Vietnam to fight the war -- and he refused. He had been urged to bomb North Vietnam; he refused. He'd been urged to mine Haiphong, and he refused. Kennedy was not enthusiastic about military solutions to what are essentially political problems, and he recognized that Vietnam was more a political problem.
LAMB: You know, also, the books that have been written -- and again, William Prochnau was here, talking about the journalists in Vietnam, the Neil Sheehans and people like that, and that there were two different worlds. There was the journalists in Vietnam, the ones in the White House; and the ones in the White House believed everything Jack Kennedy said, the ones in Vietnam didn't believe anything. The whole idea that -- I mean, the -- the whole lie thing that came up when he was asked, “Do we have combat troops in Vietnam?” And he said, “No,” when they were over there flying helicopters and things like that. How do you deal with that issue?
SORENSEN: Well, I don't think there were any combat troop divisions in Vietnam. I mean, military advisers and instructors throughout the world have often been in the field with the troops they lead. No, but I'm the first to acknowledge that we were not getting an accurate assessment of what was going on in Vietnam for much of the Kennedy administration. But if you look closely at what was happening during those last months, when Kennedy said, “It's their war, not our war, and if they want us to leave, we'll be happy -- we'll be out on the next ship,” he was beginning to recognize that the Vietnamese leadership had been isolated from its own people, and there was no way of winning what was essentially a guerrilla war with a government that the people did not respect.
LAMB: If he were alive today, and based on what you all were talking about back then about being a Democrat, would he -- where would he fit today, based on what he used to say back then, about everything from foreign policy to domestic policy?
SORENSEN: Well, I think he'd fit right within the pages of that book. I'm not sure there's a word in there that he would take strong issue with. I don't pretend that he and I agreed dot by dot on every sentence of every program, but essentially I learned a lot from his politics and his philosophy, and not surprisingly that I did and -- having been that close for 11 years, and not surprisingly it's reflected in the book.
LAMB: What about the issue of foreign policy? What does what's it mean to be a Democrat on foreign policy?
SORENSEN: I point out in my book that the Democrats and Republicans basically share the same long range objectives on foreign policy. I don't think that it needs to be a campaign issue. I'd like to see, on foreign policy, as much bipartisanship as possible, and I think a large degree has been achieved over the years. But there is one major difference, and that is that these new Republican leaders have advanced their own form of isolationism. It's not protectionism. It's not the fortress America that Pat Buchanan would put forward, but which lost in the Republican primaries and I'm sure will lose in the Republican convention, but it's a dual kind of isolationism. First, what might be called fiscal isolationism -- that is, “Yes, yes. America should be the world leader, but we don't want to pay for it.”

And that's an impossible position to maintain. And now we're starving the State Department, we're starving the United Nations. We're even cutting back on our commitments -- financial commitments to NATO. We are cutting back on what we're doing through the World Bank, even though we had a legal commitment to do it. And the other is what might be called unilateral isolationism, in which we say, `Well, we'll go it alone in these situations.' There are very few problems of any size and significance facing the United States today around the world that we can solve all by ourselves. We need the United Nations, and yet the Republican Congress has virtually made it impossible for the United States not only to meet its obligation to pay its debts to the United Nations, but to have an effective United Nations peacekeeping operations. I'd much rather have, and I'm sure they would, United Nations peacekeepers out there alongside of or instead of American soldiers. We don't want to police the world. And how we can be so shortsighted to stomp on the United Nations is beyond me.
LAMB: This is the eighth book. Is there a ninth?
SORENSEN: Well, the day will come when I'm going to write my memoirs.
LAMB: What area would you be most interested in writing about that you haven't already?
SORENSEN: Oh, I've written almost nothing about myself. This is called "Why I Am a Democrat," and it's a little bit about my philosophy, but I've had a wonderful life. I've had a few setbacks and some sad events, but I've been very, very fortunate in the things I've seen and the things I've done.
LAMB: Have you been keeping a file?
SORENSEN: Not precisely for that purpose, but I have lots of files.
LAMB: You know, talk about the goddess of history again, going back to the quote from Dick Reeves, a lot of people will say over the years that because you wrote the book "Kennedy" after the assassination, that that really set the pace of history on the Kennedy administration was set by your book.
SORENSEN: Well, I hope so. There, of course, were other books that have been on the Kennedy administration. But I've been very pleased by the number of colleagues in government at that time and journalists at that time who have said to me over the years, “Oh, when I want to look up a fact on the Kennedy administration, I look it up in your book.”
LAMB: Is there a lesson there about getting the history written first by somebody close is -- that's what I was getting at.
SORENSEN: Well, no. I don't know. I didn't have that in mind. As I said in the preface to that book, John Kennedy intended to write his own history of his presidency with my help. And more than once he would say in talking to me, he would refer to, “That book we're going to write.” And I'd always say to him, “The book you're going to write, Mr. President,” because I didn't have any intention of hanging around his life forever. But when he was suddenly gone and could not write that book, I felt I had some obligation to do it.
LAMB: Have you always been interested in history?
LAMB: Who do you credit for that?
SORENSEN: Well, I think to be interested in politics and public affairs requires an interest in history. What's gone before is important. What's past is prologue.
LAMB: What's your favorite time in history, besides your own involvement?
SORENSEN: Tomorrow.
LAMB: This is the book. It's called "Why I Am a Democrat." Theodore C. Sorensen, thank you very much for joining us.
SORENSEN: Thanks, Brian. I enjoyed it.
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