The King’s Man
Ted Sorensen is both intellectual and reflective. The title of his memoir, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, reflects his focus during his years as aide to John F. Kennedy: a focus more on Kennedy than on himself. Organized thematically rather than in a strict chronology, the book delivers its liveliest and most meaningful prose in sections on speechwriting (a chapter that should be read by anyone who ever has to address an audience), the 1960 presidential campaign (remarkably contemporary with special resonance for the 2008 race), and Kennedy’s foreign policy (essential guidance for anyone who is responsible for directing a large organization beset by ambitious competitors — or who wants to be).
Sorensen describes Kennedy’s ability to inspire hope and communicate a sense of possibility as a crucial factor in gaining the confidence and support of the voters and his staff, and the implied parallels to Barack Obama make these passages particularly relevant. Sorensen’s candor about his mistakes, and Kennedy’s, and the sincerity of his regret on both counts, are notable, especially when he apologizes for Kennedy’s failure to censure Joseph McCarthy. (For another perspective on Sorensen, see “The Art of Influence,” by Michael Schrage.)
The book’s most fascinating moments are the descriptions of Kennedy’s decision making during the Cuban missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and other turning points, for better and worse, during his administration. Sorensen makes us see how Kennedy accepted responsibility for his mistakes and learned from them. It was the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion that caused Kennedy to change the way he was briefed on his options and change the way he evaluated what was presented to him. His insistence on better quality and depth of information and his demand for a wider range of choices were essential elements that made the difference during the missile crisis the following year.
This memoir reads like a cross between a gripping spy novel and a Harvard Business School case study. Sorensen’s graceful insights remind us how the best and most honestly told life stories illuminate and inspire our own.
Nell Minow is editor of the Corporate Library, an independent corporate governance research and rating firm, and movie critic for Beliefnet, a spiritual Web site, and for radio stations across the U.S.