Camelot's Conscience

By Thomas, Louisa | Newsweek, November 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

Camelot's Conscience


Thomas, Louisa, Newsweek


Byline: Louisa Thomas

Ted Sorensen was a hero of mine before I knew who he was. Sorensen, who died last week at 82 from complications following a stroke, was the primary speechwriter for John F. Kennedy. He was also an aide, a confidant, an "intellectual blood bank" (as Kennedy once called him)--not to mention a lawyer, memoirist, and candidate for senator, among other things. But he will be remembered because he had a hand in some of the most famous speeches in American history.

I, on the other hand, will remember him because of Latin class. We were studying rhetorical devices used in Latin epics and lyric poetry. Our teacher gave us English examples: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" (chiasmus); "I speak of peace--I speak of peace--I speak of peace --." (anaphora); "We choose to go to the moon" (assonance). The words came from Kennedy--or his speechwriter, we were told offhandedly. I loved the way the lines sounded. I knew then that to learn to write, I was going to have to learn to listen.

Kennedy and Sorensen, of course, weren't thinking of anaphora. They wanted a style that would suit the substance and be memorable. During the next few years I returned to Kennedy's speeches often. At their best, they were clear, short, and intelligible, formal but not stilted. They were exhortatory ("Let us--Let us --Let us...") but practical. They sounded good. One can hear the words, even on the page. This is strangely comforting. Even read alone, they invoke the sense of being part of a larger audience.

It is a community that stretches across time. And it's a strange comfort, maybe a cold comfort, because the speeches sometimes put too much faith in appeals to our common humanity, even if the president who delivered them had not been killed. Nor did the high-flown rhetoric always match Kennedy's actions, let alone the nation's. But they made people feel they were in the world together, de-spite their deep disagreements. Read now, they still do.

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