International ties

Remembering 'Ted' Sorensen

By Wei Zonglei (
Updated: 2010-11-22 11:10
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Theodore "Ted" Sorensen, the most famous speech writer and longtime aide to President John F. Kennedy died from a recent stroke on October 31 in New York at 82. It is such a shock for me to know Ted has passed away forever. He was remembered worldwide as the last surviving core witness of the Kennedy time and behind-scenes insider of the Kennedy Presidency. US President Obama issued a White House statement on the passing of Ted Sorensen, referring him "just as quick-witted, just as serious of purpose, just as determined".

I met Ted Sorensen once in April 2001 at an anniversary cocktail reception of Brandeis Ethics Center Advisory Boards. When I was introduced by Director Dan Terris to Ted the Chairman of the Advisory Board, and we shook hands, I was so moved that Ted was so kind and low profile. Since then I feel very proud of having some personal connection to the history and especially the Kennedy time. The 1960s was one of the most wonderful decades in human history, for no decade has seen so many dramatic confrontations between two superpowers, the nuclear race, space competition, missile gap, the Cuba crisis, Vietnam war, clash of ideologies, secret diplomacy, social upheavals in the East and West. That decade heard the most beautiful words, moved by the most fascinating ideas, and led by the most influential people. Sorensen was among them.

Ted Sorensen drafted but never claimed the Kennedy's only and most famous first inaugural speech, and widely quoted sentences, "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." "Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate." Many of the words and thoughts from them still resonate through American life.

He survived from Kennedy's tragic assassination, but never came over. He declined to serve for the successor President Johnson. He chose to have a new beginning again as an interviewee looking for a job. He became a well-known international lawyer, and senior adviser in the most prestigious law firm Paul, Weiss.

For the personal admiration and ties to Ted, I decided to translate Mr. Sorensen's memoirs, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, and the Chinese version was published by Grand China Publishing House and Chongqing Publishing House this year. Ted wrote, on 10th June 2010, a Preface for the Chinese readers of Counselor, via the arrangement of his longtime friend Dan Terris. In his precious preface to Chinese readers, Ted wrote: President John F. Kennedy and I – had we only known in advance that he would tragically be denied a second term - would have regretted his decision to postpone the China issue until a second term. But Ted said, "I have been impressed by China's economic growth, changing outlook, and the warmth and hospitality of its people."

I am not sure on what health condition he wrote the wonderful paragraphs, and he must have written for Chinese readers with compassion. The preface he wrote for Chinese readers turned out to be the last preface in his life.

Ted and his secretary had promised to autograph a book for me. I regret so much that I had not sent the Chinese copy of his last masterpiece earlier to Ted. Ted should be happy to see "a Chinese version as classical as the original one" (as said Dan Terris in the recommendation page). I never thought Ted would leave us so fast. I even dreamed that I would go to New York or Brandeis the coming Spring to have a meeting with Ted and get his signature on the Counselor. Ted might be waiting.

The Chinese version of the Counselor has been well warmly read among Chinese readers, mainland and overseas. Some readers comment, Sorensen is a hero behind the scenes; some said Ted has reached high and kept low, such a great character!

In my translation note, I wrote, Sorensen followed JFK eleven years, while JFK accompanied Sorensen for whole his life. In this world, many died for other people to live, but few live for the dead. Ted is one of the few. In the contemporary of too much emphasis on egoism and self value, Ted set up an exceptional example, with his unique value of "Ask not, but ask", his life-long loyalty, principle and service. As President Obama said, his legacy will live on in the words he wrote, the causes he advanced, and the hearts of anyone who is inspired by the promise of a new frontier.

Long alive is Ted's spirit of service, wisdom of words, and character of contribution. He will live forever in our admiration, across borders and transcending the world.

Wei Zonglei is a senior expert on US politics and translator of Ted's Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History.