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October 31, 2010

Theodore Sorensen, R.I.P.

Filed under: White House — Peter Arnold

Recognize the following?

Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in a desert.

A generation before John Kennedy’s famous “ask not” line, Khalil Gibran spoke those words and the great Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen crafted his boss’ most recognized line based on Gibran’s question.  Sadly, Sorensen passed away today in New York.

While not taking anything away from Sorensen’s greatness, this Gibran incident is a timely reminder that even among great speechwriters, the art of “borrowing” is a time-honored tradition.  (It’s even possible that this former White House speechwriter might have inadvertently borrowed a line or three from a previous president’s remarks while scrambling to finish a last-minute speech during the 1988 campaign.)  Indeed, the late William Safire, a speechwriter in the Nixon White House, used to tell the story of how, frantic to meet a deadline, he “borrowed” the text of a speech given by (as I recall) President Eisenhower.  After Nixon gave the speech, Safire called one of Ike’s aides to admit the transgression.  According to Safire, that aide merely laughed and said that they had taken the section in question from a speech that Calvin Coolidge once gave.

R.I.P., Mr. Sorensen.  Between you and the late William F. Buckley, there’s little doubt that God and St. Peter are thumbing through the dictionary more often.

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