JFK speech writer's daughter proud planned speech will mark memorial

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by MARIE SAAVEDRA / WFAA

WFAA

Posted on November 22, 2013 at 9:19 AM

Updated Friday, Nov 22 at 11:11 AM

DALLAS -- Around the world and here at home, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy could move a nation with a turn of phrase.

Fifty years later, those words still resonate with new generations, and that’s exactly how his speechwriter wanted it.

“That’s what my father hoped Kennedy’s legacy would be; words that mattered," Juliet Sorensen said. "Words that made a difference to people."

Sorensen is a law professor at Northwestern University and the proud daughter of a giant in political history.

Her father, Ted Sorensen, was a kid from Nebraska, whose desire to make a difference lead him to the nation’s capital. He spent 11 years with senator, then-President Kennedy as adviser and writer, to his boss and hero.

Sorensen had a knack for capturing JFK's vision on paper.

“They discovered early on that Dad had an ability to articulate the president’s views in a way that the president in turn was able to voice, so it was a symbiotic partnership in that way,” she said.

And he’d watch as the president brought it to life. Lines like "Ask not what your country can do for you..." became so legendary, that many wondered who was the true author.

“I stand by my Dad, and his response would always be ‘ask not!’" Sorensen said.

His loyalty ran deep. So, then, did his grief.

“I think that anyone who’s lost a loved one marks that anniversary with sadness and some dread when the grief is fresh. I would speculate that is how dad would feel about the month of November,” she said.

He last saw the president minutes before the first family left for Texas on Nov. 21.

“I know he last saw the president when he was handing him his file, at the president’s request, on Texas humor and anecdotes that I’m sure my father enjoyed pulling together,” Juliet said.

Sorensen stayed in Washington, D.C.

“He has said it was the most profoundly traumatic event in his life,” she said of her father’s reaction to Kennedy’s death.

And for the rest of his life, Dallas remained a raw wound.

“It was a place for him that he associated with great loss and sadness.”

There was a piece of Sorensen in Texas that day. Beyond the local jokes, he had drafted much of Kennedy’s speech to be delivered at the Dallas Trade Mart. In its final paragraph, he again sought out to inspire the country:

"We in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility — that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint — and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of ‘peace on earth, good will toward men.’ That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: ‘except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.’”

Click here to read the full speech

The people in North Texas that day never heard it, but 50 years later, and forever, they will read it. A plaque 14 feet long and three feet high bearing those words will be unveiled in Dealey Plaza on the anniversary of Kennedy's death. The planning committee that chose the quote has said "it ought to be remembered."

“I know that Dad would be very moved to learn that the words that President Kennedy was supposed to deliver that day are now perpetually memorialized on Dealey Plaza,” Juliet Sorensen said.

Sorensen did not live to see this tribute. He passed away in 2010 at the age of 82. But until his last day, he worked to make sure that Kennedy’s tragic death would not dominate the president’s legacy.

Fitting, then, that what they wrote - the ideals they lived by - are forever etched in Dealey, remembering two men who believed in the power of words.

E-mail msaavedra@wfaa.com

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