Monday, November 1, 2010
The world, as I seem to say so often, speaks to you in strange ways. Most of the time they are such random occurrences, and they take on no real significance. Every once in awhile they stop you to wonder at the "how and why" of it all.
Ted Sorensen died yesterday.
He was, to me, the finest writer I have ever read. His words, his grace of language and his command of the complex writ into simple, powerful, passionate words transformed, and transforms, my sense of the possible. Of all the letters I've ever written to, or for, someone, his simple reply to mine -- to a request for his counsel on an opinion piece I was drafting about cultural policy -- means the most. It was a polite decline to the request. But the simple fact that he replied at all took my breath away. Silly as it sounds, for the first and so far only time in my life I printed the email, of only a few lines, and framed it. It sits by my desk, with my father's small statue of Lincoln, which sat all my life at his desk, in the study in my home. Until today, when I read Mr. Sorensen's obituary, I had no idea that for him the great adventure he had with language began in his hometown -- Lincoln, Nebraska -- with his endless reading and re-reading of the Gettysburg Address, a speech I have, somewhat geekishly, committed to memory.
I look almost every day at the small replica of Lincoln. It was the sign and signal of my own father's desk, the place he wrote all his words, and signed all his letters, including the simple and lovely ones to me. His signature was long and powerful, fully realized and articulate, with deep pen strokes that sank into the page. "263 words that changed America" I remember him saying when I was tiny, sitting on his chair, straining to reach across to that desk, pen in hand. So many nights, late, late into the evening I would see him at that desk, illuminated by a copper and black-shaded lamp that now sits in my little warren at Strathmore. He would draw from his cigarette and vanish for a moment in the haze of it. Mahler, or Beethoven or Brahms would reverberate around the room, an enormous white-washed brick room with bank-after-bank of skylights, midnight blue carpet that anchored a 20 foot ceiling, long, long french bay windows at his back. In the summer the air would flow through them, and it would sweep the sounds from that room to mine in the front.
Bank Street, in the West Village, was home for him and for me. It was John Lennon and Yoko Ono's apartment before they moved to the Dakota, to where Lennon was returning home the night he was murdered. I was in his earlier home that same night, and it was my father who told me Lennon was dead. To walk around that apartment after that was to feel as though you were inside a memory. On the back cover of Lennon's "Sometime in New York City" album is the door I went into and out of countless times.
My Dad was in love with history. The present, it often seemed, had little meaning to him. He revered Lincoln. Loved his authenticity, his power with the pen and facility with the word. He said, so clearly I can hear it in my head now, in that deep baritone of his that emanated out of a slight frame so close to mine I used to wear his suits when I first went out on job interviews after college, "never underestimate the genius of a great speechwriter." I never did. I went to Capitol Hill as one, and my most treasured memories of the Hill were those nights when someone would stand up in the Well of the Senate or the House and reel off a speech which would set you flying.
My Dad was a Republican through-and-through. A Rockefeller and Javits Republican. He'd have had absolutely no use for the Tea Party. "Charlatans" he would undoubtedly be growling into the phone if he were here today. But there was one exception to his Republican rule.
"The smartest man to ever stand in the Oval Office" he used to say. As a kid I just sort of let it all go in one ear and out the other. But when I got into politics, and when I found that my voice was most clearly understood to me in speech writing, I began to think again about my Father's admonition. And I discovered that he and I had found common ground. Whatever my Dad's thoughts were about the speaker, and here he and I could not have been farther apart, we share a reverence for the writer.
"Let the word go forth, from this time and place, that the torch has been passed..."
We would call each other, my Dad and I, in those days in the mid 80's when my life was consumed with policy and writing. He'd find a passage he treasured in some text by Churchill or a passage by Dryden, and he'd read it out over the phone, from that desk of his deep in the night, with Lincoln at his side, and you could hear it as though he, too, were at your side.
And, in the end, almost without fail, he'd say something about the genius of the language. And then he'd close it with a tag line.
"But its not Kennedy. Its not Sorensen."
Of all the great writers I've ever read, its the speechwriters who most inflame me.
Last week, as we set out to launch our second year's partnership with the International Writers Program of the University of Iowa, a program which brings together writers of such genius under one "umbrella" for three months each year, I asked permission to put their writings onto our blog as a way to share that genius with anyone who finds this page. I was planning to begin it tonight, and had gone back to a speech I treasure above all others, JFK's speech about the power and meaning of culture, a speech he gave as his eulogy to Robert Frost. It seemed appropriate given the topic. The words, always changed by JFK in his own unique way, belonged to that man my father called "the smartest man ever to stand in the Oval Office." To my father that man was not the President, though even he never doubted JFK's intellect. That man was his counselor, his advisor, and his favorite speechwriter. The man who, in his 82nd year found the time to reply with such kindness and grace to a letter from an obscure Artistic Director from a tiny company in Washington, DC.
Ted Sorensen died yesterday.