JFK’s inaugural address – History’s greatest ghostwriter

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JFK’s inaugural address – History’s greatest ghostwriter

Behind every president is a trusted speech writer.  Barack Obama, a high-impact speaker and a very skilled wordsmith, has a writer carefully turning his signature hope and motivation into memorable words. Abraham Lincoln had a few writers help him craft the most quote-worthy lines of the Gettysburg Address. And John F. Kennedy used his trusted ghostwriter to perfect the language in his iconic inaugural address. Who’s the writer who penned JFK’s most quoted speech?

Meet Ted Sorensen, one of history’s greatest ghostwriters. The president’s legislative aide and counsel was  the chief linguistic architect of JFK’s most memorable quotes — including “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” (But don’t ask him to take the credit: when reporters or other inquisitive minds asked Sorensen if he penned the line, the writer famously responded, “Ask not.”)

Politicians rarely write the words they speak from the podium; even Obama, who is a talented writer and even more talented orator, enlisted the help of a speechwriter (Jon Favreau) to put his soaring rhetoric on paper. The same was true for John F. Kennedy, whose inaugural speech is still considered one of the finest public speaking moments in history. Who was the writer behind JFK’s inaugural speech?

Just like any good ghostwriter, Sorensen perfected the art of writing in his client’s tone and voice. It’s a delicate process that separates a good ghostwriter from a lousy one. How do you channel JFK’s ideals and manner of speaking into his addresses? Sorensen explained the process like this:

“As the years went on, and I came to know what he thought on each subject as well as how he wished to say it, our style and standard became increasingly one. When the volume of both his speaking and my duties increased in the years before 1960, we tried repeatedly but unsuccessfully to find other wordsmiths who could write for him in the style to which he was accustomed. The style of those whom we tried may have been very good. It may have been superior. But it was not his.”

The ghostwriter-client relationship between JFK and Sorensen was complex — especially regarding JFK’s famous inaugural speech. Sorensen recalls how he begrudgingly discarded his first draft of the speech altogether when Jackie O objected to how it portrayed her husband. JFK also solicited feedback from 10 other readers less than a month before the inauguration — any writer’s nightmare! But despite these hiccups, Sorensen remained the main architect of JFK’s inaugural speech, and as any ethical ghostwriter does (albeit painfully), he declined to take credit for his client’s words. Hence the “ask not” response.

Said Sorensen, “I recognize that I have some obligation to history, but all these years I have tried to make clear that President Kennedy was the principal author of all his speeches and articles. If I say otherwise, that diminishes him, and I don’t want to diminish him.”

JFK may not have penned his famous words, but that’s nothing new; presidents since Abraham Lincoln have been enlisting trusted ghostwriters to help them communicate their message. The fact that we don’t realize they have writers is a testament to how successful aides like Sorensen are at establishing a consistent, signature voice for their high-profile clients. Take it from this speech ghostwriter: a good speech writer should channel your voice and natural speaking mannerisms. If your writer isn’t writing as if he or she is “you,” it’s time to find a better person for the job!

Whether or not JFK actually wrote his inaugural speech, we do know one thing: he delivered the rhetoric with confidence and passion on Jan. 20, 1961. And as we all know from the Michael Bay teleprompter disaster at CES 2014, the most beautifully written speech is nothing if the orator doesn’t know how to deliver it. Read the full Slate article here.

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