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Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History [Hardcover]

Ted Sorensen
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 May 2008

In this gripping memoir, John F. Kennedy's closest advisor recounts in full for the first time his experience counseling Kennedy through the most dramatic moments in American history.

Sorensen returns to January 1953, when he and the freshman senator from Massachusetts began their extraordinary professional and personal relationship. Rising from legislative assistant to speechwriter and advisor, the young lawyer from Nebraska worked closely with JFK on his most important speeches, as well as his book Profiles in Courage. Sorensen encouraged the junior senator's political ambitions—from a failed bid for the vice presidential nomination in 1956 to the successful presidential campaign in 1960, after which he was named Special Counsel to the President.

Sorensen describes in thrilling detail his experience advising JFK during some of the most crucial days of his presidency, from the decision to go to the moon to the Cuban Missile Crisis, when JFK requested that the thirty-four-year-old Sorensen draft the key letter to Khrushchev at the most critical point of the world's first nuclear confrontation. After Kennedy was assassinated, Sorensen stayed with President Johnson for a few months before leaving to write a biography of JFK. In 1968 he returned to Washington to help run Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign. Through it all, Sorensen never lost sight of the ideals that brought him to Washington and to the White House, working tirelessly to promote and defend free, peaceful societies.

Illuminating, revelatory, and utterly compelling, Counselor is the brilliant, long-awaited memoir from the remarkable man who shaped the presidency and the legacy of one of the greatest leaders America has ever known.

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Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History + Kennedy: The Classic Biography (Harper Perennial Political Classics)
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Printing edition (1 May 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060798718
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060798710
  • Product Dimensions: 4.2 x 15.9 x 23.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 456,013 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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“This is an important book, and it’s also a poignant one. As Jackie Kennedy once said of a speech that Ted Sorensen gave about her husband, it captures not only the soul of John Kennedy but also the soul of Sorensen. This clear-eyed but loving memoir is fascinating.” (Walter Isaacson)

“Ted Sorensen’s Counselor is that rare gift to history: an account of mighty events by a participant who stood at their heart, and a writer masterful enough to make us understand them as well.” (Robert Caro)

“Ted Sorensen’s words inspired a generation, and his counsel and judgment helped steer our nation through some of its most difficult hours. This gripping, candid memoir illuminates a revered era in American history. Sorensen has written a book that will be cherished for generations.” (Barack Obama)

“Ted Sorensen has given us a very welcome up close and personal view of life and politics at the side of John F. Kennedy. There are fresh insights and enduring lessons for this and future generations to study and embrace. And painful memories of what we lost.” (Tom Brokaw)

“With eloquence and honesty, Sorensen takes us on a tour of many of the most important moments of the second half of the American Century, from who wrote ‘Profiles in Courage’ to the Cuban Missile Crisis to Dallas and its terrible aftermath. This is an illuminating and engaging book.” (Jon Meacham)

About the Author

Ted Sorensen was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, and after law school moved to Washington, D.C., where he would ultimately work for John F. Kennedy. He left the White House soon after JFK's death, and in 1966 joined a New York City law firm, where, as a prominent international lawyer, he advised governments, multinational organizations, and major corporations around the world. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History. Sorensen remained active in political and international issues until his death in 2010.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars In Praise of Camelot 8 July 2008
Few would disagree that John F. Kennedy was one of our most inspirational presidents and that it was a tragedy that he was assassinated. Since the 1950s, it was well known that some of the most memorable words that Kennedy inspired us with were drafted if not written in total by Ted Sorensen, Kennedy's dedicated staffer who played many roles in addition to helping write speeches, books, and articles. Speculation about Sorensen's role was fed by Mr. Sorensen's humble deflection of praise that others aimed in his direction.

Imagine what it would have been like to talk to JFK every day and to see him most days. Imagine, even more, if you were walking on history's stage in your role: You weren't just pouring him coffee.

You could re-title this book as "Dream Job" and you wouldn't be far off.

In Counselor, Mr. Sorensen reveals more than in the past about his personal relationship with President Kennedy, who did what and when, his views about Kennedy's decisions and legacy, and what the lessons for historians are from that era. In letting down his hair, Mr. Sorensen is a loyal heir to the Kennedy legend: He doesn't criticize more than an independent observer would who knew the surface facts. Naturally, he also defends where many would not (he's gentle on Kennedy for increasing the number of military advisors in South Vietnam and letting the military leaders there murder the country's political leader). Further, he seems to have amnesia about what any president did before Kennedy who was not a Democrat (he writes as though there was no space program before Kennedy took office).

One of the most interesting episodes in the book comes long after President Kennedy was killed in the description of Mr. Sorensen's nomination to be CIA head by President Carter.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The one thing that comes across mostly clearly in this autobiography is Sorensen's deep and abiding love for John F. Kennedy. He describes him at numerous times as his mentor and best friend, and you really feel Sorensen's sense of loss on every page, even after nigh on fifty years. For a book about Sorensen himself, this is really about JFK and his impact and influence on Sorensen - and about Sorensen's influence on JFK.

As JFK's main policy adviser and the man who wrote many of JFK's most famous and memorable speeches, Sorensen had a hugely important role in the brief JFK administration, and it's fascinating to read about such momentous events from his perspective. He comes across as incredibly humble, even after so long not willing to take any credit away from his beloved President. His hero-worship of JFK shines from every page, but this is no hagiography - Sorensen doesn't excuse or erase JFK's flaws, and where he feels with hindsight JFK was wrong, he says so quite clearly.

My one criticism is that this book could have done with being edited a little better. It's quite disjointed - Sorensen opted for a thematic rather than chronological approach, which does mean that you end reading about events, like the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, broken up over several different sections, rather than as a linear narrative. But it's a fascinating read and well-worth the effort.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Nearer the middle than the edge 26 Oct 2010
For readers who have an interest in American political history, Sorensen's 2008 memoir will be required reading.

The author chronicles his professional, public and private life from his earliest years in Washington up until recent times.

The book is very well written as one would expect. The author was (and still is) - first and foremost - a fine wordsmith, after all.

The reader should not be surprised to find that Sorensen's loyalty to and admiration for John Kennedy permeates most of the author's writing. JFK's influence can still be felt here long after his murder in '63.
About half of the book is devoted to the JFK period - from his early days as a senator, through his election, the Bay Of Pigs, the missile crisis, Viet Nam, Diem, Dallas and much more.

The author's proximity to and involvement in some of the most pivotal moments in 20th century history makes for a very satisfying read.

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4.0 out of 5 stars Voice of America 24 April 2013
By Ian E
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Ted Sorensen worked with JFK for eleven years and was responsible, with Kennedy, for some of the most memorable speeches of the 20th century. This is an intriguing and fascinating view of the way that partnership worked, told by an intelligent man with an ego the size of the White House. In Sorensen's eyes, he and his President were like Batman and Robin, saving the world from evil and conservatism. And he can never quite understand, it seems, why the sidekick, Kennedy, got so much of the credit. To be fair, he idolised JFK and was devoted to him, but there is a good deal of unintentional humour here as the speechwriter and Special Counselor doggedly insists on placing himself at the centre of world events during Kennedy's 1036 days in power. In my view, Kennedy's best lines have often been overlooked. My favourite comes from his great "We choose to go to the moon" speech, written with Sorensen in summer 1963. At the end, Kennedy refers to Mallory's reply when he was asked why he wanted to climb Everest. "Because it's there," he said. "Well," said JFK, "Space is there. And we're going to climb it." That's Kennedy, not Sorensen. The humour is something history seems to have largely overlooked.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.3 out of 5 stars  59 reviews
119 of 128 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinary personal history 6 May 2008
By Pranay Gupte - Published on
I know Ted Sorensen well, so what I have to say about his extraordinary personal history is obviously being written as a friend and admirer. As a friend, I can say that Ted speaks truth to power; as an admirer, I can say that he speaks truth forcefully and candidly. He was arguably John Kennedy's alter ego. At the very least, Ted was the man who shaped JFK's lyrical, intellectually vigorous speeches. But Ted was also a canny adviser, the lawyer who marshaled his facts well, made the connections between random thoughts and workable ideas, and produced a consistent body of work for the president he loved and trusted. Ted once told me that not a day goes by without him thinking of JFK -- of the man JFK was, and about what might have been. Like his late friend Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Ted occupied an honored place at the table in Camelot. What his memoir makes plain -- in his own special, witty way -- is how much Ted shaped JFK's Camelot itself.
37 of 37 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Great Storyteller at his Best 18 May 2008
By Scott Billigmeier - Published on
I thoroughly enjoyed Counselor and especially appreciate the way Mr. Sorensen chose to organize his storytelling in a topical way (e.g., My Perspective of JFK's Personal Life, President Johnson's 1963 Transition, etc.). The author's prose is tight and well turned, as anyone familiar with his writing would expect, but at over 500 pages this is rather like the magnum opus of his life. I have a first edition of his excellent 1965 book on Kennedy but, for the most part, this latest and perhaps final work is much more candid. There are some exceptions such as his very touch and go treatment of Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. He well describes the consequences of the incident but then takes the opportunity to sing the praises of the younger Kennedy's political skills, calling him "the most relaxed campaigner of the three..."

Mr. Sorensen has lived an interesting life apart from his work with the Kennedys and inclusion of that material is a plus. The space he devotes to it is about right; the book remains primarily focused on his long association with JFK and that is what the typical reader wants and expects. Of particular interest to me was how Kennedy reached out to Republicans -- described in a Chapter called "President Kennedy's Ministry of Talent." I knew it to be true (he appointed my uncle to the federal bench upon the recommendation of then Deputy Attorney General Byron "Whizzer" White) but didn't realize the full scope.

It would be easy to give this book the five stars it probably deserves but I went with four only because, from my perspective, the loyalty muzzle is still a little too evident. While I can come up with a few other petty critiques there is just much too much to like about this book to make that worthwhile. Some readers may disagree with Sorensen's politics but it would be the rare iconoclast who cannot appreciate his insights and wonderful storytelling.
47 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Out of Nebraska 12 May 2008
By Christian Schlect - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The well-written memoirs of a man forever to be identified with John F. Kennedy's political career, especially the White House days. While not telling all, this book is the candid product of a bright, honest, but still politically driven man, a 1960s liberal, who writes in the twilight of his life.

Mr. Sorensen is one of the last living central participants of JFK's Administration and his story would have value for this fact alone. Readers wishing to learn about presidential political campaigning, the art of speech writing, and more on such important historical events as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the presidential transition from JFK to LBJ will profit from reading this book.

While material on his later private law practice is not as interesting as the rest of the text, this is only to be expected. In terms of his post White House career, I did find of value his description of his ill-fated nomination by President Carter as DCI and noted the fact there is little mention of President Clinton's years. (A prominent picture of Senator Obama and Ted Sorensen is in this book. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that the author sees the current junior senator from Illinois as his pick for this year's Democratic Party nominee for president--and the direct and true successor to JFK's legacy.)
46 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sorensen Hits Home Run 9 May 2008
By Philip Steele Krone - Published on
I know Ted Sorensen through our common support of Barack Obama and was eager to read this magnificent biography. I bought it on Tuesday, May 6 the first day it was published and I didn't put it down ( with the exception of eating, showering and sleeping about four hours each of the last two nights) until a few hours ago when I finished reading it.

It is a magnificent opus. The writing is superb. Rarely do the heart and head come together so well without sacrificing or compromising either.

Modest without being falsely self effacing, this truly is an indispensable book for any American citizen or world citizen. And its an absolute must for any political junkie from Al Franken to Ann Coulter.

Stop what you're doing. Run out and get it. Its a great gift for anyone's birthday in May (June is too late -- its that good).

Ted Sorensen is a historical figure in his own right. He was indispensable to Kennedy and now to Obama.

There are many reasons to read this book. Not just for its great insights with an unobscured and unobstructed perspective, but because of new information into the life of JFK whose reputation will be enhanced by this near reverential but still candid volume.

A mutual friend of Ted Sorensen's just forwarded me the first reviews including the Wall Street Journal. To say they were raves is to understate them.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A profound, timeless memoir 9 Jun 2008
By Jon Hunt - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Some of the criticism leveled against Theodore Sorensen's new book, "Counselor", has to do with his close relationship to President Kennedy, thereby suggesting a literary hagiography. These sentiments could not be farther from the truth. In "Counselor", Sorensen offers up the good and the bad, the wise and the mediocre and provides what must be the definitive accounting of the Kennedy years. It's a fair and moving tribute to our thirty-fifth president and a terrific look at the man who spent so many years with him.

Sorensen's background, a Danish, Unitarian-Jewish kid from Nebraska, couldn't have been more than the oddest of pairings to John F. Kennedy. But they complemented each other in ways that both men found remarkable. Sorensen was, in many ways, Kennedy's eyes and ears for the eleven years in which they worked together and the author's eyewitness to history is a welcome addition to anyone who remembers that time. Describing in detail the Cuban Missile Crisis, Sorensen is at his best and this chapter is, indeed, the best of the book. He's also candid about what his service to the president meant to his own life....the break-up of his first marriage, his absence from his sons and countless numbers of sleepless nights. Along the way, Sorensen reminds the reader of his liberal roots and his continuing liberalism to this day. It's refreshing to know that one of the last surviving members of the Kennedy inner circle, while recently losing most of his eyesight, has not lost his fervor and passion.

Sorensen saves up some of his harshest comments for the end....a ringing indictment of the Bush administration and it comes precisely at a time when the country is in desperate need of new leadership. It doesn't go unnoticed that the final photo in the book is one of Sorensen and Barack Obama, taken last October. The spark of imagination that President Kennedy left seems to be in the air today.

"Counselor" is a deeply moving and personal work and every page is to be savored. It is particularly reflective for those of us old enough to remember President Kennedy and his times, but also a wonderful introduction to those young enough who might have felt a loss of inspiration because of the past eight years in Washington. I highly recommend "Counselor" for Theodore Sorensen's detailed remembrances of his role in American history and I mirror his hopes that life in America can be so much better.
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